Saturday, 22 November 2014

The mendacity of institutions

It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying that there is so much falsehood in the world.
Samuel Johnson quoted in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

Memories of my younger days suggest that institutions had more integrity than is the case today. The Post Office, the BBC, the AA, the police, the local council and even the government may have been stuffy and somewhat inefficient, but were not generally regarded as mendacious.

Today institutions have changed for the worse – they tell lies. Usually lies of omission, Johnson's carelessness perhaps, but still lies. I could be looking back through rose-tinted spectacles of course, but I’m not too sentimental, I don’t actually want to go back to driving an Austin A40. In any case, there is a reasonable explanation for the mendacity of modern institutions and that’s public relations.

A few decades ago, institutions may have had their press office to deal with newspaper reporters and even a rare visit by a chap from the BBC, but they were much less inclined to put out a message so dripping with positive spin that it may as well be a barefaced lie.

Modern institutions have their off-days, but are far more inclined to defend the indefensible, if necessary for years. They are far more inclined to put out press releases which don’t even tell half the story, manufacture stories from nothing and generally exaggerate, misinform and mislead.

That would be bad enough, but all this positive spin promotes institutional mendacity. That in turn promotes mendacity among employees. It attracts those who are more inclined towards shading the truth, influences career progression, seeps into the culture, infecting everyone without the integrity to resist.

Institutions were always an important part of our culture. The BBC, the police with their whistles, bicycles and truncheons, the local council and the local bank. Again it’s worth wiping those rose-tinted spectacles in case they are misted up with nostalgia for a more honest past, but I don’t think it is all nostalgia.

The mendacity of institutions is genuine and most of it seems to be down to PR. How are we supposed to build a culture on lying?


Sam Vega said...

Absolutely right. Promotion through the ranks in such institutions is pretty much a test to see how much of one's integrity and truthfulness one is prepared to jettison. The selection process is based on interviews for a good reason. Few human interactions are so geared towards lying, prevarication, and shameless deception. I often hear people say that interviews are ineffective ways of choosing the right person; but I have come to think that they are in fact perfect.

Woodsy42 said...

I agree. I would go further and suggest that the climate of lying that is now widespread in public bodies, authorities and commercial firms (especially the financial industries) is a more important factor than dishonest politicians in creating the anti-establishment feelings that are now affecting politics. For most people government bodies like the police, NHS, Tax etc represent the establishment because those are the bodies people interact with.

Demetrius said...

Personally, I would love to have an Austin A40, but part from the nostalgia would agree. It is not just public relations, but modern management theory in many ways allied to politics that always was shifty at the best of times. My view, typical at the time was that it was far better to recognise and deal with errors etc. fast and get them out of the way. Because if you did not the consequences could be a lot worse. This was not just moral but gained from the military, in which most of us had served, in that case the reasons were obvious. One feature these days is the culture of cheating is very wide and almost the norm. The result is a lot more messy problems and the lack of the mind set that knows how to deal with them.

Demetrius said...

And another thing. These days, so much is impersonal, in the past so much was personal. The meter man, the local shop, the insurance man, the rent collector etc. Now it is nearly all distant with unseen faces and voices working to a script or just online.

A K Haart said...

Sam - and once a certain level has been reached it's a tap on the shoulder rather than an interview.

Woodsy - I agree. We discount the politicians because they aren't even expert liars. The more subtle liars are elsewhere.

Demetrius - I saw a superb A40 quite recently. How the owner kept it in that condition I've no idea. A heated garage presumably.

Dealing with errors quickly is the only way. Tesco did it with horse meat, but many institutions won't admit the error and move on. Not carrying the can is part of their culture.