Truthfully? Take nobody's word for it

The
Charles Kennedy revelations should remind us to not blindly accept
politicians’ denials or even call for apologies to salve professional
pride, but to rely on investigation in the future

A FAMOUS
journalist once found himself arranging a lunch with a politician to
repair a long and unhappy breach brought about by his passing mention
of the MP’s enthusiasm for booze. The journalist arrived late to find
the man already seated. The politician was happy to admit he liked a
drink, and the journalist was no teetotaller. The two shared a bottle
of wine over the meal, but work intervened and the journalist had to
leave early. When the bill finally reached him it listed not just the
wine, but also some brisk gin and tonics for starters and a few large
whiskies to finish off. So was this incontrovertible proof that the
politician was an alcoholic?

No prizes for guessing that this is
no hypothetical example, but a tale from the sad career of the Right
Honourable Charles Peter Kennedy. Kennedy lied not just to journalists,
but to his party, his electorate, and to the British public, about his
fitness for office, yet he remains a salaried MP, if no longer his
party’s chief.

A restaurant bill is hardly conclusive evidence,
and so the reporter’s story became part of the Westminster gossip that
led some to ask Kennedy if he had a drink problem, but to proceed no
further in the face of his denials. As journalists look ahead at the
profession’s future relationship with politicians of every stamp, the
corrosive effect of the lies told by the former Liberal Democrat leader
and his apologists threatens to undermine trust in the way our
democracy is reported.

I found myself discussing the Kennedy case
on a flight back from the Middle East. My fellow passenger was a senior
staff officer from the US Marines. The marine colonel wasn’t much
interested in the member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, but he had his
own reasons for an interest in the wider problem Kennedy’s story raised
of public figures, lies, and what it meant to tell the truth. The
marine was reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German
pastor who was murdered by the Nazis. Telling the truth preoccupied
Bonhoeffer.

He wrote an essay on the subject while imprisoned in
Berlin during the war, and for a few hours on a Boeing 767, it
preoccupied us.

Bonhoeffer addressed himself not to those who
lie, but instead to what he called “truth fanatics”. A truth fanatic,
said the theologian, inspires cynicism. He “wounds shame, desecrates
mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives,
and laughs at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness
which ‘cannot bear the truth’. He says truth is destructive and demands
victims, and feels like a god above these feeble creatures…” For
Bonhoeffer, the truth, for it not to be wrong, required love or
redemption.

You do not necessarily have to accept his religious
faith to understand that journalism’s demand for the truth from
politicians is not necessarily to our credit. If we are after the truth
to portray to our readers and our audiences a world where politicians
and public figures are liars, then according to Bonhoeffer we are
baptising them in cynicism and confirming them in apathy.

For reasons of civility, if nothing else, journalists are still obliged to accept the word of our public figures in good faith.

But
guidelines from Ofcom, the PCC and the BBC all agree that the public
interest is served by “exposing misleading claims” and that this
warrants a breach of privacy – in other words, investigation. In that
respect the public interest could not be clearer. Yet it is not more
investigations that journalists are calling for, it is an apology, and
while that may satisfy our collective professional pride, it will not
make truthtellers of those who lied for Kennedy.

Speaking at the
funeral of a war correspondent, the former Sunday Times editor Harold
Evans noted that in journalism “it is simpler to sound off than it is
to find out”. He should have said cheaper too. Journalists can help
politicians and public life best by testing it. And that does not mean
simply asking questions, because questions invite lies. The list of
Kennedy’s inquisitors is long and distinguished, but their examinations
yielded nothing. Until perjury is extended to cover broadcast studios
and background briefings, then testing means investigations, and
investigations require resources and executive support.

The
lesson from all this might sound more important if it came from the
work of a priest whose commitment to truth saw him stripped naked
before his walk to the gallows. But the moral is no less true for being
drawn from a discussion on an aeroplane and the example of a fringe
politician who liked comedy and liquor. The lesson is not that
journalists should stop believing politicians. It is that journalists
should not do politicians the disservice of taking them at their word.

Because,
in a democracy, accepting a statement in good faith is not a sign of
respect, but actually a crude form of temptation, and neither party,
surely, wants a political establishment where credulity serves as the
guarantor of integrity.

Adrian Monck is head of journalism at City University

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