Why accountability has led to 'peak bullshit'

BOOK REVIEW: Evan Davis's Post-Truth lifts the lid on the wave of lies, spin and waffle that pervades our daily lives.

by Chris Deerin
Last Updated: 06 Jul 2017

Speak to civil servants working in the departments charged with delivering Brexit and you'll often hear the same sad story. The reason so little detail exists around the plan for leaving the EU is that ministers, paranoid about leaks, have discouraged their staff from devising it. We are woefully underprepared, pursuing a strategy that is little more than a Hail Mary pass.

Why are ministers so worried? In part, because the denizen of No 10 has set the tone: secretive, unforthcoming, and with a vicious revenge promised to anyone who shows disloyalty. In part, because they're making it up as they go along and are struggling to cope with the sheer scale and complexity of what's been undertaken. And finally, because they're terrified of the media.

The baloney that has emerged in place of facts and straight-talking (think 'Brexit means Brexit' - it's utterly meaningless) is the kind of thing that has inspired Evan Davis' new book. In the modern climate - for businesses as much as for politicians - transparency and accountability are not just expected, but demanded.But that transparency can mean the accountability comes at you good and hard.

As Davis writes: 'It's a difficult balance. Too little accountability and we never get the best out of people... yet too much accountability and we inevitably end up paralysing those people rather than challenging them. A vibrant media culture, populated with sceptics fired up with the self-proclaimed duty to "speak truth to power", can ironically end up creating a hopelessly secretive culture of administration.' Journalists, he adds, 'need to overcome bullshit to hold people to account, but in the process of holding them to account they can induce people to produce bullshit.'

As someone who works across the media, communications and academia, I expect I produce more than my fair share of bullshit. But as someone who teaches the art of writing to the public and private sectors, I also spend a large part of my time ranting against it. In the end, who can blame us for sinning? We are surrounded by corporate drek, by adverts fit only to bring on an aneurysm, by the wall-to-wall, 24/7 cliched opinions of 'experts', by ghastly business-school-ese.

Which regular Virgin Trains user can now hear that toilet message - 'Please don't flush nappies, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, your ex's sweater' etc - without wanting to stick Richard Branson's head down the bog instead? 'We are assailed by the stuff...,' he writes.

As he points out, bullshit isn't new. There was plenty of it around in the time of Henry VIII, or in the medieval Catholic Church, or in the Victorian era, or in the totalitarian guff that emerged from the Soviet Union. Donald Trump is only the latest jowly purveyor of arrant nonsense.

But it certainly seems true that there's more bullshit than ever before. And the world of 'post truth' seems to continually morph into new shapes. Davis lists a number of them, including 'using the right words to give the wrong impression' (think Bill Clinton's lawyerly denial of having 'sexual relations' with Monica Lewinsky); 'selective facts', or, in civil service speak, being 'economical with the truth'; 'spin', or presenting a slanted and favourable interpretation of the facts; 'deception through self-delusion', for which he references Tony Blair and Iraq; and so on. Our seemingly endless run of referendums and elections has left us staring into a deep, dank, steaming pit of verbal poo.

In the 'science bit' of the book, Davis looks at the various economic and psychological theories behind why bullshit is produced. He points out that the language of the modern communications profession has come to resemble the abnormal animals produced by dog breeders: 'physically unnatural and ill-adapted to basic functions like breathing'. Post-Truth has plenty of these sweet little encapsulations and byways to keep the reader entertained as well as informed.

In the end, he strikes an optimistic note: 'For all the rubbish we speak, ultimately the fate of human beings is driven by reality not words. The central guiding principle has to be that, in the long term, the truth will out.' That's as maybe, but perhaps the last word is better left to the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman. Does understanding the tricks of the door-to-door salesman make it easier to avoid being a sucker? 'I've been studying this stuff for about 45 years,' he says, 'and I really haven't improved one bit.'

Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, by Evan Davis, is published by Little, Brown (£20).

Chris Deerin is director of external relations at Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government, and Scotland editor of the New Statesman.

Image credit: Eilidhmcauley/Wikipedia

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