I think it is fair to say that people of all world views seem to mislead the public to benefit their message, but I have noticed a trend of obvious lies coming from those of the right-wing persuasion. Perhaps it isn’t all lies; sometimes a politician or a journalist will publish something that is obviously untrue when I look at it, but maybe they honestly didn’t know that. More often, though, I think that the lies are either deliberately made up to deceive the public or are made up by someone else and then repeated with no effort made to check the truth – because the lie fits the message that they want to spread.
I particularly noticed that right-wing newspapers across the board are happy to lie or mislead people. Smear campaigns, trashing of peoples lives, lies about statistics, facts, figures, and all sorts of other things are common. In the USA, right-wing television such as Fox News more blatantly misleads too, but not so much in the UK because of our tighter regulation. Conservative politicians are happy to repeat untruths in and out of parliament, on television, and in interviews. For example, David Cameron is still repeating statistics about job creation during the lifetime of this current government which are completely false. Maria Miller has repeated statistics on television about sickness and disability benefits which were just not true. There are many more examples.
Some of the lies go even further. In 2009, then Home Secretary Alan Johnson sacked Professor David Nutt, head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, because he criticised the re-classification of Cannabis and made other statements about drugs which did not support the government’s drug policy. Rather than listen to the facts, politicians sacked the scientists in favour of someone who would tell the lies that they wanted. More recently in Texas, governor Rick Perry has gone as far as to remove all mentions of climate change and sea level rises from a major environmental study. It wasn’t just interpretations of results that he had removed, it was things like actual measurements of sea level rises that didn’t agree with his politics. He is seemingly prepared to lie to his entire state and to himself to push his policies on everyone even at risk of massive environmental disaster in his own state.
However, it is not only Conservatives and right-wing people that give incorrect information. Those of a left-wing persuasion are not immune from spreading misleading information. For example, it seems to be a common statement among those fighting for disability rights and against welfare cuts that “up to 70% of [Atos] decisions are overturned on appeal.” However, that is highly misleading. In fact, it is only between 40% and 70% of decisions declaring the patient fit to work that are overturned, and only 66% of decisions declare the patient fit to work, and only 32% of those found fit for work actually appealed. (I don’t have figures for how many of those placed in the work related activity group appealed.) Working through the numbers, only 8.4% of those found fit for work in the England have actually won an appeal. (All numbers taken from this DWP report.) We can argue that 14.8% would have won their appeal had they received legal representation, and we can also argue that many people who could have appealed did not for various reasons including exhaustion from the process, being too ill to continue, or fear of what could happen.
Now, 8.4% – 14.8% of decisions incorrectly declaring someone fit for work is still an obscene number, but it is not 70%. I can see how the 70% figure gets used though. 70% is an attention-grabbing number that makes a great headline. Since it is an actual real statistic it can be used without understanding exactly what it represents. Most people will not work through the numbers and perhaps not even realise that it is wrong. Perhaps even the original person to use that statistic did not know that it is misleading. It only takes one person to use it for many other people to copy it and perhaps leave out the relevant information that explains the number.
One thing that is different between conservatives and most other people is that most people will correct their statements when given evidence that shows how and why they are wrong. It seems that conservatives are not so easily put right. In fact, it seems that Conservatives are more likely to believe lie when told it is not true. In 2008 political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that there is a backlash-effect when conservatives are proven wrong, leading to a stronger belief in false statements. Although this was an American study, the effect is observable in political debates here in the UK particularly when it comes to things that people get very worked up about like abortion, immigration, and the European Union. You only have to observe the arguments of people like MP Philip Davies or MEP Roger Helmer to see the effect in action. When Justice Secretary Ken Clarke exposed a claim by Home Secretary Theresa May as lies (In fact he said the claim was “laughable and child-like.“) it was not May that was called to account by the prime minister, but Clarke. It seems that when a false and ludicrous example is used to back up Tory rhetoric, not even another Tory minister is allowed to dispute it.
I think then, that many of the statements that are called out as lies might actually be believed to be true by the people saying them. While many will retract or correct their statements, that does not help when incorrect information has already been used in a headline or repeated far and wide. In fact, some people deliberately make incorrect statements knowing that they can get away with it by retracting or correcting it later. The Daily Mail has got this down to an art, and several recent articles of theirs about the Motability scheme have actually provided both truth and lie in the same article. They print the actual facts and figures but the majority of the articles talk about the subject in an entirely false way, with allegations about sources of funding, qualifications to get vehicles or mobility allowance and statistics about the people and disabilities that qualify all completely false. This blog post at Nothing Special goes through a list of obvious lies from the Mail. (If you think I am picking on the Daily Mail, it is because they have a far higher rate of lies than most papers, but the Daily Express is really bad for that too.)
Although lies happen across the political spectrum I think by far the biggest problem comes from cabinet ministers in our current government, government departments, and right-wing newspapers. Most of the liars are never called to account by any authorities, especially not the Press Complaints Commission. Some of the problems have been noticed, however. In July Dame Anne Begg MP wrote to employment minister Chris Grayling with serious concerns about the way that the Department of Work and Pensions has been releasing statistics and the way that those statistics have been represented in the newspapers. Just today the new shadow minister for disabled people, Anne McGuire MP, has accused the government of “talking up” benefit fraud.
What, then, is the solution to all of this? If you are writing something or passing on information, please, check your facts, include relevant qualifiers for your data, and don’t lie by omission. For politicians and government ministers, we obviously need some authority or watchdog to actually take responsibility for correcting them and forcing them to retract their statements. As for newspapers, clearly the Press Complaints Commission is utterly useless. We need to shut it down and replace it. And it would be really nice if everyone would always present the evidence for what they say.