‘Alternative facts’, the Orwellian phrase coined last weekend by a senior Donald Trump adviser, has already taken root in UK politics - but it’s not so far a “deliberate assault on truth”, an academic has told HuffPost UK.
Last weekend, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the US president, deployed the term when defending the White House’s claims his inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period” - despite over-whelming evidence to the contrary.
The phrase was seized upon because of its echoes to George Orwell’s 1984, the seminal novel about the manipulation of authoritarian regimes, and the notion of ‘doublespeak’: the use of evasive, misleading language.
In the aftermath of her interview last Sunday, sales of the dystopian drama - first published in 1949 - soared, and the book has risen to the top ten best-selling books on Amazon.
Where US the leads, the UK follows.
Almost immediately, the phrase was seized upon by British journalists and politicians, and in one instance applied retrospectively to last year’s EU referendum, where voters were subjected to a series of dubious claims and hyperbolic forecasts - from both sides of the argument.
The most infamous was that Brexit would lead to a £350m-a-week spending bonanza for the NHS thanks to repatriating money sent to Brussels. The pledge was so central to the official Leave campaign’s pitch that it was emblazoned on the side of a bus.
The reality was very different. The campaign later admitted it only ever suggested spending £100 million a week on the NHS, and that it was an “aspiration”.
As the week went on, ‘alternative facts’ were increasingly visible in the UK.
The phrase emerged in Parliament, press releases and comment pieces, and thrown around with some abandon.
1) When the Government and Brexiteers responded to the Supreme Court ruling that MPs would have to get a vote before quitting the EU.
2) Brexit more broadly.
3) In the parliaments of Westminster and Holyrood.
4) In commentary when the Government ducked questions on whether the Trident nuclear missile had mis-fired.
5) When the Government brought forward revisions to the Charter for Budget Responsibility, guiding the government’s decisions on taxation and spending.
6) When the SNP’s Alex Salmond suggested on the BBC’s Newsnight more Scots voted to stay in the EU than against leaving the United Kingdom.
But are British politicians really engaging in Orwellian practices?
Dr Philip Seargeant of the Open University is a linguistics expert who has argued the dissemination of fake news on social media could be counter-acted by teaching children how to spot the difference in schools. Following the Conway comments, he has written how disputes over language are always a part of political debate.
“The way people use language to frame things can have real consequences, especially in the way people view things - which is why it becomes a site for political struggle,” he told HuffPost UK. “Classic examples are whether someone’s described as a terrorist or a freedom fighter.”
He points to linguist Eric Garland arguing how the US right-wing media portrays itself as separate from ‘the media’ in general, and then demonises it.
With ‘alternative facts’ as with ‘fake news’, both sides of the debate have used the phrase. “For the mainstream media ‘fake news’ refers to clearly fabricated stories which push a particular agenda, for the Trump administration ‘fake news’ is the mainstream media,” he says.
“So in a sense, the term is less about truth as about power. It’s about people trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the other’s point of view, by categorising it with the phrase.”
He says ‘alternative facts’ have been used in the UK so far as part of the round of “fairly normal spin, followed by fairly normal opposition criticism” and is “not necessarily evidence of a ‘post-truth’ era”.
Dr Seargeant adds: “In many ways, picking up the term in this way probably undermines the strength of it - which, in the context of Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer and Trump has this sense of the deliberate assault on truth in an Orwellian way.”