WESTMINSTER ABBEY was the setting last month in which a
politician swore that he had never, in public life, lied; a doctor
was unapologetic about the occasions on which he had lied to
patients; and a journalist admitted that what he wrote as a war
reporter was "at least 20 per cent over-the-top".
All three and the poet Wendy Cope were gathered to discuss
truth-telling at an event organised by the new Westminster Abbey
Institute, "An Anatomy of Truth". Each took to the podium to give
his or her perspective on the subject, before answering questions
from one another, and the audience. Questions explored included:
"Is telling the truth always the right thing to do?" and "Do
different professions need to have systematically different
attitudes to truth-telling?"
Politics was represented by Jack Straw, Labour MP for Blackburn,
who served on his party's front bench for 30 years. Despite a
recent poll indicating that four out of five people did not believe
that politicians told the truth, Mr Straw said: "I can think of no
occasion in my public life where I have told a lie." This was true
of almost every politician in the country, he argued, "because the
penalty is the end of your working career".
He suggested, however, that there were "circumstances where, in
public life, it is right to withhold the truth or to tell a lie":
in the interests of national security, when someone's life was in
imminent danger, or to protect the national economy from
Sir Max Hastings, a former editor of The Daily
Telegraph and a historian, described journalism as "the
business of doing a jigsaw with a vast number of pieces missing . .
. and a good number of pieces wilfully concealed by those in
positions of power". While there were limitations on what
journalists could do, "if governments and others in positions of
power were left to get on with it without that kind of scrutiny, I
think we would be in a worse state."
He admitted that war reporters, including him, wrote pieces that
were "at least t20 per cent over-the-top because we were moved by
what we saw". Britain had, he suggested, some of the best and worst
journalists in the world.
Lord Winston, Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at
Imperial College, London, represented scientists. He asserted: "I
do not believe there is any such thing as the truth," pointing to
the uncertainties of science. "That uncertainty is as important to
our spirituality and humanity as to our science," he said.
He admitted that he had lied to patients when working as a
doctor, and argued that "sometimes, telling the truth is not the
right thing." He had told a dying lung-cancer patient, for example,
that he was not dying, and did not regret this. In comparison, Mr
Straw said that he had told the "unvarnished truth" to constituents
in difficult circumstances, including those facing deportation.
Ms Cope suggested that writing poetry was "about the poet being
honest with himself or herself. . . If the feeling of the poem is
falsified, exaggerated, or prettified, the poem won't work." She
quoted Huckleberry Finn's observation that "you can't pray a
Sir Max concluded the evening with the suggestion that "we
should aspire to tell as much truth as we can without hurting
Mr Straw said, simply, to laughter from the audience,
"Politicians are human beings."