25th Mar 2019


When public faces get away with lying

Here’s a piece of news that won’t quite resonate with the European publicum: across the pond, a certain news anchor has had a very bad week.

The hero for this First World story is Brian Williams, host of America’s most watched network newscast, the NBC Nightly News. His suave presence, Pierce Brosnan smirk and a NY Rangers t-shirt had made him a household name for the better part of the last decade.

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  • Media and political elites seem to be so distrusted that people have almost given up on attempts to find “objective” reporting (Photo: Andrew Dunn)

Well, last week, America’s darling was caught misspeaking – to use the most favorable euphemism in political lingo – about an event in which he participated during his 2003 coverage of the Iraq invasion.

For years, Williams had been telling a war tale about being aboard an army helicopter that was hit by enemy fire in Iraq and forced to land in the desert.

The grandeur of the story’s content and delivery evolved with time, up until last week, when, during a half-time of a Rangers game, the stadium’s giant video display aired an account of Williams’ mishap, wrapped up in a tribute to an army veteran whose platoon had secured the helicopter’s landing.

It seems as though, at that point, Williams’ bragging had gone too far. Witnesses came forward claiming that the news anchor had not been on the helicopter that got hit, but on a different one that landed half an hour later.

The media followed suit and Williams’ war tale was soon exposed as – to use another convenient euphemism – a misstatement.

By the time Williams got the chance to read his apology on air, the hounds were already released: numerous articles, editorials and op-ed pieces condemned the anchor’s false report, some benevolently speculating of conflated memory, others, less benevolently, calling it a lie.

On Sunday, Williams announced that he was stepping down, employing yet another euphemism whose use is welcome in these situations – “temporarily”.

Swift justice

This case of swift justice can tell us a lot about the manner in which we treat truth and trust in the Western public sphere. Getting caught lying (i.e. deliberately stating a falsehood) is a strictly punished offence.

Remember how the Labour Party quickly seized on David Cameron’s slip-up about Iran’s nuclear bomb in 2010, or how the US public reacted to Hillary Clinton’s false account of landing under sniper fire in 2008.

And yet, a society so very sensitive to lying is somehow quite accepting of practices whose abuse of truth is equally grave.

Think of the punditry that dominates public discourse: think of the endless sea of political commentators, partisan analysts, talk show hosts and polemicists.

Think of the fact twisting, and truth spinning and the manipulative sowing of appealing narratives, often done with such dramatic license that First Amendment lawyers make it their job to distinguish it from straight up lying. Where truthfulness and candour are concerned, this difference is fictitious.

So, why is it that societies where there exists overwhelming agreement on cynical maxims such as “all politicians lie” and “all media manipulates” get so testy about these little white fibs?

Casus belli

The reason for this contradiction might be that the real sin is not to tell a lie, but to tell it without an apparently legitimate agenda.

I suspect that even those who missed last week’s dissection of Brian Williams’ false account can recall a certain UK prime minister’s claims, back in 2002 about a Middle Eastern dictator’s possession of WMDs, which had a very similar truth value. But the agenda at the time was to find a casus belli for war, and war propaganda is an easily excusable sort of propaganda.

Some may also remember the 2013 reports of leading UK newspapers – The Sun and Daily Mail – about an incoming tide of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants that would all but swamp the British Isles.

Some of that content was just sensationalistic, most was wholly inaccurate and a good part of the latter were likely deliberate lies but they, too, were serving an agenda (namely, feeding the anti-immigrant hysteria) and nobody was irritated enough to call for heads to roll.

A few others may vaguely recollect these Greek Governments that were said to be cooking books in 2002, and then, again, in 2004, and once more, in 2009, and somehow that sort of lying didn’t have a disqualifying effect in any of the seven legislative elections Greece has had since 2000.

If lies are part of international politics, they apparently lose their moral dimension, and with it the ability to provoke genuine anger.

Lack of public trust

The bottom line seems to be that if public personages lie for a greater cause, it’s all politics, but if they get caught lying for their own sake, it’s a crime.

Underlying this unspoken bargain between the public and those who dominate the news is a problem which the Western societies have so far ignored – a chronic lack of public trust.

Look at the level of trust in political institutions (whose presence the aforementioned personages symbolise) in EU member states – it is in general decline, from the mid-50s in 2007 to the mid-30s in 2014.

Trust in the national governments is likewise falling across the EU. If you compare these trends with figures showing the level of trust in the media, you’ll realise how closely connected these sentiments are.

Media and political elites appear to be so distrusted that people have almost given up on attempts to find “objective” reporting, following instead “advocacy” newspapers and channels that tell them what they want to hear.

Therefore the tacit deal: we (the voting public) will give you (smooth-talking pundit) a cheque to disregard the norms of decent discourse, as long as your skills are used for building up a political narrative we like. If you, however, cash this cheque for your own personal gain, we’ll call you on what we all agree you are.

Well, there are scores of reasons why this tendency is deeply harmful. The most pertinent may be that the trend of public distrust shows no signs of changing course.

And, if only strategic-sounding reasons will be admitted, every moment of delay in addressing our problem of public trust is bringing us closer to the dangerous exercise of equating BBC with Russia Today.

Fedja Pavlovic is a philosophy student at Leuven University, coming from Montenegro

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