Truth, media and Democracy

Virtue and truthfulness in public life is a cornerstone of democracy, or so tradition has it.

The idea was well established in US mythology by 1867, when John C. McRae produced his famous engraving.  “Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree”.  Thus spake the young George Washington, first President of the United State of America,  vaccine advocate, and heroic leader of the largely volunteer continental  army that defeated the professionals of the British army and navy. 

But did George ever say that to his angry father?  No. The story was invented by Mason Locke Weems, a clergyman and book agent, and one of Washington’s first biographers.  It buoyed up sales of the fifth edition of his The Life of Washington.

But clergyman Weems also had a higher purpose: it was to show that Washington’s “unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues,” and those virtues were a prerequisite to greatness in public life.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Put aside the lamentable record of the 45th US President, Donald Trump, and the tens of thousands of false or misleading claims he made – lies, only if he knew they were false, rather that the product of self-delusion.  

Instead: the instructive tale of freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R – N. C.).

At 25,  and its youngest member, he rode into Congress on an heroic and tragic story. 

As the Washington Post reported (Feb. 27, 2021) ‘By his account, Cawthorn led a charmed life growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Handsome and athletic, he was home-schooled and played high school football.’

Left to die in a fiery road accident by his best mate, but rescued by passers-by, partly disabled, he had to drop out of college and was denied the opportunity to serve his country when turned down by the Naval Academy.

But the details of his widely publicised timeline are wrong: Cawthorn rearranged the sequence of events for his own benefit. The Naval Academy rejected his application, then the accident, and it was his best friend who rescued him from the crash. Then he dropped out of college after a string of poor grades. Lastly, more than 150 former fellow students signed a letter naming him a sex predator.

So, at least in the USA today, virtue and truthfulness seems no longer a prerequisite for public service or the support of the once great Republican Party.

How We Shape Up

In Australia, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed heightened public concern about truth in politics, and expectations of truthfulness in public life.  Nevertheless, expectations of lying remain rife, not just among a sceptical public but among parliamentary staff and members too.

When Brittany Higgins made allegations of rape, by a fellow staffer, in the offices of their minister, Linda Reynolds, in March 2019, it seems the claim was met with such doubt that PM Morrison was not informed of the allegation for 23 months.

And then Linda Reynolds was moved to label Higgins a ‘lying cow’, though the minister insists the remark was to characterise Higgins’ report of the lack of support provided, rather than the alleged rape.  Irrespective, the remarks were withdrawn, an apology made to Higgins, and there were reports of financial compensation, but only after the remarks were made public. The alleged rapist appears in court this month.

But why would a minister expect that her staffer would lie in the first place?  Are her expectations of her personal staff so low? And who snitched on Reynolds?

Then an historical allegation of rape was made against the then Attorney-General Christian Porter, in letters sent to PM Scott Morrison, Labor’s Leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, and Greens’ Senator Hanson-Young. It is an allegation he has vehemently denied. 

Few seemed satisfied with his denial. The Prime Minister’s defence of Porter was not couched in the simple, unambiguous statement: ‘ I believe Christian Porter’. Instead, reminded us of the rule of law: the presumption of innocence as a fundamental tenant of Australian law.  As it is, but a Clayton defence.

All further discussions were headed off by Porter’s decision to prosecute for defamation, not against the woman who made the claim, as she is dead, or against those who wrote the letter making the allegation, as they have remained anonymous, but against the ABC and reporter Louise Milligan, the first, among many media outlets, to publish the allegation without identifying the subject of the allegation.  

Porter withdrew the action.  Successful defamation may have provided some legal resolution, but would not address the fundamental issue of public trust in a public office holder. The discontinuation of the actions leave all the questions unanswered.

We Distrust Pollies

These and many similar examples, world wide, point to a profound distrust in politicians, from the local councils to the national capitals. The unconstrained channels of social media have, if anything, further undermined trust by providing a constant flow of misinformation, ill-informed opinion, and unchallenged, outright lies.

At times like these it is easy to give way to cynicism, to say: ‘no matter who you vote for, a politician always wins’. 

We must all pay a great deal more attention  to politics, because the quality of the politician we get, reflects our knowledge and expectations of them. Many of the present crop reflect our low expectations.

In this torrent of doubt, the role of the media is even more important because few, if any of us, can spend the time to chase-down every doubt, every lie, every deception. Since journalists were first let into the British House of Commons to report on procedures, newspapers have had the job of filtering out the dross, the lies and deceptions in public discourse. 

Some do it well, others less so. We have to use the same sceptical filters we use on politicians on the media. Equally, we have to ask what has not been reported, what has the editor judged unimportant to the reader/listeners/viewer.  

But also we must ask what has been shaped to serve concealed agendas of owners, editors or their mates.  

A healthy independent and trustworthy media is essential to delivering virtue and truthfulness in public service.

Vincent O’Donnell 

Media Researcher and Analyst

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