Reality Check

What is truth in an election campaign?

Sat, 30 Apr 2011 15:47:53 -0500

Three guys meet in a hotel room in Montreal to hatch a plan. Several years later, these same three guys are discussing that meeting on national television.

 

Two of them say, "This is what we agreed on." The third one says, "No, it's not."

 

No one else is able to confirm what really happened, and two against one is not considered a legal definition of proof.

 

So Canadians are left wondering whether Stephen Harper did or did not agree to lead a coalition-like government with Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton back in 2004.

 

It was one of those rare moments during an election campaign where there appeared to be a true version of what happened and an untrue version; where someone was telling the truth, and someone was not.

 

More often, things are not so clear cut. In politics, as we all know, we are dealing with a sliding scale of truth, somewhere between "the whole truth and nothing but" and Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook."

 

Reality checking

 

This is my third campaign writing Reality Checks for CBCNews.ca.

 

This time, we added a new feature. We graded our assessments as pass, fail or 50/50.

 

To date, after more than 70 investigations of campaign statements, ads and party platforms, only five have rated a "pass." Twenty-six were 50/50, the benefit of the doubt.

 

Is that surprising? Not really.

 

At Reality Check, we take what politicians say at face value. Maybe that's a mistake.

 

Maybe they don't really intend their statements to hold up to the kind of scrutiny that we try to apply to them. So it's probably predictable that so few pass the test.

 

'A culture of lying'

 

Columnist Andrew Coyne wrote in Maclean's recently that "a culture of lying has overtaken our politics, and every party has been caught up in it, to a greater or lesser extent."

 

Without wanting to channel Bill Clinton ("It depends on what your definition of 'is' is"), I think we need to establish what our definition of "lying" is.

 

Will the F-35s cost what the Conservatives say they will cost. Probably not. Do they know that? Probably. Are they lying to us?

 

Saint Augustine established eight different categories of lies. All but one of them are told not for the sake of deception itself but to achieve a larger purpose.

 

What the person really wants is not to tell the lie, but to accomplish an objective. They are therefore not real lies, in Augustine's view, and the person telling them is not really a liar.

 

By that measure, politicians who "lie" to us are not really liars either, they are simply saying what they feel they need to say to get elected.

 

Unless, of course, they are peddling an obvious falsehood.

 

But that is actually quite rare. Politicians generally avoid saying stuff that is demonstrably untrue.

 

We expect them to spin, to shape the facts to their own advantage. But we get really upset when we discover they are making things up.

 

So when the bill for the F-35s comes due a few years from now and it is considerably more than the Conservatives are saying today, unless there's a document somewhere that shows they knew these current projections were out of whack, it will probably just be accepted as part of the normal way that politics is done.

 

Truth in political advertising

 

But that doesn't mean this campaign has been like all the others, or that Coyne is wrong when he talks about an increasingly pervasive "culture of lying."

 

The place where this campaign may have sunk to new lows has not been on the campaign trail itself, but over the airwaves, where demonstrable outright falsehoods are now increasingly commonplace.

 

If we want to elevate the tone of our politics and take lying out of the mix, this would be the place to start.

 

This does not necessarily mean getting rid of all attack ads, though that wouldn't be a bad idea. Maybe Michael Ignatieff really "didn't come home for you." Maybe he is "just visiting." Who knows?

 

The problem is that these ads give the illusion of being fact-based, when they are actually anything but.

 

They are invariably accompanied by quotes from newspapers, or short video clips that give them the veneer of authenticity, until you examine them more closely.

 

Far too often they are taken completely out of context and are misleading,or simply wrong.

 

'Yes, yes, yes'

 

The most egregious example over the past few months has been the Conservative "yes, yes, yes" ads.

 

They purported to ask Michael Ignatieff whether it makes sense during a period of fragile economic recovery to force "an unnecessary election" and to "raise taxes on job creators."

 

They then flashed to a video clip of an animated Ignatieff shouting: "Yes, yes, yes."

 

The problem is that those weren't the questions Ignatieff was responding to at the Liberal caucus meeting where the video was shot.

 

The rhetorical questions he was asking and responding to were: "Are we ready to serve the people who put us here? Are we ready to fight for the Canada we love? Are we ready to fight for the Canadian family? What's the answer to that?"

 

The Conservatives claimed the ads were intended for the web only, and they were pulled after the real context for the quotes became public.

 

Still, party spokesman Fred DeLorey insisted the ads were "fair and accurate."

 

"We are accurately representing (Ignatieff's) on-the-record and frequently stated positions," he told the Canadian Press.

 

Not in the code

 

If these ads were for a commercial product or service, viewers who questioned their accuracy would have a place to complain.

 

Since the 1960s, advertising in Canada has been governed by the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, which is administered by Advertising Standards Canada, an industry association "committed to creating and maintaining community confidence in advertising."

 

The code declares that "advertisements must not contain inaccurate or deceptive claims, statements, illustrations or representations, either direct or implied, with regard to a product or service."

 

But the association specifically excludes political and election ads from its mandate on the grounds that it does not want to restrict the free expression of public opinion.

 

Politicians, therefore, are basically free to say whatever they want.

 

Approve this message

 

But what if politicians who put out false and misleading ads weren't able to hide behind spokespeople and shuffle the blame off on to overly zealous junior staffers?

 

Would Conservatives really have wanted to see Stephen Harper's face on those attacks ads? Would Liberals have wanted Paul Martin directly linked to that controversial 2006 ad that claimed the Conservatives were planning to place soldiers on the streets of Canadian cities?

 

This is a question that the Americans tried to address in 2002 with a "Stand By Your Ad" provision in campaign reform legislation.

 

American law now requires that all political TV ads include an on-camera shot of the candidate, and a statement by the candidate that says something like "I'm John Doe and I approve this message."

 

In Canada, we simply require a very small print acknowledgement at the end of an ad, stating that it was authorized and paid for by the party's official agent.

 

The print is generally so small, and the message sails by so quickly, that scarcely anyone even notices.

 

It would be hard to argue that the U.S. provision has so far improved the tone of American politics, which remains far nastier and more mendacious than ours. And at this point, U.S. ads designed exclusively for the internet are not covered by the rule.

 

But one study conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University concluded that viewers did come away from those ads with more confidence that political campaigns were run in a more truthful and fair manner.

 

If we really want to address this so-called culture of lying that has characterized the campaign of 2011 on our TV screens and radios, making politicians stand up and take responsibility for their words might be a good first step.

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