One of the most depressing features of our recent political past has been the rise of the deliberate falsehood. The decade just gone began with the lie that it was Labour’s profligacy that brought on the recession. Then the narrative became ‘blame the poor’ to balance the books. The books were never ‘balanced,’ total debt has risen and the annual deficit never disappeared and may well now sharply rise again. Despite not achieving any of its objectives, austerity was sold as a necessity—and many foresaw the truth of that. But enough of the voting public bought the lies, and the decade became a Tory decade (with a little help from the LibDems).
What is it about such political lying that makes it so successful? An article by Professor Ivor Gaber succinctly presents three reasons why what he calls ‘strategic lying’ succeeds:
First, because correcting inaccurate statements, by either journalists or fact checkers, might persuade the uncommitted, but those sympathetic to the original message will reject the correction. Indeed it can actually increase the intensity of their belief in the original lie as a means of avoiding cognitive dissonance.
Second, for those sympathetic to, or neutral about, the original message, the memory of the correction fades rapidly but the memory of the original lie remains.
Third, because of the tried and tested power of repetition, if a lie is repeated often enough its content becomes easier to process and subsequently regarded as more truthful than any new statements rebutting it.
So, in an age of ‘permission to lie’, it appears that the benefits of strategic lying far outweigh any costs which could well mean that soon enough all politicians will be doing it and the quality of our democracy will further decline.
Is this why Dominic Cummings is paid up to £100k a year from the public purse—to deceive the public? He has fine-tuned Mandy Rice Davies’ famous statement ‘He would [say that], wouldn’t he’ to ‘they would deny that wouldn’t they?’ It really is a problem (what, another one?) for democracy when such strategic lying becomes respectable. Politicians (and their observers) used to fret about whether negative campaigning was legitimate, but the top-down ordained strategic lying phenomenon takes things to a new level. Negative campaigning was seen to be OK so long as what you accused your opponent of was actually true. Does this new, political amorality herald the end of seemingly guileless politicians like Jeremy Corbyn ever rising to the top again? Many ambitious politicians in the future will shudder at the thought of leaving such a useful tool as ‘strategic lying’ unused in the tool box.