We can han­dle the truth

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

THIS month saw the most un­pleas­ant group pho­to­graph of 2016. It fea­tured Don­ald Trump and Nigel Farage stand­ing in front of the vul­gar golden gates that guard the en­trance to Mr Trump’s op­u­lent New York res­i­dence. Flanked by their sin­is­ter con­fed­er­ates, these two chil­dren of im­mi­grant fam­i­lies, both mar­ried to for­eign­ers, were cel­e­brat­ing the suc­cess of cam­paigns in which they vil­i­fied im­mi­grants, stirred up re­sent­ment against neigh­bours and un­der­mined the very in­sti­tu­tions, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional, that have given se­cu­rity and peace to their na­tions. These ex­po­nents of the lie di­rect con­cen­trated on real and imag­i­nary fears to blame oth­ers for the mis­for­tunes and griev­ances of those who feel left be­hind in this fast-chang­ing world.

Their suc­cess de­pended upon the will­ing­ness of the press and the pub­lic to ig­nore ev­i­dence, dis­trust ex­perts and deny facts. Truth has been the ca­su­alty on both sides of the At­lantic and looks se­ri­ously chal­lenged in the forth­com­ing French and German elec­tions. ‘What is truth,’ said Pi­late and would not stay for an an­swer—but he did know there was an an­swer and that’s why he wouldn’t stay. Truth would chal­lenge his as­sump­tions and so he moved on.

The par­al­lel with Bri­tain’s pop­u­lar news­pa­pers is all too ex­act. Apol­o­gis­ing in the small print for wholly fic­ti­tious head­lines has be­come a daily oc­cur­rence. Many ‘jour­nal­ists’ don’t go out to seek stories, but sit be­hind screens, tai­lor­ing the in­for­ma­tion of oth­ers to pro­duce ar­ti­cles that fit in with the prej­u­dices of their pa­per and its pro­pri­etor. They do not ask what is the truth, but what is the story.

For de­cent politi­cians, this is a se­ri­ous chal­lenge—they weren’t trusted in the first place. It was as­sumed that they told lies. After all, the news­pa­pers have been say­ing that for years. And, some­times, it’s true, but the Stone­houses, Aitkens and Han­ning­fields are a tiny mi­nor­ity. Much more typ­i­cal would be Ken Clarke, Hi­lary Benn or Shirley Wil­liams, for whom truth matters and who could hon­estly say they hadn’t told a pub­lic lie in their po­lit­i­cal lives. You don’t have to agree with them, but they rep­re­sent the dom­i­nant tra­di­tion in Bri­tish pol­i­tics. Flawed like all of us, they went into pub­lic life to im­prove the so­ci­ety into which they were born and the lives of the peo­ple they were called to rep­re­sent.

Mr Trump’s cam­paign turned its back on all that. He said what he thought would ap­peal. Truth played no part in the ex­pres­sion of his views. He never did re­veal those tax re­turns lest they would blow apart the view of him­self he had man­u­fac­tured. Whether it was the Mexican wall, his treat­ment of women or his part in the ‘birthing’ li­bel, the lie di­rect was his con­stant weapon. His suc­cess is a se­ri­ous blow to stan­dards in pub­lic life around the globe. If bla­tant dis­hon­esty can win elec­tion to the most pow­er­ful job in the world, what hope have we of en­cour­ag­ing and in­sist­ing upon hear­ing the truth from any of our rep­re­sen­ta­tives?

And hear­ing is the op­er­a­tive word. Car­di­nal New­man de­fined truth as what the lis­tener heard and not what the speaker said. There is noth­ing sub­tle about Mr Trump’s lies. What he says and what you hear are iden­ti­cal. How­ever, in this post-truth age, there are many oth­ers who frame their words in or­der to con­vey a false im­pres­sion. The lie im­plied is as much a lie as the lie di­rect. And we all have to learn that once more if our democ­racy is to re­cover. Whether it’s get­ting Leve­son im­ple­mented or re­ject­ing ly­ing politi­cians, we must in­sist that com­mit­ment to truth is a pre­req­ui­site of power.

We must in­sist that com­mit­ment to truth is a pre­req­ui­site of power

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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