Couldn’t we – shouldn’t we – all be asking that question?
When we’re living in a world in which a big red bus drove Britain out of Europe.
And a new American President claps his hands – because he believes in fairies.
I made that up. The fairies bit.
Getting back to our brave new world. To Trump’s team in the land through the looking glass. The world of fake media, neologisms and – of course – alternative facts.
I’ve been trying to understand why we, the electorate – so lacking in trust in so many ways – are so foolishly trusting in others.
Consider, for example, the ‘Leave’ campaign here in Britain. Brexiteers charging round the country in a big red bus, emblazoned with the slogan:
“We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.”
Politicians posing beside it as they churn out dubious claims.
Just hours after the vote for Brexit is confirmed, on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Nigel Farage (he of the UK Independence Party) is asked to confirm that £350 million would now go to our NHS.
No I can’t, I would never have made that claim … That was one of the mistakes made by the Leave campaign.
He’s been photographed standing beside the bus. But denies he would have made that claim.
He wasn’t the only one.
Newspapers, TV programmes, academics and ordinary folk on social media had warned it was a lie – but to no avail.
‘The people’ voted.
And the NHS won’t get any more money.
But historically, as political mass-delusions go, this is small beer.
Let’s look at the USA. Step back in time to 1972. To the offices of a newspaper In Washington.
The (incomplete) quote in the title comes from its Executive Editor, Ben Bradlee, who occupied that seat at the Washington Post from 1968 to 1991.
In 1972 Bradlee gave two relatively inexperienced reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (All the President’s Men) enough rope to hang a president’s reputation.
That of Richard M Nixon.
The only US President (so far) ever to resign from office.
The Watergate break-in – a Republican attempt to bug National Democratic Committee offices in Washington DC – happened in that year, an election year.
Nixon was nearing the end of his first term as President, seeking re-election.
And nationally, things were not feeling good.
The country was embroiled in a disastrous war in Vietnam. A war in which tens of thousands had already died and tens of thousands more were to die.
Americans had begun to realise that their Commanders in Chief – first Lyndon Johnson, now Nixon – were not being wholly honest about the progress of that war.
And by the time voters were at the polling booths, the Washington Post had uncovered more than enough about the administration of Richard Nixon to make anyone think twice about his honesty.
Yet he was re-elected. And by a cracking 60% of the vote.
To a nation in turmoil, epitomised by campus riots, free love, draft dodging and drugs, Nixon’s law and order promise was plainly what people wanted.
Wanted more than integrity and truth.
But things soon began unravelling.
In 1972, the President’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, had famously called the Watergate break-in ‘a third rate burglary’.
By April 1973 he was telling the media that only his future statements to them about the Watergate scandal would be ‘operative’.
A New York Times journalist, RW Apple, asked him if that meant his previous statements were ‘inoperative’.
Inoperative? Did he mean false? Wrong? Untrue?
Were they lies?
Had the media quoted them, knowing they were lies?
If a newspaper knows someone is lying, why don’t they come out and say so?
Don’t they have a responsibility to be honest?
That particular straw was clutched at by Nixon himself.
Here’s a quote from his famous interview with David Frost in 1977:
… Ben Bradlee, wrote … as far as his newspaper was concerned: “We don’t print the truth; we print what we know, we print what people tell us and this means that we print lies.”
And here’s Bradlee himself on the subject, speaking in 1997:
Newspapers don’t tell the truth under many different, and occasionally innocent, scenarios. Mostly when they don’t know the truth. Or when they quote someone who does not know the truth.
And more and more, when they quote someone who is spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.
And finally, when they quote someone who is flat-out lying. There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times — in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything.
So we can’t trust the papers. Even a legendary figure like Bradlee says as much.
Where, then, do we go to find the truth? News that we can trust, devoid of lies?
The answer is, we don’t. But…
There is a least-worst-case scenario.
Believe me, I’ve been working on versions of this post – at least six – for over a week and there’s no way I could fit everything into 1000 words. Especially now ‘Russiagate’ is bubbling 😉
So, yes, there’s more to come.
And it’s really quite optimistic.