Last week Judith Collins shared an article from a conspiracy website that also claimed Katy Perry is a cannibal. The shared article claimed France was making it legal to sexually assault children and Collins demanded the Prime Minister denounce the French. Roundly condemned for it, it gave people cause to bandy around the term “fake news” and “post-truth”. People have been saying we live in this post-truth world, that we don‘t get facts anymore. However I think the truth gets out, so much truth that it can be overwhelming. We then don‘t know what to do with it all. So it‘s beyond post-truth, it‘s post-accountability.
Politicians used to operate within a set of behavioural norms that they believed was acceptable to the voting public. If they stepped outside of these norms then they expected to be punished, either by being sacked or voted out at the next election. These norms were fairly narrow and a much higher standard of behaviour was expected from politicians than regular folk.
And so it was that indiscretions brought with them punishment.
But in the last two decades those norms have crept wider and wider to the point where politicians are getting away with all sorts of things. Things that if you‘d told people about twenty years ago they‘d be aghast.
Donald Trump obviously represents the apex – or nadir – of this. He is on video bragging that he forced himself on women, he lies constantly and has a habit of siding with Nazis, and yet he did enough to get elected as President of the US – admittedly through their flawed electoral college system.
His lies get debunked routinely and every day a new story emerges of something horrible happening from his administration, but Congress does nothing. So while Donald Trump may operate as a post-truth President, we, the media-reading public, find out the truth. But the magnitude and volume of truths that get fired at us make it overwhelming. We can‘t process just how bad these things are before the next outrage hits.
But Trump and Collins are not unique in behaving in a way that would previously have been unacceptable. As Prime Minister, Helen Clark‘s motorcade sped through the Canterbury Plains, covering 195km in 80 minutes – an average speed of 147kmh. The PM maintained that she had no idea how fast the car was going as she was reading papers. I think simple maths would have convinced you that your car was going pretty quickly. Covering nearly 200km in less than an hour and a half definitely means you‘re speeding.
This was in 2004. A year later Clark won re-election.
Then John Key had his moments in the spotlight. People who didn‘t support Key would wail in outrage at the things he‘d do. There was the prison-rape joke he took part in on radio, the gay red shirt comment, the mincing down the cat-walk – these things would previously have been thought of as unbecoming of a Prime Minister. Perhaps most significant was his repeated pulls on a waitress‘ pony-tail at a restaurant. Something that would be considered assault. Yet Key‘s popularity didn‘t take a hit.
Nicky Hager also revealed in his book, Dirty Politics, that Key‘s office had declassified information from the SIS in an effort to embarrass Phil Goff – one of a number of underhanded operations being run out of the Prime Minister‘s office. And yet again, despite the truth being out, Key‘s popularity remained untarnished.
This Government isn‘t immune either. Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran inappropriately met with Carol Hirschfeld and was then economical with the truth about the whys and wherefores of that meeting. She followed it up with a sequel when she left a phone message for then-RNZ Chair Richard Griffin about his Select Committee hearing.
So in all of these, the truth will out. And yet despite that, those guilty of what would previously have been punishable offences have sailed on quite happily. Comfortable in the knowledge that the next outrage is just around the corner and unless it‘s them again they will be forgotten about.
Whether these relaxed standards are a good thing is up to your interpretation, but we should not accept the premise that we live in a post-truth world.
There‘s a book available soon by Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw that sets out how to reach people in this new environment, how to get cut through. And I‘m dying to read it, because politicians now operate in a super-truth world, where everything is discoverable but none of it matters.
David Cormack has worked for the Labour and Green Parties and interned for Bill English while studying