by Chris Wallace
IF THERE’s one thing political journalists become experts on, it’s lying.
Lying is a constant of journalist-politician relations. Not every source lies and those that do don’t lie every time. Yet it happens regularly enough for one’s lie detector to have to sweep over pretty much everything that’s ever said to one in the course of a day’s work. Is what I’ve just been told a lie? If so, how big a lie and whose purpose does it serve? And is there any skerrick of salvageable truth within it that could be useful? They’re the questions one asks oneself.
Habitual political liars fall into two broad categories: calculating and delusional.
Calculating liars act opportunistically but, within their own amoral framework, rationally. They lie when they think they can get away with it and don’t when they calculate they can’t.
Over time, experiencing the odd close call with exposure, calculating political liars learn to cast their lines in an artful enough fashion to always have an out. Over time they thus transcend the outright lie and learn to fudge instead. Fudging is to lying what the Stradivarius is to that quarter-sized fiddle your five year old plays at the local Suzuki violin school - and they sound about as different, too.
Delusional liars, on the other hand, don’t really know they’re doing it. They believe, serially, their invented lines. It’s sounds right, it feels right…it must be right! That’s how they think. Delusional liars are often likable and can seem particularly sincere. If you genuinely believe the lie you’re spinning, of course, it’s easy to be sincere.
There’s nothing more dangerous in politics than a delusional liar.
You can deal with a calculating liar. They know they’re lying; you know they’re lying; you find out how their lie deviates from the truth and work out what’s in the lie for them, hoping you can parse some truth out of the exchange somehow, somewhere.
But you can’t do business with a delusional liar. They’re in la-la land. They’re unpredictable. You don’t know which way they’re heading next. They can’t be dealt with within any known framework. Worst of all, they actually believe what they’re saying. And that, of course, is mad.
Politics is not full of saints. Hell, I caught the now Prime Minister out in a porky before I’d even met him.
Then a Goss Government functionary, Rudd complained to (unknown to him) a mutual friend about a column I’d written in the Australian Financial Review, saying it was full of factual error. The column came down on the Keating Government’s side in an policy fight between it and the Queensland Government. Scrupulous concerning matters of fact and confident of my material, I got Rudd’s number, rang, introduced myself and said I’d heard he had a few problems with my column: Was there anything he wanted to raise? Miraculously, he now thought the column was terrifically accurate.
Shortly before that I had my first encounter with Malcolm Turnbull. Writing a long piece for the AFR on constitutional reform, I rang Turnbull in his then capacity as the Australian Republican Movement (ARM) chief. I got more than I bargained for: some fantastically inflammatory comments I knew would antagonise many Liberals, even then obviously Turnbull’s home ground politically.
Journalists are human. As a fervent republican I didn’t necessarily want the ARM chief blowing himself up with these quotes. He was about to tour his report on republican reform commissioned by the Keating Government. On the other hand, as a journalist I thought: Great story!
I took a middle course. I rang Turnbull, read the quotes I was going to use back to him, and asked if he really wanted to go on the record with them. “I’ll call you back,” he said. He did. He’d talked with Lucy, he said, and decided he did want to be quoted on the record. The story was published, the proverbial hit the fan. And as Turnbull toured his republican report around the offices of the east coast metro daily newspaper editors I heard it percolate back: the story was a complete outrage, he said repeatedly, claiming to have been grievously misquoted by me.
I never held Rudd’s porky against him and I didn’t hold Turnbull’s foolishness against him either. Dogs bark and (many though not all) politicians… You can finish the sentence.
But politicians shouldn’t lie, and those who do had better do it well and strategically or be prepared to pay a heavy price.
Which brings us to the current Leader of the Opposition and his handling of Glenn Milne’s News Group story yesterday on Turnbull’s abortive attempts to become a Labor MP. During the Howard Government’s time in office, Turnbull approached several Labor figures seeking help getting Labor preselection.
So how did Turnbull play it?
He could have told the truth and tried turning it to advantage. Australians like middle of the road leaders and there are plenty who could kick with both feet party-wise, The Lodge’s current incumbent included.
“Yes, I was disillusioned and thought the Liberals were on the wrong track,” Turnbull’s schtick could’ve gone. “But then, after wandering the wilderness of the eastern suburbs (a Bondi Junction shopping mall, perhaps) I returned home to Point Piper and had a vision – and recommitted to my political roots, the Liberal Party!”
Alternatively, he could have taken a cue from Churchill who started life as a Tory, later defected and became a Liberal, only later to defect back to the Tories. "Anyone can rat," Churchill famously quipped, "but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat."
But no. Turnbull denied the story. He said Labor had courted him, not vice versa.
It would be foolish to claim that no Labor person ever had such a conversation with him, but it is true to say it’s extremely unlikely. In the republican referendum wash-up, Turnbull emerged as one factor explaining the referendum loss: rich, arrogant, a bit toffee, he didn’t do the republican cause any good amongst boon dock voters. He was a political liability. So if a Labor figure did say “Malcolm, come on over!” it would have been at the level of a low flyer like, say, a John Murphy in a brief exchange over the stronganoff pit in the Parliament House café – that is, completely worthless.
Turnbull knows, everyone on the inside of Labor politics knows, and now everyone on the outside knows too: he wanted to be a Labor MP. He’s done a giant Pinocchio about it and now everyone knows that as well.
The question is, does Malcolm?
If it was a calculated lie, it was a hopeless one – and hopeless lies damage the liar.
If it was a delusional lie, that’s an even bigger issue.
You just can’t do business with the delusional.
24 August, 2009