Facts Matter Less Than Opinion

Politicians are always challenged about their integrity. In the live TV debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, one of whom will be our next Prime Minister, whether they can be trusted by the country was a key question.

Worryingly for both men, their comments were punctuated by the audience laughing as they answered. Yes, part of it was that we had a split audience and yes, some of the roaring laughter was audibly fake. I recall one man roaring with laughter so loudly that Jeremy Corbyn almost stopped to address this individual directly. Thankfully he thought better of it.

Whilst pantomime politics is here to stay, we have discovered in this election how the truth can be stretched as far as should be possible and further still in order to win. It has reached a point where facts seem to matter less than playing to the prevailing opinion, if fact matters at all. Anything that reinforces a belief, whether true or not, appears fair game.

We all know about the telephone call where Boris Johnson agreed to provide an address to the caller of someone the caller stated his intention to assault. Not once did Johnson say it was unacceptable to potentially harm someone or even threaten to. Worse still, he subsequently provided the address. Johnson’s only response to being challenged about that decision was to state that “it didn’t happen” – ‘it’ being the impending assault. His supporters are oddly muted on this issue.

Johnson promised we would leave the EU “come what may” during his leadership campaign and once in Number 10 and that he also said he would rather “die in a ditch” than remain in the EU any longer. He then returned with a deal and called an election, guaranteeing at least a small extension. He said one thing and did another. Again, silence from his supporters.

Johnson’s personal history is littered with problems. He was fired from the shadow cabinet by the then party leader Michael Howard for dishonesty, he has been outed for infidelity in the press on more than one occasion and he said he would not stand for parliament whilst Mayor of London and then did just that. There is more. Yet the website electoral calculus suggests he is romping towards a 70+ seat majority.

As politicians we are asked if there are any “skeletons in the closet” when we stand for selection. One problem that could cause embarrassment or one social media post can and often does end a career. One similar problem for Boris feels like an easy week.

Now look at the Tory party itself. They brazenly renamed their Conservative Press Twitter account, complete with verification tick which adds authenticity to an account, Factcheck UK. From their engineered (false) objective position, they then tore into Jeremy Corbyn during the TV debate, purporting to factually discredit Corbyn’s integrity.

Their unsavoury act was desperate and clumsy. The followers of the account, many of whom will be opposition watchers and journalists, knew immediately what was going on and outed the scam. Instead of using the age old “blame it on an anonymous intern” excuse, they doubled down on the lie, attempting to justify it. Almost as bad as the lie itself was Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly’s car crash defence of it. The correct thing to do was admit defeat and apologise.

Any and all of these instances should case real doubt over ordinary non-partisan voters that there is a trust issue with this leader and this party. The behaviour of the party leader, his gymnastics with the truth and the parties loose grip on political ethics should raise question marks as to whether anything they say can be trusted. Yet as we approach polling day, none of this has dented the Conservative’s polling. They remain comfortably ahead in the polls.

Imagine the scandal and outrage from very same people who defended and executed “Factcheckgate” if Jeremy Corbyn had acted in a similar way. Imagine their outrage if a telephone recording was released where Corbyn agreed to provide personal information that could lead to a member of the public being harmed. Absolute bedlam would ensue with calls for resignation and caution on giving this individual any levers of power.

The difficulty for Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents is that whether you have a positive or negative view of Corbyn the man, objectively you must acknowledge that even if you hate his views and what he stands for, his views have not changed very much throughout his entire political career.

I acknowledge this can be viewed as a strength or a weakness depending on what party you support or where you sit in the increasingly broad church of the left, but it should provide an open goal to Labour supporters looking to win the trust argument when compared to Boris Johnson. Yet we appear to be struggling to cut through.

We have seats in the North East such as Darlington, Bishop Auckland, Sedgefield and Stockton South that are under real threat of switching to the Tories and Hartlepool remains a key Brexit Party target despite their collapse in the polls following the dictatorial decision by Nigel Farage to stand down in a number of seats. The single-minded quest for victory seemingly knows no bounds and we saw it in the EU referendum of 2016. As polling day approached the rhetoric got more polarised and hyperbolic from all sides. This will happen again as we head towards December 12th.

My growing view is that truth matters less than the initial informed opinion of the individual. I have friends who know I am a councillor for Labour and have said they do not support our North West Durham Labour candidate, Laura Pidcock. They simply shrug when I say that I’ve always found her engaging, kind and can offer an objective fact that not one member of her staff has left her employ in the two years she has been a MP.

This fact indicates a pleasant and fair employer and there are many MPs who have had a constant turnover of staff. A semi-regular review of the w4mp job vacancy board sees the same faces advertising vacancies regularly. For reasons which we can only speculate, some MPs have a very high rate of staff turnover. Laura has a very low staff turnover, so this only reflects well on her as an employer.

When the truth (by truth I mean factual information not opinion) conflicts with a view, it is often simply ignored. Of course, there are often many reasons for holding a view, however, it would be nice for an acknowledgement that this new and helpful information puts things in a slightly different light. The reality is it rarely changes anything.

Not to change is human nature and to some degree we all do this. If it was very easy to sway a view, we would get even more desperate and dubious attempts made to influence people. It takes a very self-aware person to stop and think. Most of the time it simply doesn’t cut through and we remain stoic and obstinate. We think it, so we think it. End of story.

The comments I heard most in 2016 during the EU referendum were people saying “tell me the facts”. Unfortunately, facts are open to interpretation in any abstract political sense. They can be weighted differently by everyone and they were. If we are not swayed by facts in a consistent way and our views are set once they are made, the key battle ground is not persuasion, but what forms a view in the first place.

This is where social media platforms have a part to play and why regulating the use of political advertising, not necessarily banning it, is important. I would suggest that having a requirement for facts to be referenced, like Wikipedia for example, where you cannot simply write anything, would improve things with content and statements about candidates being subject to checks.

We must push truth to the forefront, acknowledging opinions are interpreted and ensuring as far as we can that facts are presented more than heavily spun rhetoric. There is a fine line and even as I write this, I see how difficult it is to manage in practise. We must also end anonymous social media accounts used for abusing and bullying people. This can also influence views, embolden bad behaviour and intensify discourse.

It is not easy to achieve these noble objectives. Consider how sophisticated Cambridge Analytica was in strategically targeting the perfect voters in the perfect areas in the perfect numbers through algorithms. It was so devastatingly effective that it had to be stopped.

If we can keep facts in play and have objective facts a key deciding factor in forming people’s opinions, politics will be fairer and hopefully voters will not be as suspicious over whether what they are hearing can be trusted.

Currently, the public are right to view what they are being told with suspicion and we cannot expect the public to trust the political process if we continue to throw wild and exaggerated statements around, spun so much that those making the statements know they are playing fast and loose with the truth.

The question to ask is whether there is any way back from this madness.

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