UK Election: be honest about being honest

In the current UK election campaign ‘honesty’ has become a byword. All the main parties proclaim their intention to ‘tell it straight’. Does their enthusiasm hide a deeper wish to deceive?
Peter Johnson
19 April 2010

In the current UK election campaign ‘honesty’ has become a byword. All the main parties proclaim their intention to ‘tell it straight’. They go on about it endlessly, as if we could choose between different brands of honesty. Be that as it may, I was struck the other day by a meet-the-people slot on the radio. “You can’t tell people the truth, because you’d never get elected,” said a man from Oldham, what used to be called a working-class town. This view has become rather a platitude, in spite – or maybe because – of all the attention lavished on honesty. Round the dinner table, in the pub, at the office, in the political panel’s audience, you can imagine people nodding sagely and harrumphing in agreement.

So who and where are these other gullible and shallow people who want to be lied to, who need to kept in the dark, like potatoes? Why does no political party represent them? Why does nobody interview them? No one takes account of their opinions. Indeed, nobody is willing to step forward and say what their opinions are. Curiously, this invisible majority of un-persons have not been disenfranchised: in fact the only thing we can say about them is that they have a vote.

There is a deep vein of dishonesty about honesty and it’s tied up with the media. Where everything that is said is not reported but interpreted, there is no place in which people can gather authoritative information and think for themselves. Why read a manifesto when one can click to the key points? Why listen to a speech when one can get the sound-bites? Why, in short, bother with facts or complex compromises when one can jump to the reaction? But where everything is edited, nothing is authentic. Much of the power of the media resides in its ability simultaneously to create, challenge and destroy truths. It is displayed each time an interviewer tries to catch out a politician. But if nothing can be taken as true and no one as truthful, there is no reason to avoid lying. The attempts of political candidates (and others) at authenticity are bound to fail, not because they are lying to us, but because the media’s control of the story has led us to believe everything to be a lie.

The cliché that the truth is electorally dangerous is kept alive through a skillful and cynical balancing act by which the media forces half-truths and untruths from people so as to maintain its power over them, the audience, and the political agenda. Sadly, this cynicism now infects everything. If you go to a web site, is it easy to find your way past the pitch and puff to hard facts, statistical data, or copies of important documents? How often in conversation do you catch yourself assuming the worst about what you’ve just heard? When did you last applaud a tub-thumping simplifier or a cheap put-down? Keep It Simple, Stupid was once a cheesy business mantra. Now it’s the way we all think.

Perhaps this is what the end-game of individualism looks like: the only truth is my truth. How will it play? It’s a dead end from which surely only a restoration of some sense of real, not fabricated, authority and truthfulness and trustworthiness will lead us out.

Honesty is not a hat or a TV programme you can put on and off at will. It is a state of mind.

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