1 OCTOBER 1983, Page 31


Lying abroad

P.J. Kavanagh

irn the 17th century Sir Henry Wooton 1 said 'an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his coun- try' and the remark has stayed with us, because of the gentle pun and the slight shock it can still give. But he was careful to say 'an honest man' and there are lies and lies. During the Falklands War, for example, we all knew that we were being presented with a rosier picture than was probably justified, but few of us believed we were be- ing told direct lies. Nor were we. Apart from anything else, because of our press, these would have been remembered and, afterwards, the gaff would have been blown. One of the most disquieting things about the whole affair was that the same was not true of the other side. The Argenti- nians were being told that our aircraft car- rier had been sunk (on four different occa- sions, I seem to remember), that Gurkhas were cutting the heads off their own offi- cers as well as off prisoners, that they had themselves all been killed, etc, etc. It was a frightening reminder of what contradictory rubbish certain kinds of government know, or think, they can get away with. Nobody in Argentina was going to be allowed to see film of the aircraft carrier returning home, or those small unsmiling men disembarking at Tilbury, or wherever.

But what about the acceptance, or near- acceptance, of lies on our own side? How far is mistrust, like a bacillus, beginning to spread in our own minds? One lunch-time I heard on the radio that the Japanese had released the tape-recording of the last com- munication from the Korean airliner. 'Speech experts', after five days, had decid- ed that the voices showed that the crew had no fear of attack. Apart from the fact that just about anything can be done to a tape (which occurred to me — 1 wonder why) I suppose I was mildly comforted to learn that airline pilots keep in such close contact with the ground and even, possibly stupid- ly, comforted to think that these same con- trols did not notice the aircraft was off course; not everything shows up on their confounded radar. On the radio it was described as a 'routine contact'. Then, later the same evening, it was announced on television (1 wrote it down) that 'scientists had decoded the barely intelligible message'. What had happened since lunch? Are routine messages normally 'barely in- telligible'? If so, why send them? These questions may not be important, their answers of no interest, but the point is that I was thrown, like most people over this af- fair, into a mood of mistrust.

Already the Americans are saying that any evidence the Russians find will be faked. The Russians have already put for- ward a nightmare 'scenario' in which the Americans sacrificed the airliner for political reasons. I use the word scenario on purpose because it sounds as though both sides read too many of those books you pick up at airports, written to be turned into films. Possibly both sides have begun to think like that.

But, again, my point is that we trust the explanations of neither side and are therefore in danger of accepting the lie as normal in the conduct of nations. A poll, published in the Times, shows that 61 per cent of Americans feel their government is withholding something. When their govern- ment has reacted with such intemperate horror that means they do not suspect their leaders of suppression, but of lying.

How have we come so far since the inno- cent half-jest of Sir Henry Wooton? If we mistrust everything our representatives say we begin to mistrust what our friends say and end up mistrusting ourselves and language itself. Words become merely signs and signals capable of a number of inter- pretations so nearly infinite they are virtual- ly deprived of meaning altogether. (There is a school of literary criticism working along these lines.) Lies rot us, and if the US government has begun to lie in this wholesale fashion we should disassociate ourselves from it at once. Yet it is the country that removed a President because he lied. So lies do not even work, or not always.

What we have to do is remember when public figures have been found to lie, and

never forgive them. It used to be disgraceful to be a coward but now people can raise a laugh by saying 'I'm a devout coward'. I haven't yet heard anyone claim to be a devout liar, but that will come, unless we insist there is a real connection between public and private behaviour, that to lie abroad is to lie at home.