When are facts alternative and when are they just lies? Is there anything new about the White House's attitude to truth-telling?
The Trump administration regards the mainstream media as the opposition party. Its answer to tricky questions is alternative facts. So, when are facts alternative and when are they just lies?
Hi, I’m Leon Hawthorne. We’re talking about alternative facts, the tactic advocated by the White House to get its message across.
Kellyanne Conway is the ubiquitous face of the Trump presidency, wheeled out onto TV talk shows as her master’s voice. She coined the phrase ‘alternative facts’ during a now infamous interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.
The term has been met by a wail of abuse and ridicule. It followed several statements of falsehood by the White House Spokesman, Sean Spicer about the size of the crowds at the inauguration. And subsequent statements of falsehood by Conway herself about a terrorist massacre that never occurred.
Of course, that doesn’t even include the countless statements of dubious rectitude by the Commander in Chief himself.
So, for many, “alternative facts” are just lies from an administration at war with practically everybody.
But let’s take another look at this.
What Ms Conway was actually trying to say was: if confronted with a narrative that doesn’t present you in a good light, switch the conversation to another topic, with facts that are favourable to you. So, if asked: when did you stop beating your wife? Answer: with facts about how long you’ve been happily married and what wonderful children you have.
Deflect. Obfuscate. Confuse.
This is a debating style. It is an exercise in sophistry that allows politicians to win an argument by dodging questions; and fighting a verbal battle on a ground of their choosing.
All politicians do this. The most successful politicians do it instinctively. They might not even know they’re doing it.
I was a member of the Westminster lobby when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. I used to watch him artfully dodge annoying facts by throwing up a stream of favourable, alternative facts.
So there’s nothing new about this. Blair never thought he was lying. I’m sure he would pass any lie detector test. The trait was so ingrained into his DNA, he would believe 2 + 2 = 5 even if he had sworn it was 4, moments earlier.
The current furore however has been linked to other buzzwords like “post truth” and “fake news” and “echo chamber”.
The danger is this juxtaposition of an administration that is so reckless with checking its facts alongside a public that prefers the comfort of listening only to facts that reinforce their own opinions.
If you already believe Hillary Clinton is crooked, then headlines linking her to a child paedophile ring merely confirm that.
But most of the fuss over fake news is hysterical. There have always been pranksters trying to trick journalists into running made-up stories.
The whole world of celebrity journalism is fake news. Headlines like ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’ were concoctions between PRs and editors to sell newspapers and boost flagging careers.
Most fake news is actually very funny.
‘Woman arrested for defecating on boss’ desk.’
‘Cinnamon roll-can explodes inside man’s butt.’
‘Man shoots off his own penis taking selfies with a gun’.
This is all old-fashioned tabloid non-sense that is, of itself, harmless.
But it does add to a general mistrust of all media… of all so-called facts. And if you can’t trust the facts, just rely on your instincts, right? And that’s what gets us to “post truth”.
Trump says 3 million illegal immigrants voted for Hilary because he wants to believe it. It fits with his own self image of why he lost the popular vote. Facts don’t matter if you really FEEL it’s right.
Mankind doesn’t add to global warming if your livelihood depends on oil or coal because you don't want to hear it. As Al Gore put it, it’s “An Inconvenient Truth”.
I say: there are such things as facts. They are separate to opinions. Not all opinions are equal. An opinion from a medical doctor is worth more than an opinion from a witch doctor.
So, whatever cause you want to argue, don’t deny the facts. Embrace them. Argue your case despite them, or let them change your mind.
I’m Leon Hawthorne. Thanks for watching.