Read My Lips: Have Politicians Always Been Seen as Liars? Mark Knights Finds Political Spin at Work in the Early Party Politics of Queen Anne's England

By Knights, Mark | History Today, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Read My Lips: Have Politicians Always Been Seen as Liars? Mark Knights Finds Political Spin at Work in the Early Party Politics of Queen Anne's England


Knights, Mark, History Today


THERE IS A PERVASIVE PERCEPTION, undermining public trust in our political system, that today's politicians lie. Many people feel that we were led to war against Iraq on the basis of a lie. The Hutton enquiry, in part designed to remedy the sense of distrust, only seemed to many to compound the problem, first by revealing further levels of deception and then by appearing to miss the truth that its investigation had revealed. According to the opinion polls, public confidence in the truthfulness of the prime minister plummeted.

Earlier this year the Archbishop of Canterbury even felt moved to suggest that, while we might not want to embrace 'the melodramatic language of public deception', it is right that in an era of 'democraticised knowledge' that the government's truth-claims should be 'tested'. Governments, he added, have a responsibility to pay attention to the truth if they want to retain the obedience of their citizens. He may have a point. In March this year Spanish voters turfed out a government it believed had misled them, for electoral advantage, about the nature of the terrorist outrage in Madrid.

Government spin-doctors such as Alistair Campbell and Jo Moore have been accused of using the media to manipulate the truth for political advantage. But news media are also the arenas in which political journalists and politicians trade accusations of lying. Both sides in the debate on Europe, for example, accuse the other in print and on air of representing myth as fact or of distorting the truth. Controversy over this prompted the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips to attack, on BBC's Newsnight, a dangerous wider, modern 'cultural problem, the idea that truth doesn't exist, that objectivity is a chimera'. Journalists, she said, needed to recover a sense of truth in their writing by honestly presenting the facts. Programme presenter Kirsty Wark immediately countered that, by asserting her own opinion as fact in her column, Phillips was herself attempting to be a player in, rather than an observer of, the political game.

What has created this atmosphere of mistrust about politics and the representation of political debate? Two forces may be seen at work. First, party politicians routinely accuse each other of lying and deceiving the people. They do this to try to dissuade people from voting for the rival party, but the cumulative effect on the voters may lead them to conclude that all politicians are liars and deceivers. Ironically and paradoxically, politicians want us to distrust their rivals, even though they themselves need credibility when elected. Partisan politics thus in itself undermines notions of political honesty and integrity. Second, political journalism does largely the same thing, claiming

that the voices heard in other parts of the media are also intent on misleading the public. Here, of course, there is an added commercial imperative to win and retain the trust of readers by denigrating the truthfulness of both politicians and other media commentators. The market-place dictates that the accusation of untrustworthiness is literally valuable.

Yet what is the evidence that this is a modern problem? In what sense are the arts of political lying new? And is the notion that truth 'doesn't exist' merely a modern, or post-modern, one?

As long ago as the early sixteenth century, Machiavelli urged the Prince to dissemble on the grounds that the appearance of power was sometimes as important as the actual possession of it. Similarly, since classical antiquity the art of rhetoric has been suspected as a dangerous tool in the hands of the unscrupulous politician, But the problem of the discrepancy between appearance and reality loomed far larger when the arena of political judgement moved away from the Roman forum or Renaissance court to a public that was informed by something approaching the modern media. In England this process occurred in the first age of party politics, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. …

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