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How Broadcasters should handle the Prime Minister lying

This post is about the Brexit Dividend and how broadcasters should treat it. However I want to start with an extreme case: Donald Trump. He is the right place to start because he became POTUS in good part because of how the media treated him and his opponent. He gained publicity by saying outrageous things. That increased his poll rating, so he started getting favourable coverage because his poll ratings were going up. (I explain how this works in more detail here.) Once he was the republican candidate, the media’s obsession with balance meant they spentas much time talking about the trivial issue of Clinton’s emails as Trump’s lies, whether he pays any taxes, bribes officials and assaults women.

One of the most remarkable polls during that campaign was that more people trusted Trump than Hillary Clinton. How can someone who lies all the time, almost every time he says anything, be trusted more than Hillary Clinton, who has had countless Republican inspired investigations into her affairs and has never been convicted of anything. For some time cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff has pioneered the idea that (among many other things - see for example a Guardian articlewith Gil Duran) lies that are repeated often enough become associations in people’s minds that they find it hard to combat. So the phrase ‘crooked Hillary’ that Trump repeats all the time has a purpose beyond firing up the base. Equally when Republican’s start investigations into her affairs that alone puts an association of guilt in people’s minds. That is a key reason why before the election they trusted Trump more than Clinton.

In the United States Trump played the media big time, and continues to do so. If the media is not careful the same thing could happen here. The phrase ‘Brexit dividend’ is the equivalent of ‘crooked Hillary’. If it is repeated enough, a sufficient number of people will begin to associate Brexit with a ‘dividend’, whether that dividend is real or not. And in case someone reading this does not know by now, the Brexit dividend is a complete fiction.

To see how May’s claim that there is a Brexit dividend should be handled, read thisin the FT and thisfrom Sky News. (HT Femi) The FT article does not have ‘Brexit dividend’ in its title, and this is important. As Lakoff argues, the more often people see those two words together the more likely they are to associate them, so do not put it in a headline as many people just read headlines. (Putting it in inverted commas does nothing.) He suggests what he calls the ‘truth sandwich’ approach: begin with a truthful statement, then report the dishonest spin, and then fact check the spin. Leaving out that first stage plays into the hands of whoever promoted the spin.

Who are the heroes and villains in this example of barefaced lying (see my definition of barefaced below). For villains we have to start with Theresa May herself: if this is a sop to the Brexiters in exchange for a soft Brexit that is no mitigation. Boris Johnson of course for suggesting the idea: the court might like to take a large number of previous offences into account. The right wing Brexit pressfor whom lying is just part of their game.

Heroes include Paul Johnson, who toured the broadcasters on Sunday to emphatically say there was no dividend, and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston for sayingit was complete nonsense, as well as the two references already given in the FT and from Sky News. I hope there were other examples that I did not happen to notice.

What about the BBC? It did have Paul Johnson on, and Laura Kuenssberg did at least askthe existential question, although she felt unable to answer it. (There are not ‘economic’ and ‘political’ truths: arithmetic is arithmetic, lies are lies.) But there are unfortunately other occasions when the Brexit dividend was treated as if it was real and put into headlines (e.g. here), missing out the first layer of the truth sandwich. And of course the Marr interview on Sunday, where he did not even question the concept. All too often (e.g. here) any questioning of the dividend was left to the end of the article and was presented in the standard ‘he said,she said’ format.

Why does this all matter? In terms of Brexit, it is obvious. Another barefaced lie in the Brexit campaign was £350 per week for the NHS. Most Brexiters continue to believe that they will be better off after Brexit, and I suspect most are not aware why this is unlikely to be true. Talk of the Brexit dividend is designed to keep them in their ignorance.

But I think its importance goes well beyond Brexit. Why don’t politicians lie more often to enhance their cause? Some have integrity, but for the others the deterrent is being found out. But being found out depends critically on the media calling out lies when they happen. And when a large section of the media are very selective about how they treat lies depending on who said them or why they were said, or indeed are often the source of these lies, society has a serious problem.

That is the situation in the US with Fox and Trump and in the UK with the right wing press and Brexit or the Conservatives more generally. How the print media in the US and the broadcast media in the UK treats lies has therefore become critical. With lies ‘she said, he said’ type reporting is just not sufficient to defend democracy. Now often it is quite difficult to prove someone is lying, but if I could delineate a barefaced lie as one where it is very easy to establish the truth, then the Brexit dividend is a barefaced lie. OBR documents, accepted by the government as the basis for their tax and spend decisions, show quite clearly that the money has already been spent. You cannot spend the same money twice.

The right wing Brexit press have already supported this lie. As most of their readers also watch broadcasters, it is imperative that these broadcasters inflict some political damage on those who tell the lie. If they do not, the lesson certain politicians will draw is that they too can get away with barefaced lies, encouraging the kind of behaviour we see with Trump. For that reason broadcasters have to speak truth to power, otherwise the non-partisan media becomes complicit in propaganda or just a mouthpiece for politicians.


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