POLITICIANS seldom tell the truth. But now, this contempt for facts has hit new heights.
Consider: after Donald ‘Truth’ was awarded the prestigious Lie of the Year by PolitiFact, the website’s fact-checkers came up with a devastating analysis of the Republican presidential candidate’s statements in 2015.
They found that only 4pc of his claims and charges were actually true; 11pc were mostly true; 15pc were half true; an equal number were mostly false; 36pc were false; and 19pc fell in the ultimate ‘pants on fire’ category.
And yet Trump constantly refers to his Democrat rival as ‘Crooked Hillary’. Of course she, too, has been known to stretch the truth on occasion, but compared to Trump, she comes out as positively saintly.
When challenged on his falsehoods, Trump either denies having made them, or says he was only joking. In other cases, his staff explains that he was quoted out of context — the common defence used by most politicians.
Despite this catalogue of lies, half-lies and outrageous hyperbole, Trump continues to do well in the opinion polls. And while his supporters know their candidate’s claims are often far removed from reality, they agree with the sentiments he is expressing.
For instance, they are probably aware that he will not be able to build his famous wall along the Mexican border and make the Mexicans pay for it. But so strong are anti-immigration feelings that many Americans are glad a politician is expressing them in so forthright a manner.
Despite a list of lies, Trump is doing well in the opinion polls.
And when people like Boris Johnson claimed during the Brexit debate that the £19 billion saved by quitting the European Union would go to the under-funded National Health Service, people believed him. Of course as soon as the referendum was won, Brexiters quickly rowed back from the claim. Although Remain supporters accused Johnson & Co of lying to the public, nobody really cared: so used have we become to politicians lying that we take it in our stride.
In Pakistan, politicians promise voters the moon, only to go back to their indolence and corruption as soon as they are in power. The anti-Bhutto PNA promised during their 1977 agitation that they would bring prices back to the 1971 level. Nawaz Sharif vowed to end load-shedding within two years of coming to power in 2013. Young Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari pledges to ‘liberate’ India-held Kashmir. And Imran Khan famously vowed to eliminate corruption in 90 days.
Although we all know none of this will really happen, we continue to cheer at rallies organised by these stalwarts. And most of the media fail in their task of analysing these claims and promises, and tearing them to shreds. Even when serious journalists — and there are still some left — do expose the pledges as rubbish, politicians and their supporters retaliate by charging their detractors of ‘lifafah journalism’.
Donald Trump is especially adept at painting all his media critics as being part of a liberal conspiracy that seeks to undermine his support of the working class. For their part, radio and TV channels, led by Fox News, continue to provide coverage to his campaign because Trump makes outrageous statements that boost their ratings. The truth, by contrast to wild exaggerations, is boring.
So here we have it: when politics becomes entertainment, then the more lurid the story, the more people want to watch and listen. This is why feature films are far more popular than documentaries: escapism is much more fun than dreary reality.
And it’s not just politicians and the media who now live in a truth-free zone: ask somebody why he or she believes a certain conspiracy theory or an outlandish lie, the answer could be: I watched it on a TV chat show; or, I read it in a magazine; or, finally, that ultimate clincher — I saw it on the internet.
Many had thought that with so many TV channels and internet websites available, the public would be able to sift fact from fiction more effectively. Gone were the days of state monopoly over the news. But along with the mushroom growth of sources dedicated to the news has been the exponential rise of blogs given to particular — and often peculiar — agendas. Thus, if you Google ‘9/11 conspiracy theories’, you will be confronted with over a million websites.
With so many people who refuse to use their critical faculties to separate the truth from all the rubbish out there, it is hardly surprising that people like Trump say whatever pops into their mind at any given moment. They know their supporters will either believe them, or overlook any spur-of-the-moment lie. And as they are only addressing those who back them, they don’t really care what their opponents think.
Sober publications like the New York Times, the Guardian or this newspaper may try to bring the discourse back to some semblance of reality, but increasingly, people are more interested in things they already believe, regardless of the truth.