The perils of debating 'truth' with 'power'
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 54 summer 2003
An interesting dilemma arose for us during the production of this edition of Living Ethics that we feel demonstrates both political spin and ethics in action.
St James Ethics Centre has a high reputation for integrity – a reputation established, in part, due to our persistent attempts to offer a balanced and fair examination of complex issues.
Our choice to consider political truth in this issue was based on a genuine interest in exploring an ongoing debate that is of great interest around the world. When polls show that political leaders are expected to lie, and evidence of deliberate concealment of truth by governments continues to emerge on a global scale, it is appropriate that a Centre such as this should be interested in exploring what this means for the future of political leadership, democracy and people’s ability to trust their elected leaders.
We therefore sought a range of contributions from suitably qualified writers on the basis of their established reputations and ability to comment on the primary focus of this issue – truth and lies in both public and private life.
In keeping with our approach to all issues, we were not so much interested in the right and wrong of political truth, as much as examining its complexity. Obviously there are many instances when governments and other institutions are not in a position to reveal everything to the public, but where is the line between confidentiality and concealing the truth? Can media relations in government ever be ‘truthful’ and ‘honest’, and ought they be?
Can media relations in government ever be ‘truthful’ and ‘honest’, and ought they be?
We had no prior knowledge of the stance that any of our invited writers would take, with the exception of the contribution we sought from Andrew Wilkie, a person who faced the recent dilemma of whether to speak out or remain silent in the face of what he perceived to be the use, by government, of incorrect information. Whatever one might think of Mr Wilkie’s judgement, his was an act of some moral courage and, as such, one that we felt deserved further exploration.
When we found that a number of articles submitted to Living Ethics included comments that were directly critical of the Federal Government, we felt that it would be fair to seek comment from a relevant Minister. It seemed to us that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, would be an ideal person to produce a considered response to some of the key issues raised.
In a genuine attempt to achieve balance, we consolidated a selection of questions raised by some of the contributors and contacted Mr Downer’s Media Adviser for a response from the Minister.
While we neglected to provide an indication of the small scale of our publication or the subsequent word limit we impose on all our contributors, we assumed that in keeping with normal practice, the Minster’s response would be considered, but relatively brief. It is our understanding that media advisers regularly issue statements to the media at short notice. We also know that such statements are seldom published in full, as they often contain additional material that moves into the realm of political highlights and achievements – commonly known as ‘media spin’.
We extended our publication deadline by a week in order to allow Mr Downer’s office adequate time to prepare a statement. The response we received appears on the following pages. We were advised that it was “cleared for publication on the condition that it is published in full – unedited”.
Whilst Mr Downer’s Media Adviser asserts that this response was based directly on our questions, much of the content is highly political, focusing on the Government’s own perceptions of its achievements in Iraq. A quick web search revealed that a big chunk of this material has been drawn from Mr Downer’s address to the National Press Club on 26 November 2003 entitled The Myth of Little Australia (transcript available at www.dfat.gov.au).
On reading Mr Downer’s comment we also found that it contained several serious allegations about the Ethics Centre’s intentions in selecting writers. Put simply, Mr Downer implied that the Centre was politically motivated and had deliberately sought to publish material which is critical of the Federal Government. The Minister also suggested that we had been 'duped' or fallen into some kind of trap set by the 'liberal Left'.
I contacted Mr Downer’s office and, amongst other things, advised him of the facts of how we sought contributions. I suggested that he might like to amend his statement and remove those allegations that we assured him to be false. After a series of exchanges between our offices, an advisor, on behalf of Mr Downer, refused our request.
We were therefore faced with two choices: we could either not publish the comment, and risk being accused of excluding the Minister’s point of view, or we could publish it in full, including the false allegations about the Centre.
After much debate, we have chosen to publish Mr Downer’s response. Contrary to the claims you will read, we had no adverse intentions towards the Government when commissioning articles for this edition of Living Ethics. Nor did we actively seek only to publish material that is critical of the Government.
Indeed, when seeking contributions we also approached a former Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister, who is known to be sympathetic to the Howard Government. This was to balance the approach likely to be taken by Andrew Wilkie, the one person we assumed would be critical of the Federal Government. However, the individual we approached did not respond to our invitation.
The nub of the matter is this: what we have directly experienced looks and feels like a reckless indifference to the truth. What we do not understand is why this should have been the approach taken in this case.
Mr Downer is not alone in dealing with matters in the manner described above. Such conduct seems to be part and parcel of the way politics is practised (at least by some) in Australia. For example, a number of former Prime Ministers had a fierce reputation for attacking those who had the temerity to raise difficult questions.
Why should powerful politicians opt for this approach? One explanation may be that they find it impossible to believe that anybody would raise issues to do with truth in politics for bona fide reasons of concern about the ethical standards at play in Australian politics today. Given the political environment in which they work, it may seem that every act is party political in character and that expressions of genuine concern are merely feigned.
Or, perhaps, some in power have a lofty disregard and contempt for ordinary Australians who take an interest in government conduct. This may be allied to a belief that it is possible to malign the powerless or to say whatever you like, whenever you like, because nobody really cares. Then again, it may be that politicians (and especially senior ministers) operate under such considerable pressure as to suffer some impairment of judgement.
Finally, it could emerge that events such as these arise out of the way in which tasks, in the offices of politicians, are allocated to functionaries who act on their behalf. For example, ministers (of all political persuasions) have been known to disclaim responsibility and point to the actions of an adviser who is often unaccountable to anyone except the minister for his or her actions.
This is, of course, the great loophole in Australian democracy. As things stand, ministers are seldom responsible for anything – unless it suits their political agenda.
Whatever the case may be, this whole situation has presented the Ethics Centre with its own dilemma. Given that we are committed to remaining apolitical, how do we address such conduct when it involves a major political figure?
To add to the complexity, we need to recognize that the Centre has a vested interest in protecting its good name. A reputation for fairness and integrity is all that we have. As many know, the organisation has no capital and it possesses no power. So we are peculiarly vulnerable if ever we stray into areas that affect the interests of the ‘good and the great’. Yet, while we have a clear interest in confronting false allegations about the Ethics Centre and its work, it should also be said that the correspondence between self-interest and the truth has never been a reason to silence the truth.
While recognising the risks in confronting this issue and in using Mr Downer’s engagement with the Ethics Centre as a case study of the way truth intersects with politics, we have decided to accept these risks and publish the details so that others can form their own view.