I’ve got two new kids. Apparently.
“Do you have another two kids you haven’t told me about?” laughed my wife.
She explained, “It says on Wikipedia we have four children.”
A more interesting question might be why she was looking me up on Wikipedia while I was sitting next to her in the living room.
The article was neutral – it doesn’t harm my reputation whether we have two kids or four. In addition to giving me an extra two kids, Wikipedia also got my year and place of birth wrong, my number of siblings, and a number of career details. In its defence, it is a volunteer run project.
Truth is the first casualty of war, it’s said, and that’s what elections are.
Last week, the Chronicle ran a headline claiming the North of Tyne staff budget had a £78,000 overspend. It hasn’t, it’s £113,000 under, but a rebuttal only appears in a quote six paragraphs down, and judging by the comments and social media responses, very few people read that far into an article. A headline can travel half way around the world while the body text is putting on its shoes.
There’s a cheap shot from a political opponent claiming we’ve achieved nothing, despite the evidence that we’ve set up programmes creating 1,152 jobs.
It says Andy Burnham is the highest paid Metro Mayor on £110,000. He’s not, it’s Sadiq Khan on £152,734. (Not the £143,911 Wikipedia says.) That’s not biased, but it is untrue.
Perhaps truth is not the objective: should our media be there to foster debate instead? Give politicians equal space to say whatever they like, where truth is optional, and let the people judge? It’s a valid question. But is that not what opinion columns are for?
Evidence based debate over public policy is a rare beast. Even articles based on academic reports rarely include the links to the underlying evidence. Think about the Brexit reporting over the past three years. It’s all “Brexit is an opportunity!” or “Brexit will crash the economy!” Likewise NHS cuts, tax rates or police numbers.
Mind you, the fact that Chancellor Sajid Javid refused to commission an economic impact analysis on his government’s Hard Brexit plan could be to blame. A government that is afraid to let its people judge the evidence in public debate is a government that is afraid of its people.
But where was the outcry? Why weren’t business newspapers and broadsheets alike clamouring for the evidence? Is the economic impact assessment of Brexit not vital for national decision making?
Where else shall we find our facts? Social media? 250 Facebook employees have signed a letter this week, outraged at the company’s policy to exempt paid political ads from fact checking. Given how easy it to spin a story, the very least we can expect is that direct lies are banned. But no, cash is king. In the scramble for clicks, advertising revenue depends upon impact.
I can understand why a politician or celebrity might lie about their drug use, or bizarre initiation rites involving pigs heads and private parts. Maybe these are personal matters that justify privacy. Most people would rather deny a hard truth than face it.
But our current Prime Minister has serious form.
For me, one incident sums up Mr Johnson. In May this year he tweeted “I’ve just voted Conservative in the local elections.” Someone quickly pointed out there were no local elections where he lived, and he deleted the tweet. Busted. But why lie over something so trivial? Unless you don’t value the truth as something precious in its own right.
Democracy is hard work. It requires citizens willing to sift the true from the false, the profound from the trivial, the substance from the headline. I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.
This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday November the 4th 2019