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The Assault on Truth
by Peter Oborne
(Simon & Schuster, £12.99)
PETER OBORNE, former chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, is an incisive commentator and skilled prose stylist, qualities evidenced in this concise but ambitious book.
A rigorous exposure of the deceptions perpetrated by Boris Johnson’s political machine, it also assesses the culture and consequences of dishonesty in public office.
Oborne, once a colleague of Johnson at the Spectator, acknowledges that lies have always been part of politics but suggests something is changing. Liars go unchallenged and dishonesty is eroding trust in democracy.
Examining the lies told by the Tories and disseminated by the media in the 2019 general election, he painstakingly builds his case, with each key deception substantiated in a footnote.
The Tories’ exploitation of doctored interview footage is cited, together with their spurious claims about building new hospitals and their misleading statements about Labour plans for Scottish independence, corporation tax and national security.
A “greatest hits”-style collection of governmental defamation and denigration would be of limited value but Oborne goes further in exploring the context and outcomes of Johnson’s behaviour and attempts to identify the factors that have sustained it.
The decline of integrity in public life is partly attributed to Johnson’s character. Oborne suggests that the Prime Minister’s recklessness and blame-shifting during the coronavirus pandemic have led to Britain experiencing a far higher death rate than that of Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has established a reputation for analytical candour.
Oborne also considers structural factors, such as the “apparatus of deceit” that has been exploited by Johnson and his associates.
He is unsparing in his criticism of journalists who behave as “cheerleaders to the government” to secure access to ministers. This culture of client journalism is, he suggests, the reason the “mainstream press ignored Johnson’s lies.”
Yet this critique does not go far enough. The mendacity of British newspapers predates the rise of Johnson — remember the Daily Mail’s hysteria over Romanian migrants planning to “flood” Britain in 2014? Remember Hillsborough?
The cartoonist and writer Martin Rowson offers a more incisive view of the mainstream press: “Most journalism published by rich men is little more than tampering with the evidence at the latest crime scene.”
Oborne’s conservatism is based on excessive faith in the fairness and decency of our establishment and its institutions — I am not convinced by his assertion that challenging my Conservative MP about government lies would in some way delay the corrosion of democracy.
But, to give credit where it is due, Oborne’s clear condemnation of the conduct of Johnson, his Cabinet, their advisers and the press is clearer and more powerful than any statement on the matter from the current leader of the opposition or shadow cabinet.
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