The hardcore enthusiasts of American political news (aka - nerds) among you may be aware of an US cable news programme called The Rachel Maddow Show. It's on MSNBC and it's not easy to watch in the UK, but there is a podcast of the show available if you're interested. Anyway, the show's pretty good, especially if you're on the left. I mention it, however, because of Rachel Maddow's hatred for a particular website - PolitiFact.com. PolitiFact rates statements made by US politicians based on how truthful - or otherwise - they are. It has a Truth-O-Meter, ranging from 'True' (obviously) to 'Pants on Fire.' Maddow thinks the site is often wrong, which is important for a website with fact in its name. There are several YouTube clips of Maddow getting annoyed at PolitiFact. I urge you to seek them out. They are amusing.
Anyway, I got thinking about PolitiFact again recently. I don't know if you noticed, but the election campaign kicked off this week. Both Labour and the Conservatives launched shiny new posters, and some guy representing one of the minor parties - Nick Clegg - held a press conference that got no attention whatsoever. The posters, though, got a lot of attention, with quite a few people suggesting that they could do with a thorough going-over from a website like PolitiFact - albeit a more reliable one.
The Labour poster, first of all, claimed that 'the NHS as you know it cannot survive five more years of David Cameron.' That might be true, but it depends how you yourself 'know' the NHS. Some NHS trusts are struggling more than others - although the overall picture is certainly a bleak one. The Labour poster also makes it sound as if the Tory plans for a 1930s-style level of public spending can't possibly fund the NHS. To be specific, the quote is "The Tories want to cut spending on public services back to the levels of the 1930s, when there was no NHS". The suggestion between the lines is pretty obvious, right? Yet no-one serious believes that a Tory majority government is going to close down the NHS. When Labour implies such a thing, all they do is feed the public with hyperbolic misinformation and harm our chances of a sensible national debate about the future of the NHS in troubled times.
The Tory poster, featuring a road, a valley and an unfinished British flag, was also a load of rubbish. First of all, the road wasn't even a British one, so there's a lie straightaway. (Of course, it could have merely been the most truthful statement ever made by the Tories - the road to a stronger economy obviously would go through Germany.) Furthermore, the deficit claim on the poster - it's been halved, apparently - is only correct in percentage terms, and not in cold hard cash. In truth, George Osborne hasn't halved the deficit, not at all, and he's failed on his deficit pledges during this parliament. The Tories also say that there are 1.75million more people in work now than in 2010. That statement hasn't attracted so much critical attention, but still - how many of those people are in full-time work? How many of them earn a pay packet that actually covers their bills? It's hardly utopia, and the Tories are misleading us when their poster suggests that their big, long German road is leading us all towards prosperity. They also told a pack of whoppers about Labour's spending plans, which led to several amusing exchanges on Twitter between the parties as they both told each other what the other one had said they'd spend.
At this point you may be thinking that I'm the world's most naive idiot. Political parties not being honest? Shock horror, right? But the fact that they're being economical with the truth so early into the campaign is especially important this time around. Remember, this is the first election since the coalition passed the Fixed Term Parliament Act. The election will be on 7 May - we've known that for absolutely ages. That's why both parties unofficially launched their campaigns on Monday - they've pre-planned for a four-month-long election slog. That may not sound too taxing to anyone familiar with the year-long process by which the Americans select a president, but in British terms, it's incredible.
For the next four months, we're going to be subjected to a huge amount of information from all of the major political parties. They can target us now in more ways than ever before. It won't just be canvassers on your doorstep or in the town centre. Your Facebook feed and Twitter timeline are about to get clogged up by a steady stream of competing 'facts' from all sorts of different sources.
Will it be possible to form a proper and considered opinion from inside the maelstrom of rubbish? It's doubtful. Social media and TV news don't exactly hone in on statements because they think they're absolutely 100% reliable. They're attracted to the stuff that sounds the most alarmist, or interesting, or controversial. The posters produced by the two main parties this week both show that they know all about this, and - worst of all - that they want to play this game, instead of trying to win the election with substance and honesty. It's no wonder that we hold them in such contempt. At a time when trust in politicians is at an all-time low, when fewer people than ever take what they have to say seriously, both Labour and the Conservatives seem set to spend this bloated election campaign indulging in a fresh hit of absolute nonsense. They're like drunk teenagers trying to buy another pint after they've just been sick all over themselves. Let's just hope that, somehow, we can find the nuggets of reality in amongst all their propaganda-driven lies.