Thursday, 20 October 2016

Living in the pre-truth world

I spoke at the launch of the Orwell prize last night about 'post-truth Britain'. Here is roughly what I said...

The emblem of the post-truth society is a red bus that has come to assume rather more importance since the vote to leave the EU than it did during the referendum campaign. This bus famously claimed that we send £350 million to the EU every week and that we could be spending this cash on the NHS instead. Alas, this is physically impossible because the £350 million figure includes a rebate that never gets sent to the EU in the first place. The real figure is - depending on how you look at it - £190 million or £250 million.

This is hardly the first time a dodgy statistic has been used in a political campaign, so what was it about this particular claim that made it so offensive to those of us who care about facts?

There were other questionable claims made in the referendum campaign such as the idea that Turkey is set to join the EU. It is very, very unlikely that Turkey will join the EU in the short or medium term and yet it is not technically impossible. The EU has spent money looking into its membership. David Miliband was very keen on getting Turkey to join when he was foreign secretary, but Turkey has gone backwards since then and it would take a near-miracle for it to meet the EU’s criteria for entry. So not a total lie, perhaps, just a very implausible prediction.

The Remain side had their own implausible predictions. There would be a punishment budget if we voted to leave. There would be an immediate recession. David Cameron promised to invoke Article 50 straight away and stay on as prime minister. Instead, he resigned as prime minister straight away and Article 50 has still not been invoked. Having stepped down as prime minister he then promised to stay on as an MP, but he has since quit politics entirely. Were these lies? Did he really think he could stay on as prime minister if the country voted for Brexit? It seems unlikely, but it cannot be proven. It is therefore possible that he was sincere and later changed his mind.

It seems to me, therefore, that the ‘post-truth’ porky is something that cannot possibly be true and is uttered by someone who knows it is not true. So that's why we're in the post-truth era, because politicians never used to do things like that.

But then I thought of Harold Wilson going on television to tell the British public that devaluing the pound would not affect the value of the pound in their pockets. I thought of Ronald Reagan telling the American public that he had never traded arms for hostages. I thought of Jonathan Aitken and his “simple sword of truth" before he was jailed for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

I remembered Bill Clinton insisting that he had not had sexual relations with "that woman". I thought of Jeffrey Archer and Neil Hamilton and Richard Nixon and I’m tempted to say that the list is endless, but actually it is not. Deliberate, flat out lies are relatively rare in politics because so many people are watching and waiting to pounce on the slightest slip. As Jeremy Corbyn found out after he claimed not to be able to find a seat on a train, it is not the size of the lie that matters. The public can tolerate incompetence, but will not put up with deceit.

All of the politicians I’ve mentioned were found out. The £350 million figure was widely challenged at the time; Sarah Wollaston switched from Leave to Remain as a result. The intense scrutiny of politicians, which has only increased in the age of social media, gives them a big incentive to get their facts right, or at least to get them wrong in a way that can be defended.

In the examples of political lying I’ve just given, most involved politicians denying things from their own past when cornered, rather than inventing statistics from whole cloth. But that seems to me to be narrowing the definition of a lie down to an excessive degree and, anyway, statistics don’t need to be entirely made up in order to mislead people. They can be easily twisted in a way that will trick the public without resorting to outright fraud. Politicians - and journalists - often cite dodgy figures, but they have usually been given them by lobbyists, pressure groups and charities. And if you look at the vast pool of false claims and nonsense in society, you will find these groups more culpable than politicians.

There’s a man I know who debunks bad statistics for a living. When I told him I was looking for some good examples in advance of this event, he gave me three words of advice: ‘Beware good causes’. In the past few weeks, I have seen a headline on the front of a national newspaper asserting that e-cigarettes are as bad as smoking. No one who has studied the evidence believes this to be remotely true. I have seen The Times report the news that the Gambling Commission announced that rates of problem gambling have doubled in the last three years. The Gambling Commission has made no such claim and all the evidence shows no change in problem gambling prevalence since records began in 1999.

I’ve seen the Advertising Standards Agency condemn Friends of the Earth for making claims about fracking that can most politely be described as unsubstantiated. This comes after 107 Nobel prize winners wrote a letter to Greenpeace asking them to end their campaign against Golden Rice, a campaign they described as being ‘emotion and dogma contradicted by data’. A few weeks ago, Oxfam claimed that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. The Office for National Statistics says income inequality is ‘close to the overall EU average’ and Credit Suisse says wealth inequality is ‘very typical for a developed country’. No media outlet challenged this claim, as far as I know, despite the data with which it could be debunked being readily available.

A list of false or misleading factoids from special interest groups really would be endless and I'm not accusing any of the people involved of being conscious liars. When the magicians Penn and Teller created a television series debunking the claims of frauds and charlatans some years ago, they called the programme ‘Bullshit!’, because accusing someone of lying is potentially actionable whereas accusing them of talking bullshit is, in legal terms, mere vulgar abuse.

Lying may be more morally objectionable, but bullshit is more common and it is just as damaging to public understanding of the world we live in. My argument is not that we are living in a truthful age. On the contrary, there is bullshit everywhere but deliberate political lies make up a very small portion of it - and that portion is not growing.

As long as people have an appetite for having their biases confirmed, newspapers will continue printing bullshit. As long as people think they can get away with it, they’re going to mislead the public. I don’t think we live in the post-truth era because I don’t think there was ever an era of truth. We are still in the pre-truth era and probably always will be.

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