Experts be damned: on post-factual communication

‘Post-factual’ is a phrase we’ve been hearing a lot of lately. Once upon a time you would have been discredited for calling the Bank of England corrupt. Now –as Rafael Behr quotes in his Guardian long read autopsy of the remains of Remain– you can plaster it over a bus and the BBC will give you a free ride. Post-factual is identification politics- it means understanding what it’s like to “walk in my shoes”. As Tony Blair explained, those irritating factual outcomes – non-existence of WMDs, failure to exhaust viable alternative to combat- only tell half the story. We’ll never know just how hard it was on him. Then there’s Andrea Leadsom’s own dodgy dossier. Having misled the country over the prizes of Brexit it seems only appropriate that her application for No.10 comes laden with invented job titles and semantic promotions. What’s a pay grade between friends?

PR too has been known for its cavalier relationship to factual accuracy. We start with what we want to say and then find the facts that suits us. While post-factuality may provide some easy escape route in the short-term it won’t let you off the hook entirely. As Gove and Johnson discovered you can’t condemn the experts and then delegate to your own authorities. It is one thing for Blair to ask us to sympathise with the complexity of decision making leading up to the 2003 invasion; but it’s quite another to suggest he’d do it again even with the facts. This is just muddled messaging. For Leadsom something that was simply meant to underline her business prowess has become a bigger story than it need be, drawing levels of attention to her entanglement in financial services that is politically risky in an environment still ripe for punishing bankers and off-shore accounting.

A more assured strategy would be not to rewrite facts with hindsight but to own up to our limitations. Rather than promising riches or forecasting catastrophe, pre-factual thinking acknowledges that there are many things that we don’t know yet. We may be divided by our belief in different facts but we are united by what Rumsfeld once called the known unknowns. This might not sound like an awe-inspiring proposition but in an environment dogged by cynicism this may be our last resort. In the most Socratic of ways, this is about rediscovering the importance of asking questions – of others and ourselves. The BBC’s flagship political programme is not called Answer Time. The best expression of democracy is through questioning and articulating our doubts. Conversely, the best expression of post-factualism is the bloody airbrush of Stalinist certainty.