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Lying and politics: a brief primer

Updated Thursday, 26th September 2019

Dr Philip Seargeant looks at the affectionate relationship between lying and politics.

If you were being generous, you could say it was an occupational hazard for politicians to occasionally back themselves into the type of corner where they need to take a creative attitude to the truth. When you’re on the campaign trail, trying to be all things to all people, you’re bound to talk up your achievements or promises a little too much. That’s simply the nature of the game. It’s how it’s always been.

Transcript

Nick Duffell
The first thing to say is that it's incredibly natural and normal to tell the odd porky, you know. Especially if you want to sort of save face in a situation or avoid hurting people's feelings. My mother used to say “I'll never hurt anyone's feelings” so I would see her tell the most dreadful untruths in social situations.

Lady Fookes
I would describe a lie as a deliberate misrepresentation of a fact. Deliberate and I think that's the key thing. If I may make the comparison with a murder it has to be deliberate to be murder or so reckless of the consequences as to be the same thing which would distinguish it from manslaughter when you do it by mistake. It's not intended.

Asa Bennett
Well to me a lie it's something that's not correct that has been delivered by someone who is intending maliciously to deceive the intent behind it is key.

Tony Thorne
It's intentionally saying something which is untrue and I think linguists would say that lies and lying are what they call or what we call a language universal and it means it's something which occurs in all languages. 

Nick Duffell
And one of the things that in psychotherapy and counselling people have learned to realize that in an interaction between two people that you know there exists different levels of the truth. There's my truth there’s your truth and actually somewhere we might meet in the middle. So the truth is it's philosophically complex.

Tony Thorne
The word lie is actually quite unusual in one particular way. And that is that there are almost no ways of saying lie in slang. In British English only there's the rhyming slang porky pie telling porky pies telling porkies. So a porky is a lie again a lighthearted word. There’s the the word fib which means a sort of little perhaps harmless lie which isn't really slang is but it's an informal word. But there aren't any others as far as I'm aware and that is really strange because slang has a thousand words for kill or rob or or for anything sexually related. I have a sense that it's because even for slang which deals with some of the most awful taboos in human behavior lies are so, a real lie is so absolute and so indefensible maybe that slang doesn't go there and that's that's a very strange thing to imagine.

Nick Duffell
When someone is accused of lying it sounds like a terrible insult. And of course it's even more insulting if you actually are lying. Why do we accept the lies why do we not see through them?

Tony Thorne
But when we're talking about lying euphemisms are very popular because people people who do lie or people who trade in lies never want to admit that they're lying and trying to avoid using the word altogether unless they're accusing someone else. So there are there are words like you know half truth untruth evasion all of these words that really usually mean lie. The real euphemisms where a politician for example is caught out telling what most people would consider to be a lie and one that springs to mind is to to misspeak or I misspoke.

Lady Fookes
It always easy or at least people will try to make their point using a euphemism on the basis that they will get away with that. An example would be I think he's being a stranger to the truth.

Asa Bennett
And of course that is why then some politicians like Winston Churchill and coined the euphemisms for lying then given these are the things he coined the phrase the terminological inexactutude.

Tony Thorne
But it's part of a long tradition a long history not a noble tradition an ignoble tradition perhaps but go back to Renaissance portraits and you know where the prince or the king is portrayed as slim and having an enormous codpiece when for all we know the reality was other. Later on George the fourth. I was looking the other day at a portrait in which he was portly but in fact he was apparently massively and terrifyingly obese in reality but of course you didn't paint that.

Nick Duffell
When you start to normalize it over time it becomes a way of life and then you're living with long term duplicity you've got this going on a big time in our politics now and we start to normalize it.

Tony Thorne
When politicians are accused of lying they bristle and they they they bluster and they they they overreact partly this is because they hope by a strong reaction they can deflect the accusation but partly it's because they know they've got to take it seriously.

Asa Bennett
If you're in Westminster of course one of the worst things you can do is directly accuse a member of parliament in the House of Commons of lying. And so that's why if you and the term for the parliamentarians is misleading the House and so that's why the most they can say if they're trying to gently warn a colleague about something they've said, is oh the honourable gentleman I think you are accidentally misleading the house.

Theresa May
Thank you Mr Speaker can I say to the right honourable gentleman that I think in his intervention from a sedentary position he may have inadvertently misled the House on this matter.

John Bercow
I hope the word liar wasn't used but order, order, order. I'm perfectly capable of handling this matter with alacrity and I shall do so.

Lady Fookes
The term lie or lying carries with it a moral judgment. I think that's what distinguishes it from other means of describing what is a lie. So that is unparliamentary and the speaker will stop somebody saying that or ask them to withdraw.

John Bercow
If a member on the frontbench used that word. I'm sorry. I'm not debating it. I'm not arguing I'm not negotiating. That word must be withdrawn.

Ian Blackford
In courtesy to yourself I withdraw. Usually.

Lady Fookes
People do if they don't the speaker has the power to name the member and that will be followed immediately by a motion that X be suspended from service of the house. And if that is carried and it usually I think it will be because the speaker carries authority then that person has to leave the house immediately and can't return for five days. First offence.

Tony Thorne
Politicians sometimes have to admit that they didn't tell the truth but they no politician I think has ever certainly willingly used the word lie or or has ever admitted to lying.

Lady Fookes
When people say something outside. As a politician they are speaking in public at a meeting or on the radio television or whatever it is. So it's not quite the same thing as lying specifically in the House of Commons. So that I would that's where I would draw a distinction. And of course it can sometimes become a grey area because you can say something what you mean but which perhaps you're not able to fulfil. Now this is where the the promises the manifestos and so on come into play or personal pledges. But you have to remember that a politician is often dealing with a number of people who have very different points of view probably controversial contradictory. And if you're trying to please somebody because you want to be elected it is obviously a temptation to tell people what they want to hear. Which may well then lead to your saying something which you don't believe yourself, or you don't agree with and but you still say it. So that is a temptation.

Nick Duffell
It's not so difficult to begin to recognise dissociation and projection for example. You could see how that's happened on the whole national level and over the Brexit issue where we've projected all our fear of the future onto Romanian guest workers.

Asa Bennett
When you look at something like Brexit it does make sense of why the accusations of lying fly around because the stakes are so high and this is such an important process that clearly the debate and rhetoric is really ratcheted up. You do encounter things that do not stand up when you scrutinise them. And so obviously it's a responsibility of people like myself to hold these people to account to assess their claims and to call out when they're not telling it straight.

Tony Thorne
As this is where I think that the mainstream media again whichever side you're on whether you're pro Brexit pro Trump pro Boris Johnson pro Theresa May or pro Jeremy Corbyn the mainstream media has been complicit in a sense in all of these untruths and half truths because they haven't exposed them.

Asa Bennett
Well obviously if the media isn't there to hold politicians to account who on earth would hold politicians to account? After all it's our public duty to do this because if politicians feel they can get away scot free with saying anything then public debate itself suffers. So for example we had an interesting case recently when after the referendum an absolutely very fervent remain campaigner was tried to haul Boris Johnson through the courts off the back of the vote leave claim about we send 350 million per week to the EU why not spend it on the NHS instead.

Tony Thorne
It's still rootling on today with again Boris Johnson only recently defending the figure with the figure having become discredited almost from the moment it was displayed.

Asa Bennett
These spurious attempts to try and drag the courts in show why actually it's responsible it's safer to rely on the media because this is our job.

Tony Thorne
It was incidentally manifestly false. The 350 million was simply not so because it didn't count the rebate that Margaret Thatcher had negotiated. For that reason only it wasn't true.

Asa Bennett
Because effectively judges were being asked to rule on political debate was actually that should be the job for the media. The court really would be Sky News BBC News hauling up politicians embarrassing them in that sense.

Yet over these last few years we’ve witnessed this relationship grow ever more intimate, until today it’s reached a stage where it’s often completely shameless. Lying – and doing so in a wanton and blatant way – is now such a part of everyday politics that it’s barely newsworthy anymore. We’re at the point where, as an article on CNN reported a few weeks ago, the government of the United States are ‘now lying about lying’, and seemingly doing so with impunity.

The CNN article was commenting on an interview with White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, in which she asserted that Donald Trump doesn’t tell lies. What he does, she said, is ‘communicate… in a way that some people, especially the media, aren’t necessarily comfortable with’.

After a long four years of almost daily dishonesty, it’s difficult to take this entirely seriously. The problem, however, is that it’s also very difficult to know how to push back against it. As the CNN article notes, the office politics around Trump’s White House are such that if you’re part of his team, you’re obliged to lie as a form of basic professional survival. Not only are Trump and his senior staff lying, but their support network also feels obligated to back them up when they do so. All those who are supposedly in a position of power to take action against this constant rewriting of reality, instead end up condoning and reinforcing it.

Rather than simply saying he’d made a mistake, Netanyahu covered for himself by quipping that it was a deliberate ruse to check that the journalists in attendance were paying attention.

A good example of this is the way that officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were recently threatened with redundancy for contradicting what Trump had said about the trajectory of Hurricane Dorian. The president had asserted that the hurricane was going to hit Alabama – which it wasn’t. His claim caused understandable alarm in the state, so the NOAA tried to calm fears by reiterating the correct information. It wouldn’t reach Alabama, so there was nothing for residents to worry about. But this upset Trump, as it made it look as if he didn’t know what he was talking about. So his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, allegedly intervened to get the NOAA to change their story.

Scenarios such as these are a perfect example of political gaslighting – the way that an authority figure purposefully manipulates the truth in order to control the psychological state of others. The term ‘gaslighting’ comes from the title of a 1939 play by Patrick Hamilton, in which the heroine is psychologically tortured by her husband. Slowly but surely, the husband chips away at his wife’s sanity by persuading her that the way she sees the world is merely an illusion. What he’s doing, in effect, is waging a war against reality – which is almost precisely what commentators are now accusing Trump of doing over the governance of the country.

Transcript

Donald Trump
As president of the United States.

Lady Fookes
Maybe people are more used to hearing or seeing people lying because we have the example over the Atlantic of President Trump. But I'm not even sure whether he knows that he's lying or not. I mean I've always taken the view that it is deliberate but I'm not too sure whether with Trump whether he realizes what he's saying is the truth or not. I think he's almost gone past it. I'm not a psychologist but I think it will be interesting to have somebody look at the state of mind which produces the effects that President Trump does.

Nick Duffell
And there is just so much information around and you could see this with the sort of confidence of say in the way Donald Trump uses his lies to say well this this truth is as good as any other truth. This is my truth. This could be fake news. You sort it out.

Donald Trump
This is fake news put out by the media.

Asa Bennett
But when you take the row over Trump's inauguration that very much was an early preview of what we're about to see with the presidency itself a constant rolling battle with the media in which those media rows would distract from the substance of what was happening.

Tony Thorne
Trump's associates actually doctored the photos cropped them so that they only showed the thick crowds at one end of the square whereas Obama had filled the square so that you know there's there's incontrovertible documentary evidence and still Donald Trump continue to insist that he'd drawn a bigger crowd.

Asa Bennett
And so he was able to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to assert that actually as his press secretary ended up telling reporters they've been the largest audience ever period.

Tony Thorne
He knows that his hard core his core supporters are not going to worry really whether it's true or not and that they will accept at face value anything he says specifically this.

Lady Fookes
I suppose one of the later ones was on the state visit when he claimed that if we had a trade deal with America, with the United States then the National Health Service would be included. The very next day he said oh no it wouldn't be. Now is that a lie or what what is it. I mean it get it almost beyond belief.

Tony Thorne
In fact and I can't judge the truth of this of course. But the Washington Post and other US journalists have tried to count the number of lies that they claim that Donald Trump has told since he took office and the figure in April this year 2019 was 10,000.

Lady Fookes
I know some people will compare President Trump with Boris Johnson in as much as they appear to say some contradictory things. I think there is a very vast difference between them even though they appear to be friends. I think the trouble with Boris is that he gets carried away in a fit of exuberance and says something which perhaps he doesn't really mean and will retract or amend at a later stage. Now whether that is lying I think it's a gray area.

Boris Johnson
Like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt.

Tony Thorne
And this goes right back and perhaps is to some extent provable to his record when he was the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Brussels and he he made up stories he made up ludicrous stories about the bureaucracy of the European Union and their crazy pronouncements. Some of these stories they weren't all attributed to Johnson but were later repeated particularly in the Daily Mail about the idea that bananas would have to be straightened. That cows would have to wear Pampers and Bombay mix would no longer be allowed to be called Bombay mix because it was a British imperial name would have to be renamed. This was all nonsense.

Asa Bennett
Well certainly cynicism is very deeply embedded in the national psyche and voters elsewhere around the world feel this like in the US. When it's a distrust not just of the political class but also of establishment figures officials. And so this is why you see the BBC has been widely distrusted by some you know even I as part of Telegraph will be distrusted by some people on Twitter and social media. This is why you have people going to alternative media outlets, they describe and decry the MSM the mainstream media for peddling what they say is fake news establishment narratives.

Lady Fookes
The question is that the amendment we agreed to as many as that opinion will say Content contrary not content. Lying is stigmatized I think rightly because it shows distrust. How can you rely on somebody if they're not telling you the truth. And so I think consistent lying. As I say it It unsettles people. It destroys integrity and trustworthiness in the system. So I think if it went on for too much you could start to degrade the entire system. And I think that is why it's so important.

There’s another noticeable trend in this sort of behaviour, however. For several of today’s leaders it seems preferable to spin an entirely fabricated tale than to admit to making a mistake. A recent example was Benjamin Netanyahu accidentally referring to Boris Johnson as Boris Yeltsin. Rather than simply saying he’d made a mistake, Netanyahu covered for himself by quipping that it was a deliberate ruse to check that the journalists in attendance were paying attention. This was said with a smile. To all intents and purposes, it was a joke. And yet, when his office later posted the official video of the event, they’d tried to edit out the original mistake, thus tampering with the state of reality.

All of which brings us to yet another technique for obscuring past misdemeanours, which is to reframe how they’re understood. For this you don’t necessarily even need to tamper with evidence in the way that Netanyahu did. You merely need to dispute the meaning of common, everyday words and phrases.

Possibly the most outstandingly devious example of this came from Bill Clinton, back when he was giving evidence to the grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. In trying to find a way to deny that his statement ‘There is no improper relationship’ was a flat-out lie, he infamously equivocated that any interpretation of the sentence ultimately ‘depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is’.

More recently, Boris Johnson has been using this same strategy in order to deflect criticism about some of the ill-judged and incorrect comments he’s made in the past. Over the years, these sorts of comments, when made by Johnson, have been described by the media as ‘gaffes’ (in the same way, interestingly, that Joe Biden’s mischaracterisations of the truth are in the US). During the Conservative leadership contest he hit back at the idea that he was constantly making embarrassing mistakes by arguing that ‘When people say you are making a gaffe, what you are doing is saying something true and necessary’. In other words, comments that may seem to many as factually or morally wrong, are, in Johnson’s mind at least, speaking to a deeper, unsanctioned truth.

And this, ultimately, is the biggest problem about the modern relationship between politics and lying. In the case of many of our most high-profile politicians, it isn’t merely that they’re lying about lying to the electorate. They’re also lying to themselves about what constitutes a lie.
 

 

 

 

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