Politicians learning the wrong lessons from tight message discipline have created a vacuum in which fake news is able to flourish, writes Matthew Laza
I suspect everyone does what I did when first picking up Newsnight anchor Evan Davis’ entertaining and timely new book. As soon as you start to read his initial definition of the disease of ‘bullshit’ that has gradually infected political, professional and even personal life, it is impossible not to pause a moment and think of the most egregious examples of the aforementioned nonsense.
The tide of ‘fake news’ that has seen the sort of stories that once might just have made the front page of the Sunday Sport now garner tens of millions of hits – and some of them even find themselves in the tweets of the most powerful individual on the planet. Closer to home, the notorious non-factually correct ‘fact’ – that we ‘send’ £350m a week to the European Union and come ‘liberation’ it could be showered on the National Health Service instead – can be argued to have tipped the balance of last year’s referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU towards ‘Leave’. Davis is particularly interesting in dissecting how the seemingly selective use of facts has a cumulatively cancerous effect on public discourse.
However tempting it might be for those on the progressive left to wave our fists, roll our eyes and occasionally laugh at the use of falsehoods by our rightwing opponents, we would be wrong to think that somehow we are immune to the germs of half-truth, however well-meant. Davis spends a witty few pages dissecting how the legitimate argument of Labour in 2013 that the coalition had created a ‘cost of living crisis’ was undermined by being fatuously held responsible in quotes by shadow ministers for anything the government was doing wrong. To take a line that was meaningful when applied to austerity and end up by issuing a press release blaming it for adding to waiting times in accident and emergency units was to rob it of meaning, bring it into disrepute and undermine the original effective and appropriate use. Davis points out that the Tories did the same at the time with their ‘long-term economic plan’.
His book came out just as the election was getting going. How prescient, then, for him to warn against the belief that ‘just because you have a phrase, you have a credible message’. The Conservative campaign’s disastrous overuse and over application of ‘strong and stable’ turned a perfectly reasonable – if in my view wrong – argument into a national joke.
Many Progress readers will have played ‘buzzword bingo’ at Labour conference, ticking off key words and phrases – the winner having managed a ‘full house’ of cliché. New Labour rightly taught us about the importance of message discipline, of being clear in what we are saying and why we are saying it. But as Theresa May found out to her cost, one of the converse effect of the pervasiveness of fake news is a public that is wising up to those who are saying nothing. That is a lesson those of us involved in shaping political messages need to wise up to, and fast. If this book can act as a reminder that while a little bit of the art of spin (in the sense of simple, clear messaging) is necessary, it can never serve as a substitute for substance, then Davis will have done the nation’s politics a significant favour.
Matthew Laza is director of Policy Network
Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It by Evan Davis
Little, Brown | 368pp | £20