Post-truth rhetoric

Mark Thompson’s new book¬†

might seem a bit off-topic for a blog covering economics books. But the EU referendum campaign put debate about economics on the frontline. According to opinion polling, nearly 90% of professional economists in the UK agreed a Leave vote would prove harmful to the economy (by the way, not all in the two months after the vote – it’s an assessment of longer term trade and investment prospects). Economists were also among those pointing out that the claim of ¬£350m a week extra for the NHS could not be a true claim because the UK’s net payment to the EU is nothing like so big (so did the UK Statistics Authority; and indeed, the claim has now been dropped by the Leavers – nowhere to be seen on their website). As a consequence, Brexit campaigners dismissed ‘experts’ and indeed Michael Gove, a senior politician, compared 300 who signed an open letter to the newspapers (including me) to Nazi scientists. (He did later apologize.)

[amazon_image id=”B019CGXR6G” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Enough Said: What’s gone wrong with the language of politics?[/amazon_image]

Of course, it isn’t just Brexit. Step forward Donald Trump. Populist politics everywhere are ‘post truth’. Mark Thompson’s book is about the language of this phenomenon. He looks at issues such as climate change, the MMR vaccine; at the arrival of spin techniques; at distrust in politics. He analyses the highly effective rhetorical techniques used by the post-truthers, and the role of the media in amplifying the phenomenon. It isn’t just social media and polemical online news entities, although they play a large part. Thompson also points the finger of blame at traditional quality news organisations – including the BBC, of which he used to be Director General – for falling for the idea of ‘false balance’. In other words, that every pro-Remain economist must be balanced by one of the eight pro-Leave economists. I’m not sure he would have taken a different tack, were he still in the job earlier this year: the relentless right wing attacks on the BBC’s funds, on its supposed ‘bias’, on its independence have undermined its editorial confidence. However, I do agree with him about its referendum coverage, as do Ivor Gaber of the Political Studies Association and the Electoral Reform Society, which considered coverage by the public service broadcasters too combative, like a Punch and Judy show rather than a serious deliberation.

Experts get part of the blame too, for a failure to communicate. Technocrats deploy a ‘weirdly affectless and dehumanised style,’ he writes. I hope not me, but certainly agree economists need to try harder to communicate. This faultline between technocracy and popular democracy has been a long time in the making, though: Daniel Bell warned about it in

. Unfortunately it’s clear that politicians and media (of all kinds) are locked into a vicious circle of neither side being able to discuss real trade-offs or hard choices. So that only really leaves the experts. And Thompson points out that expert language needs to change. It cannot stick with reasoned argument , but needs to add the appeal to emotion and the badge of good character (to complete the triad of traditional rhetorical tools). “Technocracy is itself a product of the rationalist enterprise, so we shouldn’t be surprised when today’s policy experts contrast their world of evidence-based and hyper-rational discussion with the irrational language world of retail politics.” Not surprised, but clearly we need to extend our repetoire to persuade others.

Not surprisingly, though, Thompson’s book is weaker on solutions than on diagnosis. After all, the degradation of public discourse, the post-truth world, is a difficult and entrenched problem a long time in the making. But for the analysis – and the insights from a distinguished and experienced journalist and news executive – the book is well worth a read.