Tolerating lies in an age of misinformation

Public culture has moved at a rapid pace since the 1990s and the lies of Bill Clinton

US President Bill Clinton (L) gives a thumbs up to First Lady Hillary Clinton after being sworn in 20 January on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC for his second term as president.  Chelsea Clinton (2nd-R), Tipper Gore (2nd L) and her children (rear) clap. Today marks the 53rd inauguration of a US president.  AFP PHOTO Jon LEVY (Photo by JON LEVY / AFP)
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I have been fascinated by how liars get away with lying ever since I spent a year of my life on one lie. The lie was: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” The famous liar was a former US president, Bill Clinton, and it almost cost him his job.

Mr Clinton was impeached and narrowly acquitted in a highly partisan trial in the US Senate. The facts were clear but the stories told by each side were very different. Republicans said that the president’s lying amounted to “high crimes and misdemeanours” and he should be removed from office.

Democrats argued that his relationship with a junior aide, Ms Lewinsky, was appalling but lying about it was not a constitutional threat to American democracy. Many people lied about sex or hid secret relationships, and that category included two of Clinton’s chief Republican accusers, Congressman Henry Hyde and the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The American public eventually forgave Mr Clinton. He ended his presidency in January 2001 with higher favourability ratings than when it began in 1993.

(FILES): This 04 June 1998 file photo shows then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) conferring with US President Bill Clinton (L) during introductions at the National Summit on Retirement Savings at the Hyatt Hotel in Washington, DC. Gingrich, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2008, confessed to cheating on his wife at about the same time US President Bill Clinton was being impeached over his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich admitted to the extra-marital affair during an interview aired 09 March 2007 with conservative Christian leader James Dobson.  AFP PHOTO/FILES/Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP)

But the story was fascinating to me partly because I met Mr Clinton on a number of occasions and the way he told stories about himself inspired me to write a book, Lessons From The Top, about how leaders used stories to make people like them. These leaders included many I had met as a BBC correspondent — Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, the King of Jordan, Angela Merkel and entertainers including Angelina Jolie and Dolly Parton.

All had a story to tell. But false stories and liars have always been with us, too, and sometimes lying may be justified to forgivable.

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Unfortunately, the blizzard of lies can lead to a rather sad assumption about politicians that 'they’re all the same'

During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807, British admiral Sir Hyde Parker signaled to Horatio Nelson, the great naval hero, that he should withdraw his ships from the fight.

Nelson famously turned to his flag-captain and said: “Foley, you know that I have lost an eye, and have a right to be blind sometimes”. He then raised his telescope to his blind eye and said: “I really do not see the signal.” Nelson went on to win the battle after his forgivable falsehood.

Winston Churchill thought war required duplicity because truth is so precious “she must always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Yet now in the Information Age, we have discovered that even if lying was always part of the human condition, perhaps a more apt name would be the Disinformation Age in which lying has become normalised.

George Santos leaves the US  Capitol on January 12, 2023 in Washington. Getty Images / AFP

How else can anyone explain the survival (for now at least) of New York Republican Congressman George Santos? His stellar career involved graduating from Baruch College, playing high level volleyball, working for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, and having grandparents who were Holocaust survivors. Unfortunately none of these career-enhancing facts appears to be true, yet Mr Santos is refusing to resign and so far no one can make him. The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee James Comer put it this way: “He’s a bad guy … it’s really bad … but look, George Santos was duly elected by the people. He’s going to be examined thoroughly. It’s his decision whether or not he should resign.”

It’s a funny old world when lying on an industrial scale is “really bad” but the person in charge of “oversight” in Congress thinks it is up to the liar to decide what punishment the liar should receive. Perhaps we should not be surprised. Donald Trump, according to the Washington Post, told 30,000 lies during his presidency, but 74 million Americans still voted for him in the November 2020 election. Despite the 81 million votes for Joe Biden, Mr Trump’s biggest lie was that he had actually won the election. In Britain, Boris Johnson is as infamous as Mr Trump for his deceptions. Books have been written cataloguing his lies and misstatements going back decades. After two of his ethics advisers resigned, Mr Johnson repeatedly failed to take unethical behaviour seriously, and yet even now there remains a vociferous section of right-wing Conservative MPs who want him back as prime minister.

Clearly the toleration of falsehood has moved at a rapid pace since those good old days of Mr Clinton in the 1990s when a president could be tried in the US Senate for just one lie. But why has our public culture changed so fast? In the Disinformation Age we are deluged with so much information that it is difficult — impossible — to check every fact, claim and statement.

Besides, constant fact-checking can be tedious. Most people have better things to do, like earning a living or looking after their children. Unfortunately, the blizzard of lies can lead to a rather sad assumption about politicians that “they’re all the same”, lying every time their lips are moving. That simply is not true. Most politicians that I have met prefer to respect the truth. We should remember that and punish those who do lie about important matters a lot more severely. And being sure not to vote for serial liars would be the best sanction of all.

Published: January 18, 2023, 7:00 AM