Why is this liar lying to me? 2/10/13

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 2 October 2013

Much quoted as a mantra by acerbic BBC interviewers, it was the legendary Times journalist Louis Heren who first came up with the rule: “When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself: why is this lying bastard lying to me?”

Heren, a Londoner who won fame with his coverage of communal massacres in the Punjab during Partition, is widely accepted as the inspiration for the Thomas Fowler character in Graham Greene’s classic Vietnam novel: The Quiet American. That British journalists today revel in following his advice reflects a prevailing spirit of non-deference towards politicians in the UK.

To the permanent annoyance of British republicans, deference and respect are mainly reserved for the royal family, while politicians are considered fair game for aggressive questioning in public forums. Of course political cultures vary across the world. In the US, where politicians, however partisan, tend to be more formal and collegial in Congressional debates than their rowdier House of Commons equivalents, media interviewers are rarely as assertive (or just plain rude) as their British counterparts. The presidency meanwhile is conferred with monarchical style respect. Tellingly, the most popular historical presidents are those, like Lincoln and Washington, associated with tales of obsessive honesty. Whilst the only serving US president to resign the office was Richard Nixon, caught out in 1974 by the petty venality of the Watergate cover up, rather than the massive anti-war movement of the time, which conspicuously failed to stop his landslide re-election in 1972.

Bangladeshi politicians of course need few lessons in being “economical with the truth.” Only this year, having at the time justified the necessity of police action to remove Hefazat demonstrators from the centre of Dhaka on the night of 5-6 May, in a move which killed dozens of people, government lawmakers only a matter of days later, blithely denied that anyone had been hurt in the operation. Just as blatantly, having penned a much commented upon article for an American newspaper in January, the leader of the opposition just a few months later denied ever having submitted the piece. For all the heated political discussions that occur nightly on talk shows, perhaps our political culture which confers a Raj style respect for senior political leaders, would benefit from a spirit of less deference in questioning.

While it remains the case all around the world that whether for a fellow politician or journalist, actually accusing a politician of telling a lie is still regarded as crossing a line, it is also widely understood that politics has been a notoriously dirty business throughout history. Honesty therefore is no guarantee of success in politics. In the United States, the notably straightforward President Carter who had as Governor of Georgia successfully presided over desegregation during the turbulent civil rights era, ended up humiliated by events in Iran. Despite having initially welcomed the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, his administration was dragged over the coals by the wily Khomeini regime which manoeuvred to ensure that US hostages from the infamous Tehran embassy siege, were not released until the very moment after Carter formally relinquished office, in 1981, as a defeated one-term president.

For Carter’s Democratic party, the lesson was learned. While 1960s idealism was kept alive by the likes of Jesse Jackson’s “rainbow coalition” politics during the much more right wing Reagan era of the ‘80s, it was to the more manipulative centrist politics of Bill Clinton that returned it to power. Having spent a large part of his presidency battling the Lewinsky scandal with a characteristic mixture of charm and evasion, Clinton’s political manoeuvring accomplished little for his party. Hence, it was unable to parlay his popularity into electoral success until Obama established himself as a candidate in 2008.

A thick skin is a useful attribute for any politician. For those that are especially shameless, even repeated disgrace does little to deter success. The former British MP, Jeffrey Archer, is a interesting example. Despite a cavalier relationship with the truth, which led to more than one resignation from political office and an imprisonment for perjury, Archer has led a charmed life by turning his talents for storytelling into a lucrative career as a pulp novelist. As he has never been near real power, his misdemeanours, such as embellishing a short course at a institution near Oxford into a degree from the celebrated university on his CV, are mainly a topic for amused gossip rather than reproach.

It is only appropriate that public contempt for untruths spoken by politicians is reserved for those which have serious consequences. Despite being one of the most successful ever politicians in the UK, former prime minister Tony Blair’s reputation is forever associated with the moniker Tony B Liar, because of his role in supporting the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which caused so much carnage and chaos. Having downplayed his own religious proclivities (his more conventionally non-religious spokesman having famously pronounced “we don’t do God”), Blair used every ounce of his messianic faith in his own infallibility to force through fantasies about WMDs to justify his support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Even so, the charismatic Blair was still able to secure an election victory in 2005, despite having invigorated one of the largest anti-war movements in history. The lessons of Blair’s mistaken “evidence” reverberated recently in the caution shown by British and US politicians this year when debating military intervention in Syria. Modern communications make it easier for the public to examine evidence and hold politicians to account. This can only be a good thing for democratic societies and demonstrates the value of Louis Heren’s wisdom.

For all the poor reputation lavished on the journalistic profession by tabloid intrusions and phone hacking, at its best, its role fundamentally remains one of speaking truth to power. Should this on occasion require being rude to those in authority, so be it. – See more at: http://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2013/10/01/why-is-this-liar-lying-to-me/