Election 2013 media panel

Truth, fibs and pants on fire: is there an epidemic and are we immune to it?

“Lord, Lord. How this world is given to lying!” cries Falstaff in King Henry IV. Quoting these words in a 1991 Harvard University public lecture, the then-executive editor of the Washington Post, Benjamin Bradlee, observed that lying has become just another tool for making deals, for selling beer or war, soap or candidates and that it has reached such epidemic proportions in recent years “that we’ve all become immunised to it”.

Writing more recently, Professor Charles Lewis - who founded the US-based Center for Public Integrity - noted that lying “seems to have got noticeably worse in recent years”. Lewis cited lies by Democratic and Republican presidents in relation to the Vietnam War and Watergate.

Lewis also cited academic research showing that in the two years following September 11, 2001 President George W Bush and seven of his top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat Iraq posed and that the war occurred “under decidedly false pretences”.

At this week’s people’s forum in Brisbane, both major party leaders appeared exasperated about the other’s lies, half-truths or distortions. Mr Abbott implored Mr Rudd: “Can I please ask you to stop telling fibs?” This plea followed Mr Rudd’s claim that Mr Abbott cut $1 billion from the public hospitals budget when he was Health Minister. According to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking movement, this statement is false.

PolitiFact found it to be false when Mr Rudd made the claim at the first leaders’ debate at the National Press Club. It did not stop Mr Rudd repeating it at the people’s forum.

Has lying reached epidemic proportions in Australia? And are we immune to it? Such questions are not amenable to answers that lead to the incontrovertible truth but that does not mean these are invalid questions and that informed discussion is unattainable.

Recent developments suggest a keen pre-occupation with verifying claims made in the public domain. PolitiFact, which started out in the US in 2007 has tested more than 7000 claims from politicians and now has an Australian presence. Other initiatives in this direction include The Conversation’s federal election period fact-checker, which gets statements checked by academics with relevant expertise.

The ABC too has embarked on a similar enterprise aimed at determining the accuracy of claims by politicians, public figures, advocacy groups and institutions engaged in the public debate. Such initiatives suggest that rather than being immune to lying and untruths the demand for veracity is growing.

As to whether lying has reached epidemic proportions the question cannot be answered without proper definition of the question itself. Statements such as “political party reform is happening around the world” or that the tertiary “entrance score strongly correlates with success at university” are not readily capable of straight “true/false” answers. Every inquiry can be only as good as the inquiry’s framework permits.

The prevailing fact-checking mechanisms have their limitations and the sponsors acknowledge them, for example, that sometimes the truth “really is black-and-white, sometimes it is more complex” that determinations are based on evidence available at the time (ABC Fact Check), and that findings should based on context rather than on “true/false” verdicts.

A study of PolitiFact’s data comprising 143 “Rulings from the Truth-O-Meter” [ed: done on August 23, 2013, 10am Perth time] indicate that in the majority of instances the statements tested were true, mostly true or half-true (58%). Or, true in only 14% of instances. The remainder were mostly false (22%), false (16%), or “pants on fire” (3.5%).

That the meaning of truth itself may elude us today in much the same way that it reportedly eluded Pilate (“Truth? What is that?”) some 2000 years ago is no reason to waver in our pursuit of it.

For background – PolitiFact data extracted this morning, 10am Perth time, 23 August 2013:

• True: 20 (13.98%)

• Mostly true: 32 (22.38%)

• Half-true: 31 (21.68%)

• Mostly false: 32 (22.38%)

• False: 23 (16.08%)

• Pants on fire: 5 (3.5%)

TOTAL: 143 (100%)

This piece was amended on August 26 to correct the earlier figures.