The Truth by Terry Pratchett (2000) 448 p.

Off-screen between the twenty-third and twenty-fourth Discworld books – Carpe Jugulum and The Fifth Elephant – the clacks system appears, a type of semaphore telegraph system which revolutionises communication. While The Fifth Elephant is a City Watch book which only touches on the clacks system inasmuch as it’s relevant to the plot, it was clearly an idea which interested Pratchett, because it kicks off what might loosely be called the Discworld’s “industrial revolution” phase, in which an increasingly modern Ankh-Morpork is dragged further out of its fantasy origins and into something resembling a modern city. In the coming books we’ll see the introduction of a post office, fiat currency and even the development of steam trains, but The Truth introduces the Discworld’s first newspaper – and unlike the clacks, the entire plot revolves around it.

(It’s true also that Pratchett played with this in the past, but everything would typically go back to normal after e.g. the moving picture industry or nascent rock and roll movement turned out to involve horrible creatures from another dimension. He acknowledges as much in The Truth with the Patrician saying at one point: “I think I might just be persuaded, against all experience, that we have here a little endeavour that might just be pursued without filling my streets with inconvenient occult rubbish.”)

William de Worde is the black sheep of a wealthy family, a young man scraping out a living for himself by sending duplicate “news letters” about the goings-on in Ankh-Morpork each month to various other rulers across the world. When he runs into a group of immigrant dwarfs (or rather, when the runaway wagon containing their printing press runs into him – “stop the press!”) one thing leads to another and they end up mass producing that same news letter on a daily basis. Given the Ankh-Morpork citizenry’s insatiable appetite for rumour, gossip and the smug feeling of seeing their own names in print, this soon becomes an overnight success and a proper newspaper.

The first act of The Truth, as de Worde and his new associates learn on the job and effectively invent the profession of journalism, is a very enjoyable and oddly satisfying little story of its own. Pratchett was a journalist for some fifteen years and is clearly writing about a subject he knows very well: the strange little career which involves simply going and talking to people and writing down what they say. He’s naturally well aware of the quirks around the trade and touches on all of them: the relentless drive to publish something important which nonetheless ends up in the bin the next day, the automatic assumption of Ankh-Morporkers that something “must be true” if it’s in the paper, and the fact that while a free and independent press is indisputably an important thing for a society to have, most people don’t actually appreciate that and aren’t demonstrably interested in de Worde’s more serious stories. There’s a saying in journalism that “what the public is interested in is not always in the public interest,” an injunction meant to warn reporters against e.g. publishing the private affairs of celebrities without a good reason. The flipside, as many characters comment throughout The Truth, is that what’s in the public interest is not always (or even often) what the public is interested in. I’ve worked in a news-adjacent job for over a decade and it’s impossible, after watching thousands of vox pops, not to become disillusioned with the average intelligence and engagement level of one’s fellow citizens.

“That’s what they say,” said the man, tapping his nose. “But there’s a lot we don’t get told.”
“That’s true,” said William.
“I heard only the other day that giant rocks hundreds of miles across crash into the country every week, but the Patrician hushes it up.”
“There you are, then,” said the man. “It’s amazing the way they treat us as if we’re stupid.”
“Yes, it’s a puzzle to me, too,” said William.

The novel isn’t quite so smooth as it transitions into its broader plot. By my count this is at least the fourth attempt by Ankh-Morpork’s powerful elite to remove Lord Vetinari from power, this time by use of a doppleganger to frame him for embezzlement. This part is clearly inspired by Watergate, from the “Committee to Un-Elect the Patrician” to de Worde’s secret meetings in a multi-storey horse stable with a shadowy unseen informant (Gaspode the talking dog) to the noble and empowering story of a newspaper being used to right great wrongs as in All The President’s Men: a story of journalism at its finest as a force for public good. The awkward bit where that doesn’t quite match up, of course, is that the journalists at the Washington Post uncovered wrongdoing by the head of state; whereas de Worde is uncovering wrongdoing by a shadowy cabal in order to reinstate Vetinari as the city’s benevolent dictator. It would perhaps have been more interesting if the plucky journalists of Ankh-Morpork’s newly established fourth estate were holding power accountable in a more direct way, but that would have started pulling the thread of Vetinari’s presence in the series in a way which Pratchett was possibly wise not to attempt. I don’t think Pratchett would actually have professed in real life to believing benevolent dictatorship is the best form of government*; it’s just the corner he’s painted himself into across twenty-five Discworld books, which unfortunately means that when writing a satire of the newspaper industry and Watergate he has to make certain concessions. The villains we get instead are the usual cabal of Ankh-Morpork’s rich and powerful, unsatisfied with the way Vetinari has modernised the city and particularly unhappy with its growing multiculturalism; echoed in turn by the kind of vaguely bigoted man-on-the-street de Worde shares a lodging house with. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, and Pratchett is as good at skewering that kind of narrow-minded racism as ever; it’s just that we’ve seen it done before and it’s not necessarily the most interesting tack for a Discworld book about journalism to take.

(*Fans have often speculated that Moist von Lipwig, who’ll be introduced in Going Postal as a con-man-turned-bureaucrat exploited by the Patrician into reforming Ankh-Morpork’s public institutions, was being groomed by Vetinari as a potential successor; one has to wonder whether, if Pratchett hadn’t been taken from us too young, the “industrial revolution” phase of the series might have culminated in a book introducing democracy and election campaigns.)

There’s still a lot to like about The Truth overall. I remember thinking when I first read it that it was odd it’s almost but not quite a City Watch book, with Vimes and other familiar characters featuring heavily – but on re-reading it I think this works quite well, as we see Vimes through de Worde’s eyes, coloured by the natural friction and distrust between a journalist and a copper. The conversations between de Worde and Vimes all work quite well – Pratchett realises, even if the characters themselves don’t, that the two careers are actually quite similar: they’re both about determining what’s happened and producing a statement of facts. I also enjoyed Mr Tulip and Mr Pin, the oddball bagmen employed by the cabal to deal with the Patrician; the introduction of ‘Piss’ Harry, the entrepreneur grown rich on dealing with Ankh-Morpork’s sewage and rubbish; Otto, the Times‘ vampire photographer who feels like a throwback to Pratchett’s screwball characters in the best kind of way; and the novel’s resolution to the cabal plotline, which is in some ways quite surprising and probably wouldn’t have been the same if it were a City Watch novel.

On the whole The Truth is a pretty solid book – not the strongest in the Discworld’s twenties, but not the weakest either. It’s probably alone in the second half of the series in that it wouldn’t actually make for a bad entry point to the series: it’s not part of any existing arc and begins another phase of transition for Ankh-Morpork and the Discworld as a whole. Next up is a Death/Susan novel, Thief of Time.