Friday, 19 July 2019

The redness of the herring is irrelevant

It’s just a guess, of course – I have no firm evidence to back this up – but I strongly suspect that the vast majority of people would be utterly mortified if we made a very public statement which turned out to be as utterly untrue as Boris Johnson’s reference yesterday to a kipper.  It would embarrass most of us to be exposed for having taken something on trust without having bothered to check its accuracy.  Johnson, however, is not (and never has been) part of any known definition of ‘most of us’, and lives by an entirely different set of rules.  He is more likely to be pleased at the coverage his kipper-waving garnered and to feel secure in the knowledge that corrections never achieve the same coverage as the initial outrageous statement.  Not for nothing is it said that a lie will be half-way round the world before the truth has got its boots on.
It’s a technique which the growth of social media has done much to promote: once a story is ‘out there’ it will be copied and shared – and, sadly, believed – much more often than any boring old correction.  Johnson isn’t the first or only politician to employ such a tactic, of course.  Who remembers the correction to the nonsense spouted by the former Home Secretary (and soon to be former Prime Minister) back in 2011 when she claimed that the human rights act prevented the deportation of a man because he owned a cat?  It was telling that she opened her narration of that particular piece of fiction with the words “We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act…”, a phrase which is invariably followed by a story which we only ‘know’ because it’s been repeated so often, despite being complete bunkum.
When apparently intelligent people come out with this stuff, it isn’t because they don’t know better, or because they can’t be bothered to check (checking might only allow the facts to intervene), or even because they believe it themselves; it’s because they know that it will be believed by a substantial number of people.  Playing to and confirming the prejudices of those people isn’t just an unintentional accident – it’s the whole purpose of telling the lie in the first place.  In Johnson’s case his casual bumbling and bluster is simply a poor attempt at disguising a cynical disregard for any truth or facts which might undermine his own ambitions.  And the saddest part is that even such a poor attempt as this one does actually work with the target audience.

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