As I write this, Boris Johnson is in the midst of revealing his manifesto for the looming December 12 election. Coming just hours after a new poll suggested the Tories have a 19-point lead, representing a 47% vote share, perhaps we really are living in a post-truth dystopia.
As a child, we’re told not to tell lies. That is, until we realise that actually there are different shades of mendacity. That we shouldn’t always tell the truth about the gift we’ve been given or whether someone’s new haircut looks atrocious. Yet, even then, we’re encouraged to be truthful about most things because, as a society, we’re supposed to value integrity, honour and trust.
That’s why recent events baffle me so. Politicians are rarely held up as beacons of honesty, that much is true, but they usually at least pretend to don a veil of integrity. Being a known liar would previously have been grounds for serious mistrust with the public. Not so this election, however.
Quite unfathomably, we seem to be completely lapping up every falsehood we’re fed. Every faked video, every fabricated website. It doesn’t matter what it is the Tory party do, it seems, we’re game for it.
Fabrication and fakery
In case you’ve been living under a rock (or deliberately hiding your head in the sand), the rap list of untruths is fairly long, but simple in intentions. It began with a video of Sir Keir Starmer originating from ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Sir Kier was being interviewed by Piers Morgan and the doctored video appeared to show him floundering in a response to a question about Brexit. The real video showed Sir Keir’s immediate, comprehensive reply.
When asked to address the doctoring of the video, Sir James Cleverly, the Conservative Chairman, speaking to Piers Morgan (again on Good Morning Britain), defended the move, calling it ‘light-hearted’. Cleverly (Ed – what’s the opposite of nominative determinism?) called it ‘humourous’ and said that anyone watching would have known it was supposed to be funny due to the sound track.
Another video, this time of Jess Phillips, was doctored (rather more subtly) to seem as if her interview happened on the day Corbyn released his manifesto. This made the context of her comments appear as if to totally undermine his policy declarations.
Some facts are more good than others
However, the most heinous attempts to mislead have come about more recently. Despite Dominic Raab’s insistence that “no one gives a toss” about it, I feel it’s important to discuss. Around 4 days ago now, when the potential leaders of the next UK HM Government were deep in debate, live on TV, the Conservative’s Press Account, followed by 76,000 users, changed its name. To FactCheckUK. Rebranding its entire page and profile picture, it ‘debunked’ what Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was saying, live. Despite Raab and Cleverly’s defence of the move, Twitter made it clear it looked upon the move unfavourably, warning that the account would be punished with “decisive, corrective action”, should any further attempts to deceive users occur.
Finally, the launch of Labour’s manifesto was blighted by Tory attempts to mislead those searching for it online. Anyone searching for Corbyn’s pledges on Google was instead led to paid adverts for labourmanifesto.co.uk. Branded in red, with Corbyn’s face above it, the Tories used the site to attack Corbyn and mislead readers about what the manifesto actually contains.
But maybe no one does give a toss?
At the beginning of the month, David Dimbleby toured Britain to find out what we thought about Brexit. In Wales, he spoke to Lisa, a hairdresser, who confided that she loved Boris Johnson specifically because he did lie. As far as she was concerned, it made him “more human” and that meant she trusted him more to “keep his word”. I’m not sure Orwell himself could have written a more terrifyingly telling line for his increasingly prophetic tome, 1984.
I’ve written before on Johnson’s cult of personality and how it seems that his closely cultivated persona leads people to hang on his every fabrication. Inaccuracies, distortions and falsehoods seem welcome with many, with the Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn not only condoning, but welcoming the lies over the unlawful prorogation, back in September.
As tactics go, aggressive attack itself is not new. But the medium is. Widely criticised for their lack of digital strategy in 2017, the Tories have hit back in pursuit of their desired future majority with an agency credited for winning elections for far-right candidates in New Zealand.
What exactly does Britain deserve?
The problem with the attack-focused electioneering strategy is that it often fails to demonstrate the positives of your own manifesto. That’s why I was waiting to understand more about what Johnson’s Conservatives might be promising. Their slogan ‘Britain deserves better’ would be fairly good had they not been in power themselves for the last nine years.
Yet the manifesto has been launched and – within mere minutes – revealed to be as full of fake news and lies as we’ve come to expect. The 50,000 new nurses they pledged to recruit includes 18,500 that we already have, who they hope to convince to stay on in their jobs. Maybe all these fake nurses will have to work in the fictional 40 new hospitals that they’ve lied about (there’s only funding for 6).
Doublethink and cognitive dissonance
Ask a Conservative supporter what exactly it is that they like about the Tory party and the last nine years of austerity and you often find they just resort to insults about Corbyn and Labour. Ask them for any one tangible benefit of Brexit and you’ll usually be met with obfuscation, falsehoods about our current membership and – in some cases – silly arguments around the shape of bananas, the particular hue of our passports and fish.
Orwell’s seminal novel, 1984, was a book that transformed my worldview. The idea of doublethink – the notion of accepting two contrary positions, due to political indoctrination – really chimes with the cognitive dissonance around trust and honour – the integrity of politicians. BBC executives reportedly told one journalist it was “wrong to expose lies told by a British prime minister because it undermines trust in politics”.
If we trust those who lie to us more than those who continue to uphold their principles, then indeed, Orwell’s words bear repeating, endlessly, like a Tory Manifesto stamping on Britain’s face forever.