In this article I present a radical case: that politicians almost never lie in public. That is not to say they do not mislead, instead I make the argument, that whilst it can be argued it is a necessary part of the scrutiny of those in power, that the perception politicians lie, is part of the “fake news” agenda of the press.
I further suggest, that the media use the weakness of politicians to create this false perception of “liars” and that the press can only do so because the media will gang together to (try to) destroy any politician who seeks justice from the media through the courts.
Today I started writing an article about the nature of historical truth. And in that article I wanted to go through some of the ways people lie … so I naturally turned to what I assumed to be a group well known to lie: politicians and expected no end of lengthy papers examining the way they lie. In other words, something similar to “how politicians lie with statistics”, but focussing on written texts.
After several hours of searching, all I could find was patently obvious attacks on Trump from the majority of academics with an obvious political motive.
However, I’ve learnt something from all my time studying academia, and it is this: when there is an absence of papers on a very obvious subject dear to the politicised academics … such as a study of political lies … it will not be because no one did the research … it will be because they did the research and found that it either did not suit their politics (more democrats lied) or it will be because they failed to find actual evidence to back up the hypothesis that politicians lie.
So given the recent plethora of reports that Trump “lies all the time”, I have to conclude that academics were unable to find enough evidence of politicians lying to write a paper.
Or to turn that around:
academics must have found that politicians are actually very honest.
As you can guess, this was a bit of a surprise to me as a conclusion. If asked, I would have said most politicians lie most of the time. Indeed we are in the middle of an election in the UK, and I picked up a leaflet and went through it and I’d have disagreed with almost every statement. Except that doesn’t mean the statements are lies … instead it means I strongly disagree.
And this is the problem. Whilst I think the leaflets are dishonest, they don’t technically constitute lies (except in the broad brush sense of being “economical with the truth”).
Fact Checking the Fact Checkers.
So, I started having a look at the supposed “fact checkers”. Here is a typical example:
Trump’s Week of Errors, Exaggerations and Flat-out Falsehoods
POLITICO Magazine subjected the GOP front-runner to our fact-checking process.
Many were straight-up wrong, such as his claim that the United States has a “$500 billion a year trade deficit with China,”
But when I check further I find another report of a slightly different statement:
Still, Trump said that “We’re losing now over $500 billion a year in terms of imbalance with China.” (link)
“I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year [to Mexico], you want to know the truth. We’re losing so much. We’re losing so much with Mexico and China — with China, we’re losing $500 billion a year.” (link)
When I check, the trade with China is around $500 and there is a deficit of around $380billion. Rounded to the nearest whole digit that is $400 billion, which is roughly half a trillion or $500million.
It could also be that he mistook the trade figure for the deficit. However, the total cost of any imbalance is not just the direct trade but secondary employment as those who earn income then spend it. As such the cost of the $380 trade deficit could be well of $800billion to the US.
So is it a lie? I think that depends on the simple question: does the actual figure in any way change the argument being made? If he had suggested the trade deficit with China was greater than someone else and intentionally used an incorrect figure to obtain this result, he would clearly have lied. But as far as I can see the actual figure was unimportant instead it was the scale that was relevant. As such simply using an approximate figure does not in any way change the thrust of the argument and so this is not a lie.
And the other “lies” Trump supposedly made?
- “Trump twists the truth about his [Marco Rubio] immigration position to warn voters that the senator is ‘totally in favor of amnesty.'”
LIE NOT SUBSTANTIATED (no evidence provided to contradict that )
- Trump misstates the timing of things – an omnibus spending bill, for example, was called “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen six weeks ago” when in fact it was a spending package passed in December.
LIE NOT SUBSTANTIATED (No evidence Trump didn’t first see it at the time stated)
- He exaggerates polls and rankings of other things – such as his position among Hispanics and how he performs in Wall Street Journal polls.
LIE NOT SUBSTANTIATED (no evidence provided – which it would if it were substantial)
- “thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.” The so called “fact checkers” said: “we found no evidence to back up Trump’s description of events on American soil.” … in contrast Breitbart (after initially finding “nothing that validates “thousands and thousands”, later added: “UPDATE: A just uncovered CBS News report about “swarms of suspects” cheering 9/11 from rooftops has validated Trump’s “thousands” claim.”
LIE NOT SUBSTANTIATED (If the news reported of “swarms” is it a lie to remember this as “thousands and thousands”)
- “The Mexican government … they send the bad ones over.”
This is clearly a shortened form of “the Mexican government (by their inaction and lack of willingness to co-operate with the US to tackle the problem) send those who have a propensity to break the law (all illegal immigrants break the law … it’s in the definition). To put it simply: if you’re law abiding … you will respect the border, so by definition, those who cross are the “bad ones”.
BOGUS CLAPTRAP BY POLITICALLY MOTIVATED “FACT CHECKER”
- Whites killed by whites — 16%. Whites killed by blacks — 81%,”
said an image he shared on Twitter. When Bill O’Reilly of Fox News challenged Trump’s tweet of inaccurate murder rates, Trump suggested being accurate wasn’t so important: “Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic? I get millions and millions of people … @RealDonaldTrump, by the way.”
Trump retweets false stats but LIE NOT SUBSTANTIATED (As trump said: “am I gonna check every statistic?” … no! Have I been able to check every possible way they might be true … no! Could the stats refer only to strangers killing stranger – the media are so biased I’d have to spend a lot of time checking as they’re not. Did Trump intentionally lie, no. Did he spread false information,probably yes) (Good write up here)
In comparison to the supposed “fact checkers”
The evidence that Trump has intentional misled anyone is flimsy in the extreme. I don’t particularly like his form of boastful character, but if a work colleague behaved that way, most people would not consider it a lie. Yes Trump has mistakenly used retweeted someone else’s tweet that contained false stats … but who but the dullest hasn’t made that mistake? And if we do … most reasonable people would not consider it a “lie” on our part unless we knew the stats were false (Trump admitted it was wrong when he found out).
Obviously there are many more allegations against Trump, but the simple fact is that the sample I have investigated do not stack up to anything worse than an accusation of “not the most careful checker of the stats he uses”. In normal life, even the most careful do it. So why is it deemed by some to be such a crime for Trump? There are clearly and unequivocally some very dubious double standards operating here.
Let us compare Trump’s behaviour with other politicians.
Hilary Clinton re emails (largely using this site)
- There is very good evidence that Hilary Clinton’s people illegally and intentionally deleted emails. (it seems highly improbable that she either knew about or ordered this action … however I cannot exclude the possibility she was a complete clueless idiot … LET THE JURY DECIDE
- Clinton has repeatedly said she has turned over all of her work-related emails on her private server, but the FBI report stated they found 17,448 emails she failed to turn over to the Inspector General.
(She might claim these emails were not “work related” … but given she was using the email server for work, they are by definition work related by their location on a server used for US government work … which is why you don’t mix the two!!)
LET THE JURY DECIDE
- Several weeks after the initial New York Times story broke in March 2015, revealing the existence of Clinton’s private email server, a bunch of these emails were deleted.
Clinton told the FBI that she didn’t pay attention to the different levels of classification, and that she didn’t understand that an email containing a “(C)” meant “confidential,” but that she thought they were marked “alphabetical order.” She may claim ignorance in which case she did not lie — but that does not mean she did not break the law.
LIE NOT SUBSTANTIATED
- In 2011, State Department employees reportedly received a memo sent on Clinton’s behalf warning them against using personal email accounts for official business, as it could put sensitive information at risk. She told the FBI she didn’t remember sending that memo.
NOT PROOF OF LYING … IT COULD BE JUST INCOMPETENCE
- Throughout her time in the State Department, Hillary Clinton went through 13 different Blackberry devices — none of which she found or turned over to the FBI.
LET THE JURY DECIDE
Hilary Clinton Other
- “We ran out because they said there might be sniper fire” (and similar comments)
LIE. Unlike Trump, Clinton is reporting this first hand of what happened. She claims there was no greeting, and they were told to “run to their cars”. Film footage shows her account was a bare faced lie.
Tony Blair (re: WMD)
It is quite clear he intentionally made false statements about Iraq WMD. It is clear the motivation for falsely stating the capability of Iraq was in order to push through a vote to go to war. He may feel he lied for a just cause … but it was clearly a lie.
George W. Bush
“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” There was clearly doubt as after the war Iraq’s WMD were never found.
Similarly Thatcher made statements to the effect that the Belgrano was “not sailing away from the Falklands” but was a “in an area where it was a danger to our ships”. The truth was that it was heading away from the Falklands at the time and outside the UK imposed “exclusion zone”. There is the possibility she herself was misinformed or unaware of the direction when confronted on live TV, but her statements at that time were a lie. Given the importance of the events, as PM she ought to have known.
According to Wikipedia: “Ted Francis claimed that Archer had asked him to provide a false alibi for the night Archer was alleged to have been with Monica Coghlan. Angela Peppiatt, Archer’s former personal assistant, also claimed Archer had fabricated an alibi in the 1987 trial. Peppiatt had kept a diary of Archer’s movements, which contradicted evidence given during the 1987 trial. Andrina Colquhoun, Archer’s former mistress, confirmed that they had been having an affair in the 1980s, thus contradicting the claim that he and Mary Archer had been “happily married” at the time of the trial.” (But see conclusion)
Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist party was convicted at the High Court in Glasgow in 2010 of lying during his successful defamation case against the News of the World in 2006. However, I have severe doubts about this case (See conclusion). In December 2007, Sunday Herald columnist Iain MacWhirter said it was “hard not to conclude that the police’s diligence has been inspired by Rupert Murdoch’s News International”.
The scandal of MPs claiming falsely claiming expenses means they lied on their expense forms. There were 8 prosecutions. Given this was a self-policing operation by parliament on parliamentarians, it is likely the severity was greater than we heard. However, there is a worrying relationship between the News of the World hacking scandal and these events. As such it is possible the press were in some way “seeking vengeance”.
Cash for Questions
5 MPs were investigated for taking cash in various forms against the rules. Several were let off, but the level of evidence and wrongdoing appears to me to be greater than the MPs expenses scandal. As such it seems highly likely that if anything similar happened today, there would be more of a scandal and MPs would go to Jail.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”
When caught selling missiles to Iran and illegally funding rebels in Nicaragua Reagan’s response was to deny it: “We did not, I repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else [to Iran] for hostages, nor will we.” A few months later he admitted, “A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower:
Denied that U2 spy planes were flying over the Soviet Union.
The truth: U2 planes were spying on the Soviet Union. One was shot down, provoking an international incident.
Fairly rapidly I’ve identified around about 20 politicians where there is either unequivocal evidence or a very strong suggestion that they have lied – that is to say intentional made false statements.
I have yet to see any evidence that would even suggest Trump should be included with the above politicians. So why do some in the press behave as if he’s the devil incarnate … that he’s a proven liar when the evidence clearly does not support them?
To help understand this behaviour of the press, lets just look at this twenty in perspective. It may sound a lot, but there are many more than 1000 politicians in just the UK. There are around 56 offences per thousand people in the UK yearly. I have given examples from both the UK and US. Therefore if politicians behaved like ordinary people there ought to be around 56 offences each year. Instead, for this group who supposedly lie all the time, I will clearly struggle to find that many cases of clear lying in the last several decades.
When analysed dispassionately, the evidence seems to suggest that politicians are amongst the most law abiding members of society and that despite the huge number of people trying to catch them out with a lie, they almost never get caught telling them. Why then do we have this perception that politicians are liars?
Why Politicians don’t lie
There is a very simple reason politicians can’t afford to lie … and it is this … the newspapers (and to a lesser extent other politicians) are constantly trying to make them out to be liars and so, even a hint of evidence that they are lying will be taken up by unscrupulous journalists and presented as “proof” the politicians are lying.
That is not the same as saying politicians do not stretch the truth or that they are “economical” with it when it does not support their case. But, unlike ordinary people who may feel they can get away with “pushing the boundaries” of their argument, or making careless ill-considered statements, politicians being in a glass bowl, have to tread with extreme caution.
In a video entitled “Lying Politicians And Words” George Carlin complains that Politicians can never be pinned down:
They speak of course we great caution, because they must take care not to say anything, proof of this is that according to their own words, they don’t actually say anything, they indicate them … but sometimes they don’t indicate but they suggest … they don’t decide, they determine, if it’s a really serious matter they make a judgement … they don’t tell, they advise
Of course, the actual complaint Carlin is making is that politicians due to the constant attacks from people like him in the media – who are constantly trying to make them out to be liars – the politicians learn how to use language which cannot be pinned down and they speak in a way where they cannot (falsely) be made out to be liars.
So I believe the actual complaint against Trump … isn’t that he lies, but that he is using normal phrases and expressions common in society which aren’t these nuanced meaningless terms that the press has forced on all other politicians.
Trump, coming from outside the “swamp”, doesn’t understand the rules that before the internet the media wouldn’t let politicians ever say anything substantial that the press disagree. You didn’t get on in politics by not speaking with “great caution“, and Trump’s real crime, is that he speaks like normal people in society who wouldn’t tolerate a load of useless journalists trying to make a story up by falsely representing what we say.
And so, I do wonder, to what extent some of my perceptions of the above “lies” that I have outlined, may be largely fabrications by the media. Maybe even those politicians I have selected – are seen as liars, not because they crossed some threshold of truth, but because the press created a false narrative about them?
I therefore conclude, that as a group politicians are almost certainly the least likely group in our society to lie (note that does not mean they do not mislead … only that they almost never say anything that can be proven to be a lie).
I further conclude, that the reputation politicians have for being liars is largely a false construct of the media which is also reflected in public discussion. And that this perception results not from a greater propensity to lie by the politicians, but: firstly by a greater scrutiny by the press (and people) because politicians deal with issues that are so important to so many people, and secondly because the press and media have abused the fact that politicians seldom feel they can win against the media by going to court – particularly as the media will then gang up against any such politician.
Please note: that two of the above “proven” cases relate to politicians who did just that and took parts of the media to court. As such, based on the observed behaviour of the press which I think has a real vindictive streak against any politician who dares oppose them, I think there is a very high risk that in either one or even both those cases of Sheridan and Archer that there has been a miscarriage of justice.