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What is truth? Public figures give different answers

15 November 2013


Keeping quiet: the then Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw (right), with Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference, in October 1996 

Keeping quiet: the then Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw (right), with Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference, in October 1996 

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 breakdown.

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 lie."

Sir Max concluded the evening with the suggestion that "we should aspire to tell as much truth as we can without hurting others."

Mr Straw said, simply, to laughter from the audience, "Politicians are human beings."

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