What happens when a politician lies?

August 2, 2019 0 Comments

A few years ago, the answer to that question would have been obvious.  If the lie came to light, and was serious enough, he or she would have been in grave trouble – and might even have had to resign.  Today the answer would be – precisely nothing.  This is so common that almost nobody notices.  But maybe it’s worth considering what has happened between then and now.

Let’s take a specific example.  On last Monday’s Today programme Mishal Husain interviewed the new Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab.  She asked him about whether the question of the UK’s leaving the European Union without a deal was discussed during the 2016 referendum campaign.  This is what was said:

Mishal Husain: The mandate [given by the referendum vote in 2016] was not for no deal, though, was it?  … you seem to be putting forward the idea that the mandate is to leave the European Union without a deal.  That’s not the case.

Dominic Raab: Well, Mishal, the mandate certainly wasn’t to leave the EU if the EU let us.  It was an in-out referendum and we made clear, those on the [Vote Leave] campaign, that we should strive for a good deal, but that if that wasn’t available, that we should go on and make a success of Brexit.  And so it was discussed …

MH: I don’t remember that being discussed.  When did you make a speech saying that we need to leave without a deal …

DR: I was questioned on it by the BBC almost every time I appeared …

MH: Really?

DR: … and so was Michael Grove.  There’s all sorts of collages of the interviews and the TV …

MH: Where you say we might have to leave without a deal, during the course of the referendum campaign?

DR: There’s all sorts of interviews which said that of course we’d prefer a deal, but that there would be a risk … what would you do if the EU refused to negotiate a deal?  Of course that’s a perfectly respectable question …

MH: That’s not my memory of the thrust of the EU referendum campaign.

DR: In fairness, the institutional memory of the BBC is a bit shaky on this as a whole, so you’re not alone.

Two questions arise here: was Dominic Raab lying?  And if he was, was it a serious lie?  If the answer to both questions is ‘yes’, another question follows: why is he able to get away with a serious lie?

There’s no doubt at all that Husain was right, and Raab wrong, about whether leaving the EU without a deal was discussed during the referendum campaign.  It was not.  Fact checkers in Channel 4 News, the Guardian and even the BBC itself have looked back on the record, and there is no evidence of any attempt at the time by Raab to discuss no deal (in fact no deal was almost never raised by anyone).  So was Raab telling a lie, or could his memory have been badly mistaken?  The latter seems highly unlikely, since Husain asked him specifically about his own pronouncements, not just the generality of comments at the time.

If it was a lie, was it a serious lie, or just a fib?  It was surely serious, since, if Raab were to admit that there was no discussion of a no deal exit during the referendum campaign, he would have no defence against the argument that he and the government lack a democratic mandate to force a no deal exit on 31 October 2019 (assuming no deal is reached with the EU).  In short, lying about so basic a fact is necessary for the ‘no deal’ cause.

Raab, then, should be in deep trouble.  But, of course, he’s not.  Why?  One of the answers is that those who are supposed to challenge politicians in power, like the BBC, are not prepared to call lies lies.  To be fair to Mishal Husain, she pushed Raab quite hard in her questioning, but in the end she wasn’t ready to say that he was telling an untruth, and that he must have known it.  The innocent listener was left to wonder whether the fallible memory of Husain was any better or worse than the fallible memory of Raab (according to the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, ‘a liar should have a good memory’).  Raab was allowed to end the exchange with a snide attack on the BBC’s standards of truth, when it was his own standard of truth that was at issue.

The BBC’s readiness to treat truth and lying as matters of opinion, rather than as what they are, is alarming, but hardly new.  (The BBC once published an excellent guide to the ethics of lying, but, ironically, the site ‘has been archived and is no longer updated’).  What’s more alarming still is to consider what would happen to lying politicians even if the media and others were brave enough to convict them of serious lies.  Because the probable answer is still – precisely nothing. 

The explanation is that lies have lost the capacity to attract opprobrium and punishment, in a political climate that accepts low standards of behaviour as long as other, more cherished aims are met – in this case, leaving the EU ‘by any available means’.  In the UK we’re mere amateurs at swallowing or condoning lies: the Washington Post has logged over 10,000 certified untruths uttered by Donald Trump since he became President – many of them accepted without question by his many loyal followers.  But the Brexit referendum has given us the same corrosive politics as the Americans have.  It’s often called ‘identity politics’, which doesn’t tell us much.  In reality the same old process is at work – the rich and powerful intent on making their position yet more secure – but the methods have changed, veering towards lie-based demagoguery of the kind embraced by Trump and Johnson.  The old ‘social contract’ between the rulers and the rest has been fraying since the 1980s; now the political contract too is threatened.

Hannah Arendt, in her 1971 essay Lying and politics observed that ‘truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings’.  Lying ‘did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness’.  Of course this is true.  But Arendt clearly believes that lying is not a first-order political problem.  She points to two groups who pose particular problems, ‘public-relations managers’ and ‘professional problem solvers’, but neither group, she feels, will be fatal to the cause of truth.  First, she thinks that liars need to be credible.  We now know that to be unnecessary.  And she thinks that in the end the liar is inevitably ‘defeated by reality’.  Yet we know that many people are perfectly prepared to accept lies, even if they believe them to be lies, because their identification with the liar’s cause is absolute.  Their reality is delusional (think of farmers who still believe that a no deal Brexit will make them rich, rather than put them out of business).

Arendt was reacting to the attempts to cover up the truths revealed by the Pentagon Papers about the deceptive conduct of the Vietnam War.  A little later, Richard Nixon’s cover-up of Watergate was similarly informed by anxiety about lies being uncovered.  But those responsible knew they were lying, feared the consequences of being found out, and were worried enough to cover up their deceptions.  Trump and Johnson are indifferent to the fact that they lie, and they know that many people – perhaps most of those who matter to them – are unconcerned enough to overlook or accept them without question in the haste to identify with their core messages.

Contemporary lying of this comprehensive type does seem to be far more dangerous and more destructive than lying in its earlier forms.  Lying as a ubiquitous political tool, and, crucially, the readiness of the lied-to to disregard lies wholesale, are important, because they undermine part of the contract between people as political beings – whether they are active or not – that public affairs are rational and important and of serious concern to all.  Once such lying is accepted, trust diminishes and the democratic political order rots.  Once ‘alternative facts’ are believed, and a whole new fictive world can replace critical thought, as Arendt herself argued in The origins of totalitarianism, the way lies open to new versions of lies that are fatal.  

‘In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.’

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