There’s an old gag. How do you know when a politician is lying? It’s easy, their lips are moving!!
We are now at the start of a 5 week General Election campaign and for the first time in my memory every day various news outlets are ‘fact checking’ the claims made by politicians. How has it come to this where we actually have a whole body of people working out if some of the most famous and powerful politicians in the United Kingdom are telling lies.
There is nothing new in politicians exaggerating or massaging our egos, telling us things we want to hear so that we give them our vote. People in the trade accept this as being part of the game. We shouldn’t believe what they tell us. Back in 1985, American politician Mario Cuomo was quoted saying, just after announcing he had thrown his hat into the ring to become President, ‘I said I didn’t want to run for President. I didn’t ask you to believe me’.
Mario Cuomo’s most famous quote is probably that politicians ‘Campaign in poetry but govern in prose’. They go out onto the streets to meet the electorate and use words, words and more words. You win their hearts by your oratory but come the day you have tough choices to make you have to get real and what you said might not be what you do.
Using well-constructed and powerful speeches to win over the crowds traces its roots back to ancient days. The study of Rhetoric, the art of persuasion was one of the main parts of the curriculum in Greece or Rome. Knowing how to handle the mob in ancient Rome could mean life or death for you or your opponent.
I wasn’t taught rhetoric in Dynevor Comp. I think we had a debating team and I realise now how useful those lessons might have been in later life. At university you could always tell those bright young things who had been to public school as they sparkled in the Cambridge Union debates. They had had years of practise in their private schools. They were using all of these experiences to prepare them for life as Members of Parliament, or maybe members of the Cabinet or even Prime Minister.
I might not have been part of the debating society but from an early age I was surrounded by wonderful masters of Rhetoric. Every Sunday I would hear preachers trying their best to terrify me into heaven with tales of hell and damnation or break my heart with gentle stories of the lost sheep in the wilderness being rescued by the Good Shepherd. I have to say they did a pretty good job. I believed what they told me because they were grown-ups, no need for fact checkers back then!!
Now, quite by surprise, I find myself a grown up and without wanting to become a complete cynic I’ve stopped believing everything I’m told by those in authority and I think I am not alone.
Much of this new found cynicism started fairly recently in the US. The United States is no stranger to politicians being economical with the truth. At the time of Watergate most Americans thought President Richard Nixon was telling the truth about having no knowledge of the break in to the offices of his political rivals. It took a Woodward and Bernstein, couple of tenacious journalists a couple of years of digging and not believing what they were told to expose his misdemeanours. Then came the Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky Affair which he flatly denied, and you could see that maybe the people weren’t prepared to simply believe what the government told them.
Then came President Trump. He was the one who drew attention to ‘fake news’ and made it a term that is easy to bandy about if a newspaper or news outlet comes up with a story that you disagree with.
In the Washington Post they have a special board where they chalk up statements made by The President which they say are untrue. Now by that statement I have already qualified my belief in their fact checking, ‘which they say are untrue’. But these fact checkers go into quite a great deal of detail about why the statements he made are ‘exaggerations or unwarranted boasts or simply downright falsehoods’. On his 1000th day in office, by their score he had made over 12,000 false or misleading claims. They say lies, he calls it fake news!
So, to Britain and our general Election. Can I recommend that you stop for a moment before you believe anything you read on social media or are told by a guy down the pub over the next 5 weeks because this election is really important.
Journalists were the ones we hoped would get the facts and give them to us straight so we could decide but even this profession has been tarnished of late. Balance has meant that sometimes both sides of an argument are given equal time but as someone said, a journalist isn’t supposed to get one person to say its raining and another to say its not raining, their job is to look out of the window and tell us. We need to know, is it raining or not!
There are a number of websites and social media accounts that are trying their best to be impartial and will hopefully answer your questions about the real facts.
Here are just a few. The BBC website Reality Check will be busy this month
Both have social media accounts. There are others which appear to have good reputations including
https://fullfact.org/ is a website run as an independent charity with a team of independent fact checkers.
At this point I am reminded of the children’s book ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’. Lucy is the first child to go to the magical land of Narnia. She tells her brother Edmund who joins her on her next visit. When they come back he spitefully tells their older brother and sister that it was all a game and it didn’t happen, Lucy was making it up.
The older children are surprised that Lucy should make up such an unbelievable story and ask for guidance on how to manage the situation from the old professor. Instead of dismissing Lucy’s magical tale as nonsense he asks them, of the two children Lucy and Edmund, who would they say is usually more truthful. Who has a past of telling lies and who a history of telling the truth???
In these next 5 weeks we should ask ourselves the same question.