Polity by Rob Salmond


Post "post-truth" post

In the wake of Hurricanes Trump and Brexit, Andrea Vance penned a thoughtful column the other day about “post-truth politics.” Vernon Small had voiced similar musings earlier. Vance says:

The polls don’t punish National for straying from the truth. And Labour are desperate, throwing mud in the hope something gets traction.

Whatever the motivation, the truth has gone out of fashion.

She catalogues the imaginary MSD flying squads and the memory-hole treatment National gives to unwelcome reports on inequality, 90 day trials, MFAT leaks, and foreign trusts. I’d add repeated mendacity about tax and offensive murmurings about Maori and housing to National’s list of recent post-truth excursions.

Both Vance and Small do also argue the foreign trusts issue reflected poorly on both National and Labour, as Key argued black was white over the merits of our tax law and Little danced on pins over who he had and had not apologized to.

I agree with them, both broadly and in the specific example. I expect both National’s and Labour will look at their interactions with John Shewan and his report with considerable chagrin. The difference, of course, is that when the government of the day stuffs around on this, it prolongs a blight on our economy, affecting everyone. When Andrew Little does the same, it only affects him and John Shewan.

So, what is to be done?

I think Vance answered her own question in the quote above. The movitation for the truth going out of fashion is obvious: there’s no downside to lying. As she says, political liars are generally not punished for their lies.

And why is that?

Politicians aren’t punished for lying partly because too often the media chooses not to punish them. The media is the closest credible witness to the statements our leaders make. They’re the ones who are paid not only to pass on who said things about stuff, but to analyze and critique as well. That’s what the public expects from its media.

Every time a news report is framed as “he said / she said,” it fails to do it’s whole job. Put simply, the media cannot be a passive bystander while speaking truth to power.

The more power they have, the more you have to speak truth to them.

A very well respected ex-journalist once put it to me this way: “I saw my job as being biased against whoever was in charge.”

Yes, I know this means arguing the media should be biased against Labour when it wins. I agree with that idea. Having an editorial stance biased against the most powerful, whoever they are, is good for democracy.

In the modern media environment, I don’t think media can afford to run a politician’s lies as a news story, wait for opponents to criticize them, then run the criticism as a second cycle story, either as news or elsewhere. With the public increasingly having twitter-level attention spans, waiting for that second cycle is too late.

Once you’ve uncritically repeated a lie, the ship has sailed because increasingly, mildly interested, undecided voters don’t watch The Nation or Q+A or read opinion columns about “post-truth politics.” (For those doubtful, have a look John Zaller’s The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion or Markus Prior’s Post-Broadcast Democracy.)

In practical terms, that means refusing to run a news story – even a whispered exclusive – without thoroughly verifying the politician’s claims first. When you find something amiss, it means leading with “Politician X lied again about thing Y” on day one, rather than burying it on day two or in par 12.

It also means not waiting for a counter source before plucking up the courage to call someone out. Nobody should have to wait for a partisan person like me to expose the lie about net tax before writing that it’s a lie. That’s important because if the journalist’s criticism is buried under a wall of “the opposition says that’s a lie because…”, that only helps the liar because it infuses criticism of their lies with the stench of partisanship, inviting people to see the episode as “politics as usual” rather than “a lie from on high.”

In summary, I agree with both Andrea Vance and Vernon Small. They’ve diagnosed as important problem. But, as media, they are also a big part of the cure. 

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