Sholto Byrnes: My wish for 2020 - may the truth be much noisier
Regulations on all media to counter the propagation of falsehoods need to be tougher but I also hope politicians' consciences prick them into returning truth to the centre-stage of their discourse
Around this time many people come up with New Year’s resolutions to improve themselves or others. I would like to offer instead a New Year’s wish: for truth to return and triumph in political discourse the world over.
I am talking about a particular kind of truth that involves the common acceptance of readily verifiable facts; because it would be foolish to ask the impossible. Deception and ambiguity have been inseparable from the internal and external affairs of states going back thousands of years – certainly before the 6th century BC when King Croesus of Lydia asked the Delphic oracle what would happen if he went to war with Persia. He would destroy a great empire, came the truthful yet evasive answer. The king assumed that meant he would defeat the Persians; but it was his own empire that would fall.
When General de Gaulle announced in 1958 to those who wished to keep Algeria part of France that “I have understood you”, he made similar use of ambiguity; and was subsequently accused of betrayal by the French settlers when he allowed the country to gain its independence in 1962.
If asked by their children: 'What did you do as a politician?', do they really want to have to reply: 'I lied for a living'?
Neither of those examples involved falsification but of course, there are times when politicians are required to lie in the national interest. The British Conservative minister William Waldegrave admitted this in 1994, saying “in exceptional circumstances it is necessary to say something untrue to the House of Commons”. His remarks caused consternation, although as the commentator Peter Oborne wrote in his 2005 book The Rise of Political Lying, Mr Waldegrave was actually “doing something very rare for a modern politician and trying to give an honest answer to an honest question”.
Mr Oborne went on to identify a series of lies told by both Labour and Conservative politicians in the 1980s and 1990s. The former US senator Al Franken noted another deceit often practised by American legislators a few years later: the habit of accusing opponents of having voted for a new tax, when all they had done was agree to its renewal on its expiry. Mr Franken felt so strongly about the broader tendency that he wrote an entire book titled Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.
We all know, too, about the lies told to sell the case for the war in Iraq to the US and UK publics. Those were serious and egregious enough. But what made them shocking was that most people – apart from the truly cynical – still operated under the presumption that politicians were under an obligation to be truthful to us and would be very embarrassed at the least – and disgraced at the most – if they were caught telling fibs.
That the post-truth world has become the norm in authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning states is no surprise. In many it was ever thus. The new and very unwelcome development is that leaders in countries that traditionally had high standards when it came to veracity now feel free to make statements that are essentially fabrications.
In the US, the Donald Trump administration drew ridicule in January 2017 when spokesman Sean Spicer said that Mr Trump had drawn “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”. A comparison of photos of the crowds then and of the attendance at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 showed a very different story. The current occupants of the White House seem, however, to be quite unbothered about fleeing the bonds of reality. As of December 10, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker database, Mr Trump has made 15,413 false or misleading claims over 1,055 days in office.
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Spinning a newsline to create the best impression for yourself is one thing. But when Mr Trump claims that the American economy is the best in history, as he has apparently done 242 times, one would have thought someone would at least have checked if this could be substantiated. Instead, says the Post, “by just about any important measure, the economy today is not doing as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D Eisenhower, Lyndon B Johnson or Bill Clinton – or Ulysses S Grant.”
It does not seem too much to ask Mr Trump and his supporters – who may feel they have many achievements under their belts – to confine themselves to what they can back up with facts and figures. Similarly, it would have been perfectly possible to have had a Brexit referendum in which the leave side did not raise the false prospect of 76 million Turks being poised to emigrate to the UK if the country stayed in the EU; and in which they did not tell the flat out lie that “we send the EU £350 million a week”. In fact after the rebate, the UK sent £252m a week in 2016, while the net figure – after taking into account how much the EU spent in the UK – was £156m. Both the latter figures were quite high enough to make the point.
How do they all get away by being so blase about the truth? One could point to the credulity of those online and on social media, and the failure of others to insist strongly enough on a fact-based narrative. “The truth is noisy,” the eminent Canadian philosopher Ted Honderich once told me. It needs to be noisier. Regulations on all media also need to be tougher and enforced swiftly.
But the real fault lies with a breed of politicians who must have been taught that lying is wrong when they were growing up, yet do so blithely today. So my New Year’s wish is for their consciences to prick them into returning truth to the centre-stage of political discourse. After all, if asked by their children: “What did you do as a politician?”, do they really want to have to reply: “I lied for a living”?
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum
Updated: December 31, 2019 11:08 PM