Falsehoods, half-truths and spin have been a feature of politics since the dawn of time, but a new book reveals how, even in the age of ‘fact checkers’, our leaders have been spouting absolute whoppers at an astonishing rate.
French philosopher Joseph de Maistre said it first, but Thomas Jefferson and more recently Barack Obama agreed with the aphorism enough to repeat that “in a democracy people get the politicians they deserve.”
Lord help us. Think climate change, the coronavirus
pandemic, or immigration are problems? Well, look at the calibre of leader we’re asking to steer us through these crises and their addiction to lying, and you’ll have something to really worry about.
Or maybe don’t. Just read the short but damning book Lies and Falsehoods: The Morrison Government and the New Culture of Deceit by Aussie journalist Bernard Keane to stop you in your tracks and reconsider your relationship with the truth.
While Keane obviously intended this well-researched and clearly-thought work as a condemnation of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, it wasn’t long before he realised he was onto something and other Western democracies, in particular the UK and US, were also in thrall to liars-in-chief.
This rude awakening wasn’t simply a result of the Washington Post project that thoroughly researched the presidency of Donald J. Trump to unearth 30,000 lies that he uttered during his term in office, although this did help.
But the thing with Trump was – and I guess still is – that his position vis-a-vis the truth is not something that is easily measured, because he operates on a parallel plane of reality where he creates his own truth that shifts with his own needs and objectives
Keane says, “Trump lies about everything; no matter is too big or too small to be lied about, no subject is off-limits.”
He cites one public policy expert’s analysis of the former president’s lies into four types – trivial lies, self-aggrandising lies, lies to deceive the public about his policies and achievement, and egregious lies such as claims about Barack Obama’s citizenship.
Yet for many Americans, and particularly those who voted for him, Trump was given a pass as he spouted nonsense about audience ratings for TV news shows he disagreed with, about the number of times he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and how Joe Biden
somehow ‘stole’ the 2020 election from him.
Keane credits Trump with being the exemplar of a true ‘bulls**tter’. Someone who has no regard for the truth and who, as American philosopher Harry Frankfurt says in his text, On Bulls**t, “doesn’t care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
And if that sounds to you like a description that might fit another national leader currently occupying 10 Downing Street, then you’re on the same page as Bernard Keane.
“Throughout his various careers, Johnson
has played the clown,” says Keane. “He sends up himself and others remorselessly, affecting the air of a maladroit, dishevelled fop who has bumbled his way to celebritydom and power.”
We all know this and yet for some reason, we brush it off as ‘just Boris being Boris’ – yet Keane is maybe closer to a real understanding of what is in play here with his assessment that “if Donald Trump
is a poor person’s ideal of what a rich person is like, Johnson
is what a stupid person’s ideal of what an intelligent person is like.”
And he’s right. If you’re not ‘in’ on the joke with Boris, that the truth is not all that important – even when it leads to the death of elderly people in care homes during a pandemic – then you’re the problem, as his former aide Dominic Cummings discovered. Keane says that having honed a career in journalism and on various comedy quiz shows on television, Boris believes “He should be held to a different standard than other politicians because he’s not a politician – he’s a celebrity who just happens to be the head of his country’s government.” Whatta laugh!
Yet here he is, PM of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, elected by an adoring public with a stonking great majority and, despite recent travails and the whiffy pong of sleaze currently engulfing his government, we’ll most likely have forgotten all about that come the next General Election, so he’ll win again. That’s the way it is.
All problems can be overcome with some clever messaging, the right PR and a well-timed press conference, and that’s not just the approach in the UK, it’s what first attracted Keane’s attention in Australia where former marketing executive Scott Morrison now rules the roost.
Keane has compiled a thoroughly researched list of more than 30 falsehoods uttered by the PM since he took office back in 2018. Interestingly, Morrison lies more when he’s under pressure. And these are not just lies based on conflicting interpretations of the facts, they are plain untruths that are easily disproved.
Morrison lies about conversations he has with members of the public, about what he has said on television, in parliament, and particularly on the election campaign trail. Instances in which multiple witnesses, sometimes audiences, have recollections that are different to the stated ‘truth’.
And although Keane has called him out, there’s been no pushback from the PM. Under libel laws in Australia, to publish material accusing someone of being a ‘liar’ is one of the shortest routes known to defamation proceedings that often end with an eye-watering damages award and humiliation for the defendant who struggled to reach the burden of proof to satisfy a court that the claim of falsehood was proven.
Yet Morrison chooses to ignore the accusations and his day in court, presumably because he knows they’re right, after all.
Lies and Falsehoods is not a polemic and is more disturbing for its considered reflection upon the nature of those we choose to lead us and why we are so relaxed about their lies. He’s right when he points out that the problem is us.
One of the simpler arguments he considers is that ideology is no longer the driving force in politics that it once was, yet somehow we are more divided than ever. In the US, the polarisation is over race and the establishment; in the UK it is over Brexit – still – and in Oz, it is a geographic divide between north and south. So we pick a tribe and we anoint our leaders, expecting them to fight for our cause. If they lie? Well, the other side are lying as well, so that’s what they should expect. All’s fair.
That’s how we get to this point. And while Lies and Falsehoods is not offering a solution as such, the author at least makes us pause, look over our neighbour’s fence and realise that politicians are being given a pass on lying, not just in the so-called modern democracies of Oz, the UK or the US, but in Brazil, India, and elsewhere.
We must be more demanding of those who lead us. We must hold them to a higher standard and we must stop accepting their lies. If not, we have only ourselves to blame and that’s worth remembering next time you’re at the ballot box. Don’t like it? Then do something about it.
Despite the implication of those musings from De Maistre, Jefferson, and Obama, we deserve much better.