Is it Right to Tell Lies?

We fake conviction. We fake passion. Why not fake the truth? Ian Hargreaves, in his book about journalism quotes the philosopher Onora O’Neill, who, in 2002 gave a lecture she’d written for the press. She declared that the press was guilty of “Smears, sneers, and jeers, names, shames and blames. Some reporting covers dementing amounts of trivia, some misrepresents, some denigrates, some teeters on the brink of defamation… if the media mislead… the wells of public discourse and public life are poisoned” (Hargreaves, 2005:120).

But we all lie don’t we, although many of us lay claim to the moral high ground? Parents habitually lie to their children. How many of us have heard: ‘Say you’re under fifteen or we’ll have to pay for another adult!’ Some people would say, ask your children to lie for you and they will learn to lie to you and others. If what we read is true about nine year old Shannon Matthew’s family, (The Daily Mail 16/04/08) ‘perverting the course of justice’ it tells us much about the way many perceive lies today; only important if you are found out. Your moral compass is established from the common sense you have gleaned, about what’s right or wrong, in the society into which you have been born. However, as a journalist, at what point would you lie to get to the truth? Would lying to gain entry, in order to reach the missing child’s family in this case, be considered creative subterfuge or an evil act?

Then there are the ‘white lies.’ How much easier it is to say that your essay is nearing completion than admitting that it hasn’t been started. Most of us grease the wheels in polite society by stretching the truth a little when it avoids confrontation or saves confusion. So that’s alright then? The good intention behind the lie makes it acceptable? Although we all understand the nuances of ‘big’ important lies versus harmless fibs, there are many layers and distinctions within these parameters. Chris Langham, the disgraced comedy actor who, when asked if he was a paedophile said that he was not, although he had just been released from jail for downloading child pornography (Times Online 20/11/07). Clearly he was driven by shame and the need to protect his sons who would have felt mortified by the truth. In future reporting, Langham will undoubtedly be protected by the legal restriction ‘Rehabilitation of Offenders’ so a journalist may perhaps be unable to ask the question.

Sometimes the truth is searingly painful and a lie would be so much easier. A case in point is the missing Madeleine McCann whose mother probably wishes that she hadn’t told the Portuguese police that her daughter had been left crying the night before she vanished on 3rd May 2007. Now that her statement has been leaked (The Telegraph 10/04/08) it has created a maelstrom of abuse from people who cannot comprehend the reasons why this mother left her children alone. Her ‘truth’ to the police will damage her reputation further, and while the battle rages as to who leaked her statement; the Portuguese Chief of the Police Federation is quoted as saying: ‘He is a liar and a Machiavellian’ about the McCann’s spokesperson Clarence Mitchell (Daily Mail 15/04/08). A journalist reporting on a story such as this will be aware of the laws affecting reporting – including defamation. Rudin and Ibbotson write, “defamation is both a constant threat for journalists and a ‘game’” (2002:301). Lawyers, giving advice to major news organisations allegedly couch their advice along the lines of “’well it could be a problem but you’ll probably get away with it’” (Rudin and Ibbotson, 2002:301).

The media is regulated of course but there are often criticisms and calls for its increased regulation. ‘The emergence of new media technologies ‘has brought a new urgency’ to the discussion (Stephenson and Bromley 1998:169) but to suggest that the masses cannot cope with biased images or untruths in the media, is to suggest that they’re all morons. I would, however, argue that it’s our social attitudes to lying that are changing. Taking Paul Burrel, the late Diana, Princess of Wale’s butler, as an example, we can see a man who could be extradited from the United States to face questions after allegations that he lied under oath at the Diana inquest. Having allegedly perjured himself in a British court, and being branded a ‘liar’ by the coroner, Lord Justice Scott Baker, Burrel says that he was a victim of entrapment, whilst the coroner refuses to refer the case to Scotland Yard; so do lies in court matter, or are little untruths less important than perceived big ones? Moreover, the ‘Protection from Harassment Act’ (1997) can be used in ways in which it wasn’t intended and Burrel, if he could show that there was ‘alarm’ and ‘distress’ could bring a criminal prosecution against a journalist reporting about him. Many people may shrug with disinterest over the drunken exaggerating of a weak man boasting that he ‘didn’t tell the whole truth’ (Daily Mail 10/04/08:19) whilst under oath but there is a danger when the public becomes so disaffected. Perhaps we are all too busy to care, or too cynical to believe the things we read and see? Or conversely, is it a case of ‘Joe Public’ being objective, looking at the facts presented to them, being prepared to acknowledge that other’s values, opinions and perceptions, may falsify their hypothesis, before accepting that today’s news stories may not be much more than sound bites?

It seems strangely naive that public figures still expect their opponents to fight fair but Boris Johnson for example, interviewed by Melissa Kite recently (The Telegraph: 7/04/08) complained that Mr Livingstone’s team were “going around lying about what we are offering” and that there has been a lot of “sub-radar stuff” as the elections for London Mayor come closer. “They will say absolute codswallop, don’t take any notice of the lies they will tell,” he told a gathering of supporters, before asking “Can I say lies? Yes, lies!” Boris Johnson would be wary of making defamatory remarks although the reporter would consider this ‘fair comment’ having simply quoted him. “The law is particularly tough on ‘false information’ at election times because a successful defamation action after the election is no compensation if, as a result of untrue allegations, a candidate lost the election” (Rudin and Ibbotson 2002:304). Broadcast journalists are obliged to be ‘fair, impartial and objective’ and The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2002) requires broadcasters and their regulators, to produce codes of practice covering all aspects of election coverage (Rudin and Ibbotson 2002:305).

Andrew Marr (2004: 143), a political journalist of some standing, writes that ‘loaded descriptions and aggressive campaign-style prose infects news stories,’ with commentators writing alongside news reports, rather than serious political reporting. “The line is still just about visible, but it is trampled, dusty and has disappeared in places” (Marr 2004:144); I would argue that his description can equally be used for the use of truth in reporting. Tony Blair’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell argued in 2001 that “there’s frankly not that much massive news around most days” (Marr, 2004:143) which is why the commentators were taking over, because “London was one of the world’s most competitive media marketplaces” (Marr, 2004:143). Therefore, if news stories are no more than opinions (by the commentators) people are clearly being robbed of hard facts; their politician’s policies, and the state the country, or the government, are actually in. No one can be considered lying – these are simply opinions and unverified allegations, but it stands to reason that untruths could be written and got away with. Richard Littlejohn, writing in The Daily Mail (18/04/08) asks: “When are we going to stop dignifying deliberate distortions of the truth with the cosy-sounding word ‘spin’?”

Sociologists’ earliest model of the effects of the mass media on audiences, the ‘hypodermic syringe’ model, is so called because it assumes that the media’s power can inject its message into the audience with a similar force, thus effectively controlling their behaviour, sometimes with grotesque misrepresentation. The Nazis’ use of cinema and radio in the 1930’s, orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister, “was widely thought to be responsible for Hitler’s hold over the German people” (Bernard, Burgess and Kirby: 2004, 284) and American’s were panicked by Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds radio broadcast during the same decade, when they believed that Martians had landed on earth. The assumption, therefore, is that people’s minds are like blank sheets of paper that the media can write on. This is clearly too simplistic. People will not interpret the same message in the same way. However, if the dominant media account is full of untruths, but there is no access to other sources of information, the power of the media can be absolute and this is when ‘lying’ in the media can be catastrophic.

According to our roles in life we are all relatively more, or less, powerful than the next person. When Rupert Murdoch joined the ranks of ‘press barons’ some feared that the global trend towards increasing ownership and control of the mass media, by a few very large organisations, made the concept of a ‘free press’ in a democratic society, problematic. Ken Livingstone, who is known for his little white lies (‘this whisky is medicinal!’) wrote in his book ‘Livingstone’s Labour’ (1989:86) that “Murdoch is by far and away the most degrading influence on life in Britain, the simple fact is anyone who is rich enough to own a paper will be tempted to use it as a vehicle for personal politics and beliefs” before going on to say that “when dealing with these people, the assurances they give about editorial independence are not worth the paper they are written on.” Why? Does Livingstone have anything to fear from the press?

George Orwell described a Britain, in his book ‘1984’, where ‘Big Brother’ maintained power by continuously falsifying the news, whilst reducing the number of words in daily use so that ordinary citizens couldn’t articulate their anger at Big Brother’s oppression. “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (Orwell: Why I Write: 2004). It has been argued that the British people were lied to by their government about weapons of mass destruction and the need for a war with Iraq. Miller, Stauber and Rampton, (2004: 44) state that the “techniques being used to sell a war in Iraq are familiar PR strategies: “The delivery of the message is tightly controlled” with ‘messengers’ including apparently independent third parties, keeping relevant information flowing to the media and public. The Bush administration, they claim, “has not hesitated to use outright disinformation to bolster the case for war.” Tom Baldwin, writing in The Times (14/08/03) whist interviewing John Prescott, at that time Deputy Prime Minister, “there is nothing wrong with spin ‘as long as we’re spinning the truth; bringing perception and reality together – getting the message across. If you spin a lie you’re in trouble.’” However, in June 2003 Alistair Campbell was demanding an apology from the BBC for the ‘lie’ that he ‘sexed-up’ a government dossier regarding the weapons of mass destruction, believed to be in Iraq. He maintained that the BBC had an ‘agenda’ over the war adding: “When you have got this bad journalism amid the good…there was a disproportionate focus upon the dissent, the opposition” whilst admitting that the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ was his responsibility, although a less serious piece of work, whilst he admitted that he’d made a mistake not to name the PhD student as the source of it. Freedom of information seems to be something political parties are selectively enthusiastic about but perhaps the sacked BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, who told the world about the ‘sexed-up’ dossier on Iraq, can feel that truth has triumphed having recently been made  ‘Journalist of the Year’ for exposing, in The Evening Standard, corruption issues surrounding Ken Livingstone. In a similar vein, Hilary Clinton ‘misspoke’ rather than lied when she told a gathering that she had landed in war-torn Bosnia in 1996 (The Telegraph 28/03/08). Clearly her selective memory, with regards to the sniper fire, was to make her a credible candidate for the Presidency but rather than glamorising her, the fib damaged her credibility.

Details about a war can also be censored by omission; lying is not the only option for telling untruths in the media. Would readers, or an audience, like to hear that allied soldiers have killed children? Investigative journalist John Pilger, in ‘The Lies of Old’ suggests that little has changed since the First World War when The Times correspondent, Sir Philip Gibbs, wrote “we are our own censors… some of us wrote the truth…apart from the naked realism of horrors and losses, and criticism of the facts which did not come within the liberty of our pen” (Miller, 2004:19). Does this make the omission of facts a lie – and telling a lie is wrong isn’t it – or an acceptable alternative to the truth?

The media allegedly swayed decision-makers during the Vietnam War. General Westmoreland blamed the media for the problems of Vietnam, although President Johnson appeared to blame Americans themselves. As Mark Woodruff put it: “Johnson blamed the public because he falsely believed their support had diminished, whilst Westmoreland simply blamed the media for falsely claiming it” (Woodruff, 1999:227). In other words, support for the troops in Vietnam may not have disappeared, but it was the Media’s impression that it had collapsed and thus the advisors became overwhelmingly negative, crediting the public with believing the reports. Who, if anyone was lying amongst these pious people?

Indeed lies can be felt to be inevitable. Jeffrey Archer spectacularly fell from grace and in 2001 was sentenced to four years in prison for perjury (serving two). During his incarceration he wrote three diaries and in praising one volume of ‘A Prison Diary’ Anthony Howard of The Sunday Times wrote, “There is no member of the current Tory opposition front bench to whom I would not recommend this book…” however, as Archer has gained a reputation for being an imaginative ‘story teller’ as opposed to someone who speaks the truth, even if this tome accurately records the inmate’s misery, would anyone of any import bother to listen? You see, Archer finds the truth rather boring. He has bent the truth regarding his education (gaining a diploma in education as opposed to being an Oxford University research graduate as he’d said) and although he’s entertaining, does it make his ‘white lies’ any less wrong? Thereby lays the rub. For a writer to get his message across he’ll try journalese, clichés, humour and stretches of the truth to make himself ‘heard’ over the hubbub of everyday life, so the temptation to tweak the truth may become something he learns to self-justify, because selling is at the heart of mass media.

Richard Holmes has written that biographies are: “Fiction married fact, without the benefit of the clergy” (Batchelor, 1995:15) which refers to the fact that there is an inherent risk of lack of authenticity. “Memory itself is fallible; memoirs are inevitably biased; letters are always slanted towards their recipients; even private diaries… need to be recognised as literary forms of self-invention, rather than an ‘ultimate’ truth of private fact” (Batchelor, 1995: 17). Therefore, the biographer orchestrates a “factual pattern out of materials that already have fictional or reinvented element.” Hence truth, Holmes suggests, is somewhat of a ‘floating currency’. So do any writers take ethics seriously, and does it matter? Hargreaves suggests that “to the insider on a mass-market tabloid, ethics are largely an irrelevance” (Hargreaves, 2005: 11). The days of ‘super-hero’ fictional newspaper journalist Clark Kent (AKA Superman) putting the world to rights may be over but journalists do have a code of practice that the British Press Complaints Commission bases its adjudication of complaints on and it’s called the ‘Editor’s Code of Practice.’ There must be freedom of press but Simon Jenkins, journalist and commentator, suggests that the Press Complaints Commission “emerges sometimes, but only to defend the privacy of Britain’s royal families, the Windsor’s and the Blair’s” (Hargreaves 2005: 115). Its influence hasn’t stopped the publication of inaccurate stories and “more or less frequently violating almost every other item in the code” (Hargreaves 2005:115). It is because these rules are negotiable and can be broken for the reason of loosely defined ‘public interest’.

There is a weakness in the system as it stands and a groundswell from America, where Bill Kovach and Tom Rosential are leading figures in a movement demanding certain characteristics be followed in journalism and the new media especially, in order for the industry to be trusted and “fulfil their democratic mission” (Hargreaves 2005: 118). The first item listed is that a journalists ‘first obligation is to the truth,’ which is virtually the same as saying that it is unacceptable to tell lies. Untruths may sell the paper, however they are a cowardly way to make a living. Peter Esterhazy’s opening sentence in ‘Celestial Harmonies’ reads: ‘It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth’ (Esterhazy, 2004:5). Hence a journalist’s first duty is to find the truth and, having found it, keep it as accurate as possible whilst keeping good notes and records for possible future litigation; in Marcel Proust’s words: “For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with pretexts for evading it” (Proust 1871-1922: A la recherché du temps perdu).

Journalist Tom Utley (The Daily Mail, 11/04/08) suggests that everything we watch, read, or hear is media based and thinks that there is nothing wrong with this, if everybody acknowledges “the philosophical impossibility of neutrality” when we look at the facts presented to us. He cites examples such as the BBC, Google and Wikipedia who all express ideas to their audience in particular ways and, by presenting them in the format they do, are actually putting a less than neutral point of view; with an almost anything goes mentality existing on the internet. The point Utley makes is a good one. Wikipedia, for example, cannot be trusted as an honest reference site because copious ‘editors’ worldwide can add their versions of the truth or, with axes to grind, add downright lies. The Wikipedia site states, with regards to itself, that it insists on a ‘neutral point of view’, but as Utley rightly points out, “Isn’t one man’s neutral point of view another’s outrageous zealotry?”

Accuracy is at the moral heart of journalism and without truthfulness ‘journalism cannot inspire trust and without trust, there is no worthwhile journalism’ (Hargreaves 2005:121). There is a desire to stand out, to assert yourself, as opposed to simply verifying the facts but the challenge is having a moral compass that guides the individual, regardless of the society he finds himself to be working in, because it isn’t right to lie. There has been erosion of trust, but not just in journalism. Politics, businesses and public relations people have contributed to the public’s cynicism. Perhaps it’s worth recalling the last line in Voltaire’s satire ‘Candide’ “We must cultivate our garden” (Pearson, 1990:25).

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