In a now famous broadcasting moment, Rory Stewart, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live about Brexit, when he made the claim that ‘80 percent of the British public support this [withdrawal agreement] deal.’
Thankfully the presenter, Emma Barnett was quick to question him where this statistic had come from to which he replied ‘I’m producing a number to illustrate what I believe.’
Clearly he did not get away with it and his comments were in some way a retraction, yet it is clear that lying has played an important role in the Brexit process.
Indeed Boris Johnson, former Foreign Secretary, Mayor of London and Conservative Leadership hopeful was taken to court for lying about the cost of membership of the European Union. The case got kicked out, not because he had lied but because the judge believed it to be a politically motivated case.
It seems then that it is perfectly permissible to lie in politics. The Electoral Commission has even made it clear to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that even if an election is won with the benefit of cheating, in this case unlawful payments to a particular party, the result still stands.
Everyone knows that politicians use ‘facts’ to support their argument but it is dangerous that we expect them to lie. Adolf Hitler used the big lie as a propaganda technique. In his 1925 book ‘Mein Kampf’, he talked about the use of a lie so ‘colossal’ that no one would believe that someone ‘could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.’
It seems that the bigger the lie the easier it is to convince people that it is true. Mark Twain said ‘How easy it is to make people believe a lie and how hard it is to undo that work again!’
As Hannah Arendt noted in her 1951 book, Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts.’
Some other passages from her book worth noting are:
‘Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man to fabricate it.’
‘What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.’
If we accept that politicians are permitted to lie we end up with the situation that Arendt again highlighted:
‘Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly subject to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.’
Saying something you believe to be true but is wrong is acceptable, we all make mistakes, but saying something you know to be a lie and repeating it over and over again is not.
This is why we need good independent journalism, to step in and question the validity of what those in public office are saying. We should not allow politicians to lie.