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In an age of crisis, we can’t afford rulers who lie to us

Covid has emboldened leaders both here and abroad to deliberately mislead the people. We must question everything, says Michael Peel
Boris Johnson's government owes much of its authority to Brexit, says Michael Peel. Illustration: Joseph Joyce

The coronavirus crisis has become a crucible for rulers around the world to forge new tales of life and death.

Governments of all kinds are shaping favourable narratives out of the pandemic, even as they grapple with the consequences of it. In China, a Covid-19 story that began with the persecution of doctors who identified the new disease has morphed into an official chronicle of exemplary crisis management. In Britain, an administration criticised over high death rates now proclaims its successful vaccine rollout as a route to redemption. 

The health emergency’s extremes have illuminated and accelerated a global phenomenon I recount in The Fabulists. The title refers to the myth-makers who now head many countries as dictators, democrats or a hybrid of the two. The questionable information they spread and the misleading policy solutions they tout have become their own pandemic. These leaders can be as deadly to their own citizens as any pathogen, particularly when people’s fears and need for reassurance leave them susceptible to demagoguery.

The coronavirus scourge has also hammered home another crucial lesson suggested by The Fabulists. In an age of health, environmental and economic crises, we cannot afford rulers who lie openly to us or suppress inconvenient problems. Nor should we bear those who divert us from important truths with the seemingly lesser vices of reckless optimism, jokes and pleasing turns of phrase.

The struggle over the rise of fabulism is alive and still to be resolved almost everywhere

The book joins the dots of deception in four regions of the world. From Saudi Arabia to the Philippines, I write about some of the brave people who have paid with their liberty and even their lives for challenging official misinformation. I also look closer to home at the decay in the democratic sphere in continental Europe and the UK, in an electronic age that seems increasingly to do more to confuse than to enlighten.

The tendency of leaders to mislead is hardly a new phenomenon. The sins of the past, for example in the promotion of the Iraq war, have stoked the fabulism of the present. The contemporary culture of public falsehood has been further intensified by a growing sense in electoral politics that untruths can be shrugged off, errors left uncorrected and shamelessness brandished as a weapon. A common thread among autocratic fabulists and their elected cousins is impunity: rarely are they held responsible for their actions. 

It is a measure of the intensity of the worldwide battle for truth that much changed in the places I focus on in the book even as I was updating it. In Thailand, unprecedented protests broke out last year to demand reform of the country’s powerful monarchy under King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The demonstrations smashed the story of benign and universally beloved kingship long promoted by the country’s elite and outside powers – and enforced by draconian laws. The extraordinary tale of the Thai throne also tells us much about the continued potency of myths of monarchy, even as scandals have gripped dynasties from Brunei to Britain.

In Myanmar, February’s coup exposed a prime example of a common western tendency to wishful thinking about the world. The putsch ripped up the already fraying idea of a country democratising steadily under Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government. It showed where real power still lay, even if it had suited some international observers to overlook it. A military that has in the past killed protesters freely to maintain its grip has started to do so again. It has detained Suu Kyi and other leading civilian politicians, just as it did when she won elections in 1990 by a landslide.

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The coup was shocking but also in a deeper sense unsurprising, as was Suu Kyi’s earlier fall from grace with those who saw her as a human rights icon. Her refusal to condemn a brutal campaign launched by the military against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 was largely foretold. It is a story partly of her own failings, but also of how outsiders projected their desire for a success story on to her and her country.

Elsewhere in the world, events are less violent but the battle for the political narrative is just as fierce. Boris Johnson’s government owes its authority in good part to Brexit, an event I believe is frequently misrepresented. Its framing as an anti-elite uprising is contradicted by demographic studies that suggest both the Leave and Remain votes included a broad spectrum of people. An almost tragic quality of Brexit is that has been exploited by ideologues, chancers and profiteers to divide Britons who agree on much more than people might think.

The struggle over the rise of fabulism is alive and still to be resolved almost everywhere. Those of us who enjoy the freedom to interrogate what we are told and hold our leaders accountable must do that. We owe it to the many people around the world who face persecution and even death if they speak out. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves to keep asking the hard questions.

The Fabulists by Michael Peel is out now (Oneworld £10.99)