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Statecraft, diplomacy and lie telling


US President Donald Trump speaks about business during a proclamation signing in the Oval Office of the White House October 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.<br />Brendan Smialowski / AFP

It has become clear, particularly in the 21st Century, that sovereign States, weak or powerful, big or small, often tell lies – small lies, big lies, monumental lies. A lie in this context refers to a presentation of facts with a view to influencing public opinion in a particular direction. The lies can also be classified into necessary lies and unnecessary lies. Such lies are often presented as ‘facts’, arising from intelligence gathering or from a deeper understanding of the political terrain which the ordinary people or those outside government cannot understand. Also, the lies are told ostensibly to secure the State, to secure the people and to save the people from themselves. To be sure, the officials do not say categorically that they have set out to tell lies. In this regard the American investigative journalist I.F. Stone asserts that “all governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.”

With the rise of a broad lexicon, new words, abbreviations, capable of multi-interpretation, meaning is portrayed in the light of current thinking; or subversive thinking. Dictators usually fit into this category. Such governments do not apologise for misleading the people; they simply say ‘that’s not what we said’, or ‘there was a misrepresentation on the part of the channel’. Some are petulantly mischievous. For example, when criticised for asserting that ‘half of the population are fools,’ they are likely to counter-claim ‘sorry, half of the population are not fools! If they do not say so explicitly, they imply this in their actions. Part of the lie telling machinery and experience has given room for the new expression ‘new normal’, the type which American Senator Jeff Flake of the Republican Party recently wrote about while taking on President Donald Trump in his speech aptly titled “Enough: It is Time to stand up to Trump”


A story or an occurrence could be given a different coloration by the State in order to fit into a particular narrative. It is often the narrative which the Chief Executive has initialed and promoted through his words and actions. Any experience which contradicts this established narrative is ‘sexed up’, or ‘garnished’, or ‘reordered’. Often, lies are told to protect the image of the Chief Executive or the system of government; this was routine in the days of rigid ideological Marxists/capitalism contestations. Interestingly such a scenario currently stares us in the face in the bastion of democracy – America. Donald Trump and his core group of supremacists in the White House, egged on by the wild forces of revisionism.

It was the great English novelist/satirist George Orwell who first introduced me to the capacity of the State to lie blatantly. In his highly political novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he paints the picture of a State that can alter the past, manipulate the present and predict the future with figures and statistics. As a sophomore it was inconceivable to me that a totalitarian state could or would need to go that far. Orwell also predicted the close circuit television which is used to monitor citizens on behalf of Big Brother. We were introduced to ‘double think’, which is the capacity to hold two contradictory opinions at the same time and believing them. In such a situation self-interrogation becomes a taboo. You must suspend disbelief; there must be no doubts because, to resort to another Orwellian expression, ‘Napoleon is always right’. Sean Spicer showed up at the Emmy’s shortly after leaving the White House and made a mockery of the lies he was mandated to promote while serving his Master! The Army High Command initially proclaimed IPOB a terrorist organisation. Because they could not stand the verbal bullets that followed, the same reputable body said that it never made any such proclamation in the first place. Sometimes, a cabal within government can constitute itself into

In the American build-up to attacking Iraq, the Western world aided by the intelligence agencies from all the countries involved, cooked-up reports that made an invasion inevitable. And after the invasion when it became clear that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, the same world powers put bodies together to find out why ‘intelligence services failed! So when Trump expressed disdain for the intelligence services, although it was a dangerous move, he put his finger on the pie by saying that their reports cannot be fully believed.


Sometimes the interests of the leader – military, political, financial- are intertwined with or presented as the interest of the State. Often the public cannot see through the opaque blind that is thrown over the followership in the name of a revolution, change, or reformation. A cabal in power can also make this possible. It is true that certain persons who are not privy to the inner workings of the cabal, innocently aid the leader. Such people are sincerely ignorant or naively trusting.

Why do sovereign states tell lies? Sometimes it is part of the subtle art of diplomacy, not wanting to offend the other party. Highly placed government officials do this a lot. For example, while visiting a community a political leader could lie about approvals already given or about to give in order to gain favour. This often happens before elections. Officials around the ‘Boss’ would know that their principal is lying between his teeth; but the principle of collective responsibility makes the officials nod their heads in agreement. At other times it is meant to cover up a terrible blunder. Lies are also told to make things look good. However, the concept of the State and its elected leaders negates lie telling as a way of life. In sum therefore, a sovereign State does not have to tell lies, whether small, big or monumental. By lying to its people a government loses the moral authority to rule. Why for example, should government officials tell lies about the health status of a President or a Governor?

In this business of lie-telling the media has a role to play – to expose lies. This often places journalists on the firing line when the State decides to play rough. It is the business of government to hide things; it is the business of journalism to discover the hidden truths. They can’t be friends.

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