I was asked the other day when it’s okay to call someone a ‘liar’ in the media.
My short answer: ‘Never.’
Not in a newspaper, on a blog, on a TV show or a Facebook page.
Calling someone a liar is a subjective statement. It says nothing about the facts of what a person has claimed; rather, it’s a judgement about whether or not they are honestly presenting their case.
With very rare exceptions we have no way of knowing if a person is consciously lying, that is: deliberately misrepresenting things in order to shape a message according to their own best interests.
So how do you call that person out?
Short answer: Stick to the facts (and be very sure you’ve got them right); present your information clearly; then let your readers come to their own conclusions.
How, then, can politicians – particularly south of the border – bandy the word liar about with seeming impunity.
I’m no expert, particularly when it comes to American libel law. But I suggest politicians and other high flyers engage in a game of legal chicken when it comes to libel and defamation.
It’s a cynical calculation that drives debate to its lowest common denominator; it’s also strategically very effective.
Call your opponent a liar and what’s she going to do? Will she launch a libel suit and give you a bigger platform where you can continue making your claims under even taller headlines? Will she give you the opportunity to accuse her of attempting to stifle ‘frank’ debate with a trumped up legal challenge?
Smart politicians with a streak of demagoguery in them know they are engaged in a branch of theatre, where nothing plays better than controversy.
Bottom line: Call someone a liar, and there’s a very good chance you are straying far from the truth yourself.
Craig Spence, Editor