Louis Heren, a former deputy editor of the Times of London, wrote in his memoirs that he found it useful, when considering comments made by politicians, to have in mind the question: “Why is this lying b*****d lying to me?” And having conducted several thousand interviews over three decades I have to confess to having some sympathy with his view. Journalists get misled so often it almost seems as if nothing wrong is happening.
Politicians and government officials are famous for shaping the facts in a way that suits them, but they are hardly alone. In recent years press officers or, as they should be called, media managers have taken the business of manipulating public opinion to a whole new level. The art of using language that is simultaneously defensible and misleading is so subtle that the top practitioners can earn hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars a year.
The self-interested management of information has become so widespread that it is not only journalists who have become desensitised to the process. Advertisers fill our minds with false impressions so often that few people feel any sense of moral outrage about it. Having said that, there are different degrees of dishonesty. Many would make a distinction between a company, for example, trying to persuade you that purchasing a particular brand of cooking oil will make your family happy and a politician telling an outright lie.
It prompts the question: is it reasonable to hold those in public office to a higher standard of honesty than everyone else? After all, many people smooth their social lives with what they sometimes call while lies. Why shouldn’t politicians do the same? And when it comes to governments, if states are prepared to kill people to defend their interests, it can hardly be a great shock if they are also willing to tell the odd untruth as well.
A few examples. Over a period of many years – decades even – Pakistani officials told Western diplomats, journalists and anyone else who was enquiring that Pakistan was not building a nuclear bomb. Its nuclear programme, they insisted, was entirely peaceful and devoted to delivering more plentiful supplies of electricity to the Pakistani people.
Sometimes the denials would become indignant. Pakistani officials would say things such as: ‘How dare you accuse us of developing a bomb? Where is your evidence? Why are you saying these things about an innocent Muslim country? Is your anti-Muslim prejudice leading you to have fearful fantasies about an Islamic bomb?’ And so on.
Odd, then, that on May 28, 1998 Pakistan somehow managed to detonate some nuclear devices under the Chagai mountains.
It was much the same story when it came to the Kashmir insurgency. For years there was an official line. ‘We offer those fighting for their rights in Kashmir’, Pakistani officials would say, ‘our moral, political and diplomatic support.’ Of course everyone knew that it was also providing arms and munitions to the militants but the official line was adhered to – and often with great passion and aggression.
During Kargil, even as military helicopters carried supplies to soldiers from the Northern Light Infantry dug in on the Kargil heights, senior officers insisted that these were insurgents acting on their own initiative. “We have not crossed the line of control”, they angrily said accusing journalists who challenged them of deliberate anti-Pakistan bias.
And yet today, as the event recedes into history, officials are quite candid about what happened and freely discuss the pros and cons of Musharraf’s gambit. And then we have Musharraf’s own recent comment about the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1990s: “At that time Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) and 11 or 12 other organisations were formed. We supported them and trained them as they were fighting in Kashmir at the cost of their lives.”
And so it goes on. Official denials followed by unashamed admissions that they had been lying all along.
Today it is said there is no Pakistan support for the Afghan Taliban. The line is adhered to and Western interlocutors are supposed to pretend to believe it. And in five years time? No doubt it will be admitted.
Pakistan is not alone in this conduct. The US did the same thing in Vietnam. Indeed the American military’s disregard for the truth during that campaign became so blatant that the daily official news conferences of the Joint US Public Affairs Office in Saigon became known as the ‘Five O’ Clock Follies’. Some journalists revived the term to describe the more recent US press conferences describing their battles against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
I am not arguing that government officials and politicians always lie. There may be occasions when it suits their purpose to tell the truth. For example, the Pakistani denials about knowing the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden are not only convenient but also, quite possibly, true. But I can also understand why many refuse to accept official denials at face value.
It may be going a bit far to say that those in power are strangers to the truth but we can perhaps agree that they are not close friends. Which is why journalists are paid to be sceptical. Louis Heron might have sounded like a cynical curmudgeon. But he was only doing his job.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.