I have a lot of time for the author as an upstanding and impartial journalist of unimpeachable integrity and while I have criticisms of this book, I do still like this book very much and recommend that anyone interested in UK politics buys it and reads it. I will certainly be keeping it on my shelf.
Now on to the critique. I think this could have been a great book. An accessible work on political dishonesty is badly needed, but sadly 'The Rise of Political Lying' does not live up to its potential. Oborne writes compellingly and I was deeply moved by his observations on the numerous instances of lying and dissembling behaviour in the Blair Ministry, particularly in relation to the Iraq War. It is here that we find some of the best polemic dissent of an era that came to be characterised by Blairism not just in politics, but in the mainstream media as well. I think Oborne is right to focus mainly on wrong-doing in the Blair Ministry while astutely tracing the errant behaviours back to as early as the Thatcher Ministry, but his analysis of what has gone wrong with honesty in politics is not sufficiently rounded and informed. He fails to take sufficient account of sociological, cultural and technological changes which have influenced profoundly the practice of politics in the UK. I also think the symbiotic relationship between politicians and journalists is a very fertile area for analysis and study and would have justified much more coverage in this book. In particular, it would have been good to have closer observations on how the behaviours of individual journalists and broadcasters and the behaviour and structure of the media-at-large has an effect on the levels of honesty found among politicians.
Oborne's point about the power of informal sanctions around political lying is well-made. Calling someone a liar is, traditionally, one of the worst accusations you can level at someone in our culture. This is partly because much of what happens in our society - including everyday business, family matters and social services - still rely on a high degree of implicit trust. Yet it is known and accepted that we all lie because it is human to lie. The difficulty arises when we lie about important things. When that happens, certain consequences are meant to happen that serve as a warning both to the liar and to others that dishonesty is not acceptable in the community. But the power of this type of customary sanction derives from its sparse use. It's rarely wise to openly call someone a liar unless you are on sure ground, otherwise the very sanction society seeks to impose loses its power, and it is at this point that I become slightly wary of a book devoted to explaining political lying.
Do politicians tend to lie? Orson Welles once famously observed that politicians do not lie, rather they form a class of their own, neither men nor women, but actors who engage in performance of a narrative. There is undoubtedly some truth in this. The true nature of our society is not revealed to us and our politicians (if they are 'ours' at all) are practised in telling not so much the truth but the truth that we need to here. This leads to moral frustrations and 'J'accuse'-like cries of "Liar!" In that climate, pointed obtuseness on the subject of the lies of the powerful can be emotionally-satisfying but might not be very illuminating. What is needed is analysis. Unfortunately, Oborne - a thoughtful but archetypical British small 'c' conservative journalist - has been schooled in a journalistic culture that values clarity above analysis. Explaining political lying and prescribing what to do about it is quite an undertaking, and perhaps better in the hands of someone willing to think outside the confines of the elite preoccupations of the political and media class. Oborne, as a paid-up member of that class (something he might deny, but which is demonstrably true), has written this book entirely from an elite perspective and some of his various complaints as well as almost all his weak prescriptions reflect it. Essentially, he wants people to start telling the truth or they'll be exposed on FactCheck.org or reported to some officious police officer. He also claims that business people are more truthful than politicians. As much as I like the author, I have the impression (which I hope to be disabused of) that the Real World is not a place he has ventured into too often. His suggestions seem attractive but they will lead to abuse, time-wasting and intimidation and do not get to the heart of what is really wrong with our politics and why politicians are often tempted, encouraged, prompted, coerced, persuaded, even sometimes placed in a position where they are forced to lie, cheat and dissemble. (Besides which, election time is irritating enough (even in the UK) without having to put up with a noisy fact-checking culture as well, though I would certainly trust Oborne to do the fact-checking as he is one of the few honest journalists around).
There are some aspects of the book that make no verbal sense, and which have a questionable moral basis. I thought at first that Oborne might be using the term 'lying' in a very generic sense, as a kind of shorthand for various behaviours - an approach that would be stylistically understandable - but that is not the case. In fact, he defines 'lying' very broadly and indiscriminately, bringing various behaviours within the ambit of 'political lying', a slightly different approach that has some important flaws. First, it is unrealistic - and possibly undesirable - to label all dissembling behaviour as lying. Think for a moment about what a completely truthful social and political environment would look like and you will soon recognise why, in reality, much of our public and private discourse is coded and has to be deconstructed. In any case, Oborne's understanding of what constitutes a 'lie' is at times simply inaccurate. The most obvious example is his repeated assertion that various politicians were lying when something that they had promised would happen did not happen. That is not a lie, it is a broken promise. To call it a lie is unfair. Worse, it also detracts from where the proper criticism of the politician should be: that is, failure to keep a promise (not the same as lying). It is difficult to see how this moral hyperbole can assist Oborne with his professed objective of cleansing the political process.
Likewise, and contrary to what Oborne claims, telling an untruth is not necessarily the same as imparting a falsehood. In fact, an untruth need not be a lie at all, and to characterise all untruths as lies, as Oborne does, is very disingenuous and does not aid an understanding of the subject. The 'Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire' analysis of politics can be entertaining but it damages our political discourse and is not in the least illuminating. The author's obvious passion for the subject is the problem. What stops this from being the great book it could, and should, have been is Oborne's zeal, which overrides his judgement. At times the author gets carried away with himself and seems to adopt the a priori position that a politician or political figure in a particular instance is lying despite there being other, more innocent, explanations available. Politicians do lie, but they need not and do not always lie.