PRESS FREEDOM: Is it revealing lies, or merely encouraging them?

WinnietitleIf the media gave politicians a chance, would we get better politicians?

HE LIED. Police officer Keith Wallis lied about being a witness to the Plebgate incident.

THEY LIED. The average cost of a settling a claim of interest rate swap mis-selling exceeded £150,000 last month. According to FCA data, 1,040 people received a total of £158.6m in compensation.This compares to an average size settlement only five months ago £50,000.

THEY LIED. Former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates reveals that the US did try and unseat Karzai of Afghanistan in 2009.

HE LIED. Obama said the US was in recovery 15 months ago. In December, the jobs created were half those expected…in a Christmas month. He also knowingly lied about the proper interpretation of the unemployment figures in late 2011.

HE LIED. Champion cyclist hero Lance Armstrong lied about using dope.

HE LIED: Tony Blair lied about watching Jackie Milburn play football as a kid. Milburn retired before Blair was born.

Just a short selection, garnered in almost exactly nine minutes. A policeman, a Cabinet Minister, a President, a Prime Minister, a sporting hero, and all the banks.

Given the ubiquity of lying today, it’s hardly surprising that, for the majority of electors in the West, anything said by people in most walks of public, business and religious life is assumed to be at best a half-truth, and at worst complete invention. Now it looks as if both the Met Police and the London Mayor have been lying about the capital’s crime figures.

Why do they all do it? Obviously – most of the time – because they’re addicted to the trappings of of power and fame. But there’s no getting away from the fact that some of it is fear of having been seen to make a mistake. And that, woven into the fear, this might be discovered by an ever-inquiring media set. I’ve often wondered over the years just how many people steer clear of political life because they simply don’t want that degree of anal examination of what they’re trying to do 24/7.

I will if I may give you an example from my own past. Once I got into senior management in the advertising business, it became de rigueur to “keep in with” Campaign, the very influential Haymarket-owned trade-magazine that was, for many years, the launch vehicle used by the Saatchi brothers to get to the top. To be honest, most of the journalists were unlikeable lightweights who themselves lied as a matter of course about almost everything. On several occasions, I joined struggling agencies with a brief to “turn them round”. You could guarantee that, within a month at most, some Campaign staffer would ring up and say, “Well, have you won any new business yet?”

I never lied in answer to such a question, but it would’ve been a big mistake to say, “Nah, f**k all happening….nobody wants to talk to us”. And it never did any good to say “Look, these things take time.” A few weeks later, you’d be hit with a three-liner in Campaign’s Hotline feature, along the lines of ‘Sources close to ailing agency Fiddle, Diddle & Squat were saying this week that new CEO John Ward is failing to make an impression, and that ultimate US owners Omnivore are becoming restive’. The source was usually someone you’d fired the week before.

The picture I’m painting (and it bears rigorous examination if you think about it) is this: every source and every medium has an agenda; every leader is under pressure; the public have on the whole little or no discernment about the veracity of a claim made in the media; but crucially, all members of all higher species learn that which is not instinctive through making mistakes…and then analysing what went wrong. Without that, there would be no evolution.

The media in 2014 are so all-pervasive, the very process that enables us to make progress is denigrated as abject failure. And so to avoid being seen to have failed, people in public life lie to the media.

Don’t misunderstand me, deliberately or otherwise: some public figures display every last classic sign of being pathological liars. And vast numbers of dedicated and shrewd journalists catch them out because they genuinely want to warn the electorate that so-and-so is a guy in the black hat. But one can’t say that, for example, about the way the Daily Telegraph went for LibDem David Laws within five days of his appointment as a Treasury minister under George Osborne. Or the way the same paper was like a rat at the throat of Vince Cable over the BSkyB takeover. Both those attacks were pure, undiluted political attacks on an elected Government (whatever one may think about it) by a newspaper whose owners neither pay tax nor stand for elected Office.

Call me picky here, but it is not the job of the mass media to harass from Office people they don’t like, or to shelter those they favour as their protégés. It is the key job of the media to print things about anti-social behaviour that the people who caused or committed them don’t want us to know about. It is to reveal, chastise and explain in an objective manner. “Everything else,” as George Orwell observed, “is just PR”.

But we must allow people of talent and good intention to make mistakes.

In 1961, the new US President John F. Kennedy allowed the Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion attempt to go ahead, based on Pentagon assurances that it would succeed. It was a disaster, but as JFK told close confidantes soon afterwards, he had learned a valuable lesson: the Pentagon hawks were full of sh*t. He ignored everything they said during the Cuban missile crisis, as a result of which we still have an inhabitable planet.

How one achieves that degree of tolerance in the contemporary UK media context is a near-impossible thing to suggest. As I’ve observed before, a good start would be to clear out every proprietor who doesn’t live here, and pay his or her taxes in full. As this applies in the States and France, it’s hard to position it as a cloud-cuckoo idea. It is a sad comment on the media-police-politics-business-banking stitch up that Britain has failed to adopt this obvious precursor to a free and sane media spectrum.

The instinct of most legislators would be to, um, legislate. Go to a surgeon with a health issue, and he will suggest an operation. But this isn’t the answer.

The answer, as always, is to change the culture. But in the meantime, what would be the harm, for instance, of a gentlemen’s agreement between Cabinets and proprietors that, for the first two years of any term in power, the only negative reporting allowed of Government was that concerning solid evidence of corruption, outright lying, or treason? Yes, of course, this would be a restriction of the right of every know-all to pass an opinion. And yes, of course, the rule would be open to abuse. But as any Government with a majority and a mission will plough ahead anyway, what would this change?

Perhaps the strongest argument against such a gentleman’s agreement is that there are no longer any real gentlemen. That’s a charge I find hard to rebut: and so that too is a matter of cultural change.

But I would posit this scenario in my defence: imagine what might have happened if, during the 1939-41 period, the War Cabinet under Churchill had allowed the Times management to persistently undermine the Prime Minister’s position with anti-Bolshevist support for Hitler, vexatious stories about Winston’s boozing, and leaks from the likes of Henderson about a mood of surrender in the Cabinet?

Further, I might go on the offensive and ask what difference any of the underhand tactics of the Barclay Brothers have achieved in terms of stopping the Coalition Government in the pursuit of its aims. My own judgement would be “nothing”. However, had the Telegraph instead chosen to do what the Guardian did – that is, highlight and ruthlessly reveal the criminal activities of Newscorp on several levels – we might not now be seeing Murdoch rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of Hackgate.

I do find it truly extraordinary that the Telegraph dumped on David Laws about an indiscretion designed largely to save the feelings of his parents…..but then happily gave Grant Shapps a clean bill of health after research clearly showed the man to be an internet sheister.

Put another way, the usual smelly dollops of hypocrisy continue to pour from the bovine arses of those in the Fourth Estate whose only interest is in the munneeee. In the end, I am left asking myself, “Are these people reducing the lies in public life, or encouraging them?”

I fear it is the latter.

Earlier at The Slog: Another instance of the ‘investigative media’ not investigating terribly well