‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” Francis Bacon may have been the father of the great English empirical tradition – we arrive at truth by asking questions and assessing evidence – but when he wrote one of the most quoted lines in the language, he could mock Pilate because in 1625 it was self-evident that Jesus was the son of God.
Today we are less certain about God and Jesus, but ever more certain about Bacon’s greater point – that if we don’t question and test the answers there is no route to truth.
However, Bacon’s conception of objective truth has long been under fire. There is no truth; there is your truth and my truth. All facts are mediated through personal experience; as even scientific theories change over time.
It’s an attitude that has spilled over into politics and journalism. Time was, when the bulk of the Tory and Labour parties could be trusted to adhere to the notion that there are truths; that BBC impartiality, for example, could exist. However, politics has become increasingly about the fight to control the narrative which then, in turn, dictates “facts”.
Thus a Brexiter politician will celebrate leading Britain into global trading relationships based on “WTO” terms even as the WTO collapses. It’s the story that counts, not the truth – better still if it can be captured, Dominic Cummings-like, in a three-word slogan.
It’s a reflex that is fatally on display in the government’s management of the pandemic. Suddenly the issues are not just a party political fight to create a “dominant narrative”, whatever the facts, but are a matter of life and death. The government wants to portray itself as being truth-seeking, driven by “the science”. But it was not science that justified the fatal weeks-long delay in launching lockdown; it was the prime minister’s own libertarian instincts and accompanying indecision – looking for a scientific rationale to show mitigation was the better policy.
Covid-19 is creating a watershed moment. There really are facts; we had better respect them if we want to stay alive
Covid-19 is creating a watershed moment. There really are facts; we had better respect them if we want to stay alive. The furore provoked by Emily Maitlis, Newsnight’s talented and charismatic lead presenter, and her introduction to the Tuesday night programme spoke to the moment. All the country, she said as she opened her programme, knew that the prime minister’s chief adviser had broken the lockdown rules. People “feel like fools” for observing the rules when those at the top did not, and they could not understand why Johnson “blindly” supported his adviser.
But was she stating the facts – or framing a narrative to support a particular truth?
BBC managers, in receipt of thousands of both complaining and supportive emails and a call from No 10, were in no doubt. A lightening fast official BBC reprimand was issued; but not calling out any particular mistake. Maitlis volunteered for a night off, which was quickly portrayed by some as her de facto one-programme suspension.
Were BBC managers right? In a battle for the narratives, her introduction certainly challenged the government’s – but it was actually supported by facts aplenty. Impartiality is about asking questions in search of truth, a value the BBC must hold to the last if it is to survive, and one that needs to be expressed both on and off air. The BBC management’s first instinct when under fire should have been to adopt the same judicious questioning of Maitlis off air that it expects of its presenters on air. They should have worked out a shared response based around shared values and should have done so in their own time, rather than the government’s.
This was certainly the way it worked in the 1980s when I was Newsnight’s economics editor. I could trust that the BBC’s first instinct would be my defence, and that I would be involved in the case made in reply to any complaints, from whatever quarter they came. Everything would turn not on a narrative but on whether the facts supported what I reported.
Too little attempt was made to defend Maitlis. The BBC moved, within hours, to concede that she had overstepped the mark
What is wrong about where the BBC has now landed is that too little attempt was made to defend Maitlis, involve her, or create a joint position as the BBC tried to do in the 1980s. Instead it moved, within hours, to concede that Maitlis had overstepped the mark, presumably in being a “narrative creator”, without explicitly identifying what error of fact Maitlis had made. Yes, it was a tonally tough framing of the programme, and parts could have been better cast in terms of questions that needed answering, but it was framed by objective fact.
The bigger political reality is that this was Cummings and a government baying for the BBC’s head – appeasement was the order of the day. If the BBC felt that Maitlis had moved into editorialising, it needed to set that out baldly and factually. Instead, she was turned into a victim overnight, creating just the diversionary story for which Downing Street will have hoped. And, by requesting not to present, she too got sucked into No 10’s game.
The reaction was painful. The BBC, hitherto enjoying growing ratings with reports that its audience could trust, was on the back foot. Maitlis may have pushed the envelope but, substantially, she was right. We want facts. We want facts on virus testing, facts on whether there was a protective ring around care homes, facts on whether the testing capacity will work and any new app will not transgress basic human rights. There are no “my truths” and no “your truths”.
Trust can only be earned in public health policy by testing answers. Evidence bending in order to justify a political position is not going to work. One of the reasons Keir Starmer’s approval rating is rising is that he is in step with the times. The period of British politics in which style and storytelling triumphed over fact and evidence is ending. The tragedy is that it has taken a first-order health crisis to remind the British of the tradition that Francis Bacon pioneered – and once again to live by it.
•Will Hutton is an Observer columnist