Sunday, July 10, 2016

Are we entering a "post truth" age?

The border between truth and satire has been growing increasingly hard to define of late.

Michael Deacon, the parliamentary sketchwriter of the Daily Telegraph has written an article about the world of post-truth politics which I would love to dismiss as a joke but sadly believe has to be taken all too seriously.

He suggests that we are entering an age where the facts and the truth are consistently derided and ignored.

Unfortunately he has a point and I think it is important in looking at this to recognise that the flight from truth is not something which is only found or the right or on the left, nor among those who were for or against Brexit.

During the referendum campaign many people on both sides - though not everyone - were guilty of twisting or greatly exaggerating the facts and one or two outright falsehoods were perpetrated by senior people on both sides. Most people recognise that but some do not.

My original intention was to publish a piece after the referendum which assessed and ranked the worst misleading or false statements by both sides but when I started to prepare it I realised that the impression created by such an article would have been an exercise in sour grapes.

So let's just say that although there were campaigners on both sides of the EU referendum debate who made a commendable effort to debate the issues honestly and constructively, there were also far too many people on both sides of the debate who fell well short of the standards of honesty and accuracy that the electorate were entitled to expect.

I think most intelligent and honest people who are not hopelessly partisan would agree with that view, but unfortunately, as I found out the hard way a week or so ago when I made the mistake of trying to persuade a former MP that I used to respect that both sides had made misleading statements during the campaign, there are some people who just will not admit any errors on their side of the argument. Hence my "quote of the day" this morning.

Michael Deacon's article begins with an anecdote:

"One day in summer 1999, the comedian Stewart Lee was riding through London in a taxi when the driver turned to him. “I think,” said the driver, “that all homosexuals should be killed.”

Somewhat taken aback by the abruptness of this announcement, Lee asked why. “Well,” said the driver. “Because homosexuality is immoral.”

Politely, Lee suggested that notions of morality are far from immutable. For example, he said, modern Western society derives many of its fundamental principles – in ethics, aesthetics, philosophy and more – from ancient Greece: a society in which love between two men was regarded as the purest love of all.

The driver, however, was unimpressed.

“Yes, well,” he huffed. “You can prove anything with facts, can’t you?”

Deacon continues:

"When Lee repeated this line in his stand-up shows, audiences laughed. Maybe they shouldn’t have.

Like all great revolutionary thinkers, that taxi driver was simply ahead of his time. Because, if I had to pick a quote to sum up British politics in 2016, it would be that.

Further extracts from his article

We apparently now inhabit a world that appears to be increasingly anti-fact. It’s a world in which campaigners for Brexit unblushingly asserted that Britain sends £350m a week to the EU, and pledged to spend the entirety of this imaginary sum on the NHS.

It’s a world in which the defence minister, Penny Mordaunt, falsely told voters that Britain has no veto over Turkey joining the EU."

The more you’re convinced that the world is run by malevolent elites covertly working against your interests, the less likely you are to believe official sources of information. Not only newspapers, but academics, scientists, economists.I think the people of this country,” sniffed Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.” Perhaps he was right.

He wasn’t the only Brexit campaigner to identify and capitalise upon public distrust.

Arron Banks, the multimillionaire behind Leave.EU, cheerfully attributed his campaign’s success to the mantrafacts don’t work”. Speaking after his referendum triumph, he said:The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It doesn’t work. You’ve got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

He’s not wrong. Manipulating emotion does work; feelings can beat facts. This is why modern political campaigners love to use the words “positive” and “negative”, “optimism” and “pessimism”: they enable the easy dismissal of criticism.

Thus a politician who lies isrunning a positive campaign”, while opponents who point out the lies areengaged in personal attacks”. Inconvenient facts can be denounced assmears”, and warnings asscaremongering”. In the Scottish referendum of 2014, anyone who questioned the Yes campaign’s utopian vision of independence was accused oftalking Scotland down”. This year, anyone who questioned the utopian vision of Brexit wastalking Britain down”.

It’s a simple but effective message. Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic."

Deacon also pointed out that the Corbynista left was as much committed to the "war on truth" as some on the right are.

Is Deacon right that we are entering a "post truth age?" Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Running a fact-free campaign can be a successful strategy for a fringe party looking to increase it's support from nowhere towards becoming an opposition in a position to challenge for power.

There is, however, a precise tipping point when lying to the electorate or seriously misleading them ceases to be a sustainable strategy - and it's the point where you win.

Let's take for example how the electorate is going to take the promises made by the Leave campaign.

There was never going to be another £350 million a week for the NHS in the event of a leave vote. I will be delighted if I am proved wrong, but I don't believe that even the extra £100 million a week that the leading Brexit campaigners really thought they could spend on the NHS will actually materialise.

Again, I will be delighted if I am proved wrong, but I don't believe either that it will it be possible to both significantly reduce migration from the EU and at the same time avoid material loss of trade and therefore harm to the economy.

The bigger the gulf between the claims of the Brexit campaigners and what actually happens now, the higher the electoral price that the Conservatives in general, and those who campaigned for Brexit in particular, will pay for it. (And obviously, if the electorate does decide that the Leave campaign were lying and the Conservatives should be punished for it, they are not going to vote for UKIP either.)

We have already found out that some of the warnings of the Remain camp about the costs of uncertainty in the event of a Leave vote were true. We are about to find out how many of the Leave campaign's promises can be delivered.

Just as history caught up with Tony Blair this week, and the price for getting it so badly wrong on Iraq has been the comprehensive destruction of his reputation, whoever turns out to have been wrong about the vote to Leave the EU will see extensive damage to theirs.

Either way, perhaps that will make fact-based politics a lot more attractive to people.

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