Media pressure forces politicians to make rapid decisions on complex questionsby AC Grayling / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
In this age of instant media, politicians are expected to do and be many intrinsically implausible things. One is that they have to appear, when questioned on an issue of the day, to be fully informed about the matter and already in possession of a policy to deal with it. They have to seem to believe that they are right about what needs to be done. But: can they always be? Or, indeed, ever be?
It is an illusion to think that there is, in any way beyond the immediate and trivial, such a thing as knowledge in the world of empirical affairs. Sceptical arguments in philosophy that illustrate the unreliability and finitude of our cognitive powers—perception, reasoning and memory—are enough to show that they are foolhardy who claim to know, actually to know, much beyond the present reach of their senses; and even then they could be wrong. If knowledge is such a tremendously scarce commodity, how can anyone claim to be right about anything other than what is directly under their noses?
We can of course have mathematical and logical knowledge, because here certainties are attainable: we can do the proof or derivation, and if the form of the argument is valid and the premises correct, the conclusion is thereby guaranteed—it is an entirely automatic matter. But extremely few such guarantees are available in the contingent world, still less when we are talking about the future—about what will happen next week, next year, or as a result of the next Budget.
Harold Macmillan, the publisher turned Prime Minister who is said to have kept a copy of the works of Aeschylus in his pocket in the First World War trenches, once remarked that the imponderable certainty of political life is “events.” Given that these always happen (one can be right about that, note) and that often they make a nonsense of the most careful plans, the whole question of whether one can be right about being right is thrown in the air. This is the primary reason why no politician with an intellectual conscience should claim that he or she can get things right; the most and best that should be claimed is that he or she is going to try hard.
In line with this, one might think of government as a series of essays, using this term conformably with its French etymology: it is derived from essayer, to try. You cannot claim, when you say that you are going to make an attempt of some sort, that the attempt is right; though you can take a risk and claim that you are right about this being the right thing to attempt. By their very nature, attempts to achieve something are tentative and hopeful. Only the outcome can tell us whether the choice made, the action taken, the endeavour itself, was right.
We like those who try to be right, or to get things right, or to put them right. We do not like people who actually claim to be right. But political discourse has evolved to the point where it is a fallibility to admit to not being right or to not having the answers (think of how President Barack Obama was pilloried recently for saying that “We do not have a strategy yet” for tackling the Islamic State). This has been furthered by the speed and intensification of media scrutiny: the instant news cycle has forced politicians to be right about everything at the very moment when they need to appear to be so.
The consequences are bad in a number of ways. First, to be wedded to policies made on the hoof is highly questionable. Second, to make confident claims to be right that turn out to be wrong shakes confidence among voters, and rightly so. Third, to give the impression that everything is in hand in advance, and that there is no need for time to get the facts and to deliberate, sets a bad precedent.
I imagine that there must be some political leaders who rather envied Obama’s “we don’t have a strategy” moment. Because he is not himself up for re-election, a moment of refreshing honesty became affordable; he did not have to appear to think he was right about a difficult matter that was still under consideration.
But it is not even a matter of the freedom to express doubt or uncertainty; if the relentless hounding of the media would allow politicians to say that they are still thinking things through, they would probably be more right more often than when forced to claim to be right always.