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Everybody Lies

by Barbara Ridpath

Posted: 06 Oct 2016

This article was originally published in the Church Times on 16 September 2016.

The recent EU referendum campaign and the final report of the Chilcott inquiry do little to encourage us to trust our government and our politicians. This is a shame, because, as in many walks of life, it is the few that damage the reputation of a sector as a whole. We now have annual surveys from the Edelman Trust Barometer of 28 countries, which tell us just how low levels of trust have descended. According to the 2016 survey, government is the least trusted of the four sectors surveyed: non-governmental organisations (NGOs), business, media and government.

In the UK specifically, there was a significant and growing gap in trust in government between the wealthy, who continue to believe in their government, and the disadvantaged for whom trust in government continues to decline. It is possible that improved transparency permits us to know more, both good and bad about our politicians.

Regardless of the relative trustworthiness of today's politicians, many of them do the population a disservice by misrepresenting issues to the electorate. The ways in which they do this fall into at least three categories:

First, they represent opinions as facts. 'I believe we will be better off outside of the European Union' becomes 'We will be better off outside the European Union.'

Second is the use of 'lies, damn lies and statistics' a phrase attributed to Benjamin Disraeli. The statistical prevarication that we pay £350 million a week to the European Union was true as far as it went, but neglected to tell the voter the amount the EU spent in the UK. The outright lie to win votes was that all that money would be spent on the NHS if people would only vote to leave the EU. That was retracted almost as quickly as the campaign was won. Misleading with statistics is so widespread that in 1954 How to Lie with Statistics was published by American freelance writer Darrell Huff and continues to be used in classrooms around the world.

The most infamous lie was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In matters of national security, citizens most need to trust their governments as disclosure can compromise sources. Yet, once the cover of 'state secret' is used to dissimulate, all subsequent national security interests become more suspect. Lack of popular support for military intervention since the WMD debacle must be attributable, at least in part, to popular uncertainty about what we are told.

Third, there is the truth that becomes a lie when circumstances change. One recent example is David Cameron's promise to stay on as prime minister regardless of the outcome of the referendum, then resigning the morning of the result. A second is the changing views of Labour MPs who initially supported Jeremy Corbyn but a year later think Owen Smith is better placed to challenge the Conservatives. We miscategorise these as lies, because, as the American economist Paul Samuelson said 'when events change, I change my mind.' Changing one's mind is not necessarily a bad thing to do, as long as the reasons for that change are clearly articulated.

These categories ignore two others at the extreme ends of the spectrum of prevarication. At one end is the treachery of confused loyalties and self-interest that causes politicians to switch horses in a leadership race. The winner in this category is Michael Gove's decision to run for the leadership after supporting Boris Johnson. At the other end is the white lie, to avoid hurt feelings such as 'your new hairstyle suits you,' when clearly it does not.

Hovering over the whole of the political arena is the difference between the public statement and private sentiment. Kenneth Clarke's view expressed to Malcolm Rifkind when he thought the camera was off that Theresa May was a "bloody difficult woman" and suggesting that Michael Gove as prime minister would go to war with three countries at once was a private sentiment mistakenly made public.

The problem with all of these various forms of mendacity is that they encourage distrust and cynicism about the political process to the point where people distrust anything said by politicians. The enhanced ability to fact check, spread rumours and publicize disputes due to both the rise in social media and the 24 hour news cycle exacerbates this problem. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn's recent claim he could not find a seat on a northbound train, which Virgin trains disputed with CCTV images presents a prime example of this. In the summer news lull, even this relatively minor dispute over the facts was given huge media attention. This particular incident demonstrates both the importance of telling the truth, given the ease with which social media can catch a politician in a misrepresentation, and the way politicians' use of spin to pitch a story as it suits them can further reduce trust.

Deep disillusionment can lead to withdrawal from the political process, decreased voter turnout and increasing factionalism driven by distrust of the 'other.' It can also lead to extremism fed by the sense of a lack of voice or representation.

Fuelled by the politics of mistrust it is only a few short steps toward hatred of the 'other,' whether that other is our neighbour, an immigrant or someone in a country far away. The worst of our political classes play to these fears. Propagating such fear can encourage withdrawal and isolationism in foreign policy, treating all countries with whom we differ as the 'other' and, almost by definition, inferior.

Historically, politicians have long stirred fear of the foreigner as a way of gaining political power at home. This was simpler when we were both less exposed to and less dependent on other nations. Today's media and social media makes the individual foreigner more real to us, and the increased level of economic interconnections and dependencies makes it far more difficult to live alone on our island. The consequences of diminished trust are both more expensive and more explosive.

The appearance (or creation) of a common enemy can be used to unite a nation, with the Cold War providing a classic example. It is a risky strategy, working in the case of the Falklands War, or backfiring spectacularly in the case of Iraq. We should look elsewhere for solutions.

Trust is a vital component of a functioning democracy but it should never be unfailing or uncritical. If we are to live together well, new ways to foster trustworthiness in our institutions and in each other will be vital. It starts with truth-telling by politicians. Andrea Leadsom may have been naive, but her willingness to publicly apologize to the future prime minister was laudable. The media needs to concentrate on informing and explaining, rather than inciting the public and confirming users' prejudices.

But the public also has an important role to play. Citizens need to hold both media and politicians to account. We have an obligation to think beyond our own self-interest to a larger common good. Neither 'me first,' nor 'what's in it for me?' are attitudes that permit a diverse society to serve the needs of all well.

The public has a right to expect honesty, integrity and truth-telling from both politicians and the media who report on them. In turn, each of us has an obligation to think beyond our narrow self-interest. If we do not, then we get the government we deserve.

About this author

Barbara Ridpath is the Director of St Paul's Institute.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.