And it gets worse
I’m planning on a trivial blog next week. I hope. But not this week. This week I am hopping mad and sometimes just writing about it helps.
Here’s my scenario for you. You need to buy a car. The ticket price is £1,000, but you are a good haggler (I’m not) and you get the price down to £900. You go home and tell your family. What do you say the car cost? £1,000 or £900? You might say, I did really well, it would have cost £1,000, but I got it for £900. But it didn’t cost you £1,000, so why would you say it did? This is not difficult. It is a matter of facts.
Last week, I wrote about Leni Riefenstahl and how she used her immense talent to promote the evils of Nazism and the persona of Hitler. I’m escalating it this week. And, like last week, this is not about politics, this is about truth versus lies. And yes, I’m going to be as black and white as that.
So, Joseph Goebbels. Minister for Propaganda and an absolute zealot when it came to Hitler and National Socialism. And a man of many contradictions. He had no hesitation in telling the German people what he wanted to be true, even when he knew it was false, if it served his aims. And from him we have the playbook of how to lie on a grand scale:
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.
In the current excuse for a debate about Britain’s future membership of the European Union, the Vote Leave campaign has been hammering home one figure and associated concept time and time again. This is how they word it in their campaign literature:
“The EU costs us over £350 million a week.
“We are still sending £350 million a week to the EU.
“We will keep sending at least £350 million a week abroad.
“Permanent handing over of £350 million a week to Brussels.”
Got that? Four times in one document (five, if you count the time they tell us we would stop paying that much if we left the EU).
It is a lie, pure and simple. A lie that follows the Goebbels playbook of making sure it’s big and keeping repeating it, even when you have been told (as if you didn’t already know) that it’s not true. Remember the car? We are being told, again and again, that the car cost £1,000. It didn’t. It cost £900. And it’s not even that the car cost £1,000 with some cash back later on. It only ever cost £900 (and, in the case of the EU, you then got a large proportion of that £900 back in grants and other money to spend on your home or garden, but at some point the analogy breaks down).
Does it matter? Morally, I think unequivocally yes, it matters. We are asked to place a degree of trust in politicians. Our system of democracy (stop laughing in the back) grants them the authority to make significant decisions on our behalf. And yet some of them, including cabinet ministers and wannabe next prime ministers, wilfully lie to us when it serves their purposes. In my opinion, lying to the electorate does nothing to serve democracy, nothing to further a meaningful debate, and it will have a lasting impact of reducing further what trust we do still have in politicians. I will be honest, I am keeping a mental list of the politicians who continue knowingly to peddle this lie. I will never be able to trust any of them in the future, knowing that they have no scruples about lying to me about something as straightforward as this – and defending the lie when challenged.
I’m not alone in being more than a little troubled by the promulgation of non-facts in this campaign. Andrew Tyrie, Chairman of the Parliamentary Treasury Committee, summarised his committee’s report by saying
Both sides in the referendum campaign have traded in outrageous claims and unsubstantiated assertions, masquerading as “facts”.
And on the £350m figure, the committee was incredibly clear:
Brexit will not result in a £350m per week fiscal windfall to the Exchequer as a consequence of ending the UK’s contributions to the EU budget. Despite having been presented with the evidence contradicting this claim, Vote Leave has subsequently placed the £350m figure on its campaign bus, and on much of its recent campaign literature. The public should discount this claim. Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic. It sits very awkwardly with its promises to the Electoral Commission to work in a spirit that reflects its “very significant responsibility” and the “gravity of the choice facing the British people”.
What a very British way of saying “They are lying to you”. Now, Vote Leave are not alone in talking factual nonsense in this referendum campaign. Theirs is just, in my opinion, the best (that should probably be “worst”) example of a lie on such a scale which is being told in what we like to think is a more enlightened age than 1930s and 40s Germany was. But people haven’t changed. Some still lie to us, abusing their position for their personal aims and ideology, and some of us will always believe it, particularly when it plays to our existing views. Confirmation bias, anyone?
While I’m on my soapbox, here’s another parallel with German history that worries me, this time from my home patch of media ethics. When politicians are up to no good, we have the media to hold them to account, to challenge them, to ask the questions we cannot individually. Jump forward a few years from the 1940s to East Germany. The media are under effective state control, the flagship newspaper Neues Deutschland is required reading (or at least subscription) for Party members. And it was unashamed in calling itself “Organ of the Socialist Unity Party” (the ruling party – and at this point, let me just say that the Party and country were not socialist, they were parts of a Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship that was socialist in name only). I will give them this – they were honest about their allegiances. I think the Daily Telegraph should be equally honest and include in its masthead “Organ of the Vote Leave campaign” given the incredibly biased coverage of the campaign over recent weeks. I rather hope that, one day, someone will do what I did with East German journalists and ask some of the Telegraph journalists some difficult questions about their concept of media ethics and how their professed values could be considered consistent with what they wrote – and did not write. I would buy that book.