Whatever happened to truth in politics?

When I did my Linguistic Science degree in the late 90s, we covered political language in a module. The lecturer opened with asking what was typically thought of politicians, drawing the response akin to “they all lie!” To this he replied that they did not! They may be guilty of misdirection and deception, but they would never actually tell a distinguishable lie.

He illustrated: his wife had discovered an empty packet of biscuits in the cupboard. Knowing that the youngest son was the family Cookie Monster, they confronted him — “Did you eat some of those biscuits?” With a straight face, he answered no. They saw no hint of any attempt to lie so they went on to question the rest of the family, but coming back to the conclusion that he was the only one who would actually devour a whole packet, so confronted him again — “you did eat those biscuits, didn’t you?” This time he replied yes, so his father said “Why did you lie the last time?”

The son replied, “I didn’t lie! You asked me if I ate some of the biscuits. I didn’t; I ate all of them!” He would do well in politics, at least in the politics up until that time, which was just at the beginning of the Blair regime. This could be seen by observation in politics with examples like Duncan Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, being asked if HM government had been involved in talks with the IRA. His firm denial of that was then questioned when it came out that talks had been held, to which he commented that no members of HM government had been talking to any member of the IRA, but “if certain people who purport to represent HM government wish to enter into talks with certain people who purport to represent the IRA, that may well happen, but no member of the government has been involved!” After this, analysts noticed reporters asking very detailed questions in an attempt to cover all the bases, like “has anyone, with any link, tie or interest in the government or any of their representatives, employees or agents, had any dealings with…”

To combat the recognition of this by [good] journalists, politics at the time of Blair (in both main parties) changed to “don’t actually answer the question but keep bringing the conversation back to what we want to say” while into the noughties, the Bush regime in the US actually started staging their own press conferences where journalists who asked undesirable questions would simply be excluded next time, so going beyond the manufacturing, into the engineering of the consent.

We grew tired of the politician who would never answer any question. Hazel Blears was the Olympic gold medallist at the sport, and we had already seen that infamous Paxman/ Howard interview from 1997 replayed a million times, even before the inception of YouTube in 2005!


Hence the rise of the ‘straight talker’; even though the likes of Trump and Corbyn are poles apart in politics and personality, one of the things they are liked for is their ability to not evade the question; they haven’t learnt the rules of that game. Though Trump using bare-faced lies as answers is surely worrying, yes? Whatever happened to that ‘get caught telling an actual lie and your political career is over’ maxim we had learnt all those years ago in our classes?

One answer to that might be the advent of social media. It is well known that the newsfeed in Facebook will tailor itself to your viewing habits, as will the suggested videos on YouTube, so you will get ‘more of the same’ and thus find more and more ‘information’ to reinforce whatever your worldview is. Recent studies have shown that people will hit ‘like’ on a post (and even share it!) before actually reading it (if they read it at all)! I myself have seen my comments on a post that debunks it being removed and the false/ hoax/ exaggerated non-news remaining in place! No doubt, political analysts have realised that many will believe what they want to believe and turned this to their advantage; The very day after the ‘Brexit’ EU referendum, the ‘facts’ that so many of us repeatedly dismantled across social media for weeks were exposed as nothing but bare-faced lies, yet the politicians involved were not tendering their resignations (well, not right away!). Many of them are still at the top ranks of politics!

The offer of social media as the answer is deeply unsatisfying, since it is hard to imagine that its advent alone has been the game-changer. More likely, it just reflects general human nature, which always has and maybe always will be, the same; fickle, easily led, easily duped. This is not finger-pointing, since we are all human.