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Opinion

Paul McNamee: Swim against the tide of untruths

A sense of doing the right thing is being lost

Donegal is a great place. When you get there and into it, the light is different. You can lose time. Some years ago I was lost in Donegal. Literally. Some friends and me, in the days before sat nav, were trying to find a house near Gweedore. The map seemed to be showing roads that didn’t exist. We drove up and down and around these magical little roads. We kept ending up staring at the Atlantic. Which, in truth, is not a bad way to end up.

Finally, we found a man walking along and, sure he would have local knowledge, asked for directions.

Well, he said, if you go about half a mile down past the red gatepost, you’ve gone too far. And you’ll have to come back on yourself and not go so far. And that, he said, is a fact.

While entertaining, it wasn’t hugely helpful. Also, it was a very loose description of a fact.

We found the house, by accident, a little time later.

This odd moment keeps returning to me. In recent times it has come back with unbidden frequency. While flexible approaches and interpretations of facts are charming in the wilds of Donegal, they lose their lustre in general election campaigns.

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Last week’s spin on the idea of presenting what is true and what isn’t was staggering. It’s not just that Conservative Central HQ would change their Twitter feed to factcheckUK, to ape real fact checkers and so pump out party lines masquerading as impartial information. It’s that this was deemed first OK, then, that it didn’t matter because, in the words of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, nobody gives a toss about social media.

That’s the same Dominic Raab who will pursue legal costs back from the grieving family of Harry Dunn. Harry Dunn, remember, was killed in a collision outside an RAF base in Northamptonshire in August. The suspected driver of the car involved, Anne Sacoolas, is the wife of a diplomat and, claiming immunity, fled Britain. The Dunn family are taking action against Raab and the Foreign Office for allowing the departure. Raab said they’ll defend it, and seek money back from the Dunn family for these legal costs. While that may be legal, it’s patently not the right thing to do.

And this gets to the heart of a lot of the problem with this election. It’s not just the casual, Trumpian disregard for what is true and the spinning of untruths. It’s not that challenges to this are seen as coming with a political agenda, rather than all of us not wanting to be taken for fools. This is aimed at all parties, incidentally. Nobody has clean hands.

We don’t have to accept the lines we are fed

More keenly, it’s that many of the senior players are not prepared to stand up and show they have something about them that isn’t just fear of party discipline. I know we’re in an election, but really – facts matter. The truth matters. And standing up for something, showing principles, matters.

When he died a couple of weeks ago, footage of the former Health Secretary Frank Dobson being interviewed on Newsnight in 1998 emerged. He was asked about a health board scandal over struck-off doctors, and he gave honest answers. He didn’t try to obfuscate. He didn’t retreat behind a prepared party line. He didn’t attempt to get away without addressing the unmistakable truth in front of him. He didn’t claim that this was a politicised interpretation and could be dealt with subjectively. He believed something, and he said it.

I know there are principled people running for election. I also know that there are party orders to follow in any election. Increasingly, though, a sense of doing the right thing is being lost. That feels to be important.

And to be clear, this is not a pearl-grabbing quest for morality. It’s about a challenge to many of the makeweights in public life to show they have backbone and stand for something. They must know that when they parrot the untruths, they lessen as people.

We can challenge them, all of us can. We don’t have to accept the lines we are fed. It’s important in this moment, running up to the vital poll on December 12. Because, if we roll over and accept it, the doors are open for worse to come.

There will be no calm moments staring wistfully at the Atlantic.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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