Joyce McMillan: Politicians afraid of the truth

Politicians in the House of Commons. Picture: PA
Politicians in the House of Commons. Picture: PA
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POLITICIANS appear to favour encouraging misinformation rather than contradicting popular myths, writes Joyce McMillan

THERE is an experiment that criminologists sometimes conduct, which involves asking a representative group of citizens what they think about criminal sentencing in the country where they live; typically, they will say that sentences are much too lenient.

The interviewer then provides them with details of a series of recent cases, and asks them to say what sentences they think appropriate; and the interviewees are suitably surprised to learn that in almost every case, the courts – no doubt under pressure from the perception that they are too lenient – have imposed much tougher sentences than the interviewees themselves.

It’s a classic demonstration both of how perception and reality can drift apart, and of how perception – even though false – can begin to reshape reality; and I was reminded of it, this week, when the polling organisation Ipsos Mori published a study which seems to show that on a whole range of key issues of the day, the great British public have simply lost the plot. As one newspaper put it, they are “wrong about everything”; and not just slightly wrong, but often so massively wrong that it’s tempting, in this particular week, to blame the whole phenomenon on the sudden unaccustomed heat.

On average, for example, the public think that teenage pregnancies are 30 times more common than they actually are. They think that crime is rising, when it is falling. They think that one in four people living in Britain is a Muslim, when the actual figure is one in twenty. They think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save more money than raising the pension age to 66, when in fact raising the pension age will save almost 20 times as much. And they think that benefit fraud accounts for £24 out of every £100 spent, when the real figure – estimated by the government itself – is around 70p.

Nor is it difficult, alas to see where most of these skewed perceptions originate. All of the issues listed above – crime, immigration, benefits, teenage sex – are sensitive and highly emotive ones in our society; and the British media therefore have a strong incentive to focus on them, and to deal with them in a spectacular and attention-grabbing way, even at the risk of seriously distorting people’s perceptions of their prevalence and significance. Beyond that, there are also sections of the British media which adhere strongly to the ancient and dishonourable Fleet Street tradition – particularly in an economic crisis – of refocusing popular anxiety and anger away from the wealthy and powerful, and onto vulnerable groups in society – recent migrants, benefit claimants, minorities; and their world-view has an impact not only on their own readers, but on the broadcast news agenda, which too often follows their lead.

If bad and biased journalism plays a role in setting this agenda, though, it is not the sole culprit that many people imagine; on the contrary, this radical unmooring of pubic perception from reality comes at a time when newspaper circulations are in decline, and when people enjoy an increasingly vast choice of sources of online information. What seems to be missing in our society, in fact, is the kind of education that might actually equip people to handle these torrents of information with some degree of scepticism and sophistication; and it’s interesting – in the week when the Education Secretary for England, Michael Gove, launched the process of returning English schoolchildren to a traditional curriculum of kings and queens, science, maths, and Shakespeare – to reflect on the low status in our schools of the kinds of media studies courses which enable young people to become active, critical and challenging consumers of the various media that now surround them, rather than passive and bamboozled couch-potatoes.

And then finally, there are questions to be asked about the role of our political leaders; the ones who, if they are any good at their job, not only react to the prevailing political weather, but help to change it. Yet confronted with the a British public whose beliefs on many issues are based on myths as mean-minded as they are reactionary, the current generation of politicians seem, almost to a man and woman, to have decided to play to the myth.

Labour politicians, for example, now constantly affirm that they must respect and address people’s “fears” on immigration; even when what those fears most need is to be directly challenged, on strong factual grounds. Those same Labour politicians believe that they must be seen to cut benefits; even though British state benefits, for everyone from pensioners to the unemployed, are already among the lowest in Europe, and in most cases clearly do not provide enough to live on. And instead of confronting the big issues facing most families and households in this country – declining real earnings, job scarcity and insecurity, the rising price of essentials like food and energy – they prefer to spend their time in jingoistic shadow-boxing over the alleged perfidy of Europe, or in grandstanding about the deportation of a single terrorist suspect.

Well, enough; for no-one can stop this rot except the British people, and in order to do that, they will have to wake up and smell the coffee to an extent that currently seems unimaginable. There is, it seems, a well-developed school of thought in global 21st-century politics which actually believes that reality will never bite us again; that our political class has become so adept at manipulating perceptions that perception has become the new reality, and facts on the ground no longer matter.

For myself, I tend to share the view of Robert Burns that in the end, “facts are chiels that winna ding”; if we burn the planet, if the lights go out, if we cling to an economic system that is gradually impoverishing hard-working households, then eventually those truths will out. In the Orwellian hall of mirrors of current British politics, though, that moment of truth seems a long way off. And the heart yearns for a leading politician with the courage to start the process of change; if only by ceasing to pander to this insidious culture of lies and half-truths, and by daring to tell the people that it’s time to get real.