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Truth lies at the heart of communication



World Communications Day celebrated this week naturally evokes questions about freedom of speech, censorship, the excesses of social media, the power of Facebook, Twitter and Google, and the most effective ways to persuade people. These are important questions about how we practice and regulate communication in a changing world. Behind them, however, are the larger and unchanging questions about why we communicate and about the effect of our communications on the way we live. World Communications Day is an opportunity to think about these basic questions.

Main image: Three women pointing to a computer (John Schnobrich/Unsplash)

Radical changes in the way in which human beings communicate do change habits and perception of the world. We can only wonder at the effect that the development of speech, with its shared sound symbols for things external to the speaker, had on human living.

We do know from historical accounts and from contemporary experience the effects of the development of writing, in which visual symbols corresponded to things and their associated sounds, had on human perception and habits. There was loss and gain. The knowledge and traditions shared by the community could be codified in words, communication at a distance was possible through letters, concrete evidence remained of transactions, and authority in society rested with the literate.

Later the printing press made possible the mass dissemination of books and pamphlets, the development of newspapers and magazines, and the path to universal literacy. The religious beliefs and shaping stories of society could also then be controlled and homogenised.

In more recent years the development of radio and television, with instant communication across distance by sound and by image, and of social media have further shaped human living. The importance of the image may have made less popular the habit of reading at length. It has enabled immediate personal communication at a distance, so lessening barriers of space and time. We can see in real time images of wars, famines and natural disasters around the world, with the result that we may grow in compassion or become desensitised to suffering.

It has also made it possible for individuals to find a mass audience without the mediation of newspapers or television, and has segmented audiences so that we are more likely to receive news and views tailored to our prejudices. Technologies of communication, too, are increasingly reciprocal. When we seek information electronically we also provide information about ourselves which can be collated, associated with other pieces of information, and used as an instrument of control. 

The ways in which human beings communicate have changed enormously. In important respects, however, little has changed. When we communicate, whether as individuals, magazines, news companies or governments, we still want to say or show something to other people. To do this successfully we must address the same basic questions regardless of the technology we use.


'Communication, too, relies on mutual trust. We have the responsibility to ask whether what we want to communicate is true, and whether our hearers will be the better for hearing it.'


We must ask, for example, whether those with whom we speak will understand accurately what we want to communicate to them and be persuaded by it. Communication, too, relies on mutual trust. We have the responsibility to ask whether what we want to communicate is true, and whether our hearers will be the better for hearing it. If our communication, whether by whispering in a friend’s ear, by reporting on a political speech, or by commenting on social media, does not meet these tests it lacks integrity.

In the midst of rapid change in the ways in which people communicate, these questions can slip into the background. People who use new skills can gain enormous power over others. In ancient Athens, when all important decisions were made after public discussion, theorists who devised systematised ways of persuading people through public speaking had extraordinary influence. Many people used these discoveries to win their cases without caring whether their arguments were true or not. Socrates won respect after his death for insisting that rhetoric was destructive unless its practitioners were concerned with truth. At the same time many people grew suspicious of rhetorical flourish, with the result that it became less effective.

That cycle has been repeated through history, as preachers, pamphleteers, radio commentators, shock jocks, television pundits and social media influencers have exploited new communications technology to great effect. They were all controversial; many were influential. The same questions about truth, about hearers’ understanding, and about the benefits or harm of their communication, however, kept returning. Ultimately the judgment made upon the speakers and their messages depended on the answers.

In our world this has three consequences for society. In the first place communication is not about power but about truth. Misinformation, false facts, misleading spin and the systematic suppression of facts or opinions defeat the purpose of communication and erode the trust on which a good society must be built. They must constantly be called out and discredited.

Second, good communication must be grounded primarily in ethical sensitivity and only secondarily in law. Lying, exaggerating, mocking and misleading always offend against good communication, but only in grave cases should they be legislated against. The common response to making a fence of laws is to seek and enlarge holes in it. The focus switches from what is ethical communication to technological questions about how to communicate legally. It is then assumed whatever is not illegal is ethically acceptable. To keep the focus on truth and respect in communication, society must recognise mockery and fake news as unethical and spurn it.

Third, the trust in public communications requires that in relationships between the powerful and the powerless, between authorities and those under authority, and governments and citizens, the more powerful party must disclose the truth of its dealings. People have a right to knowledge of what is done in their name. It is unethical for governments to conceal information relevant to the decisions it makes, and even more egregiously unethical to penalise the disclosure of withheld information, especially when it concerns unjust treatment of weaker parties. In recent Australian and overseas practice governments have shown a declining concern for justice and a rising brazenness in concealment.

In such a world citizens have a corresponding responsibility to search out what is hidden from them and to reveal it. Journalists generally take up the burden of this responsibility to restore the trust on which communication relies, often at a very heavy cost. In Australia journalists have revealed misconduct in churches, banks, government departments and the armed forces and have brought pressure to change the culture in which abuse flourishes. They have often been unpopular. In many other nations they have been killed for their pains.

In his message for World Communications Day Pope Francis describes the qualities needed by journalists as curiosity, openness and passion. These qualities are also required in any search for truth. They are the opposed to cynicism, ideological blindness and to control. World Communication Day reminds us that truth lies at the heart of communication.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Three women pointing to a computer (John Schnobrich/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, World Communication Day, communication, Right to Know



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Existing comments

I was really enjoying the article until I got to the second last paragraph and the word "journalist" appeared and I had to go back to re-read and see how notions of truth and openess (I'd suggest objectivity should rate a mention, too) aren't too often intermingled with a flavor of ideological bent...or "eyes on the prize" Walkley ambitions. Perhaps interestingly, coincidentally, while I was reading and cogitating Papal pontifications of integrity a certain journalist was breaking a story about a state politician being investigated by NSW Police. Allegedly, the journo informed the MP himself; the Minister didn't even know he was under investigation for sexual assult charges because he had not yet been contacted by police. It took a while for me to compute the sequence and possible motivations of the journalist's informant or the journalist himself but I ended up confused. I wonder how many other police suspects and POIs are given the grace of notification they're included in an investigation so someone can meet a deadline for their article? I'd have to suggest that the average writer is somewhat less interested in those who are less note-worthy than an MP.

ray | 13 May 2021  

In our tradition the Fourth Estate are able to achieve a power of good. They are also subject to the Law, like anyone else. There are those who say the media are dominated by the Left, others by the Right. Some opine Rupert Murdoch is trying to rule the world through his media interests. I am extremely grateful that, in my last years at school, in the mid to late '60s, we were taught to read critically. You need to weigh things up.

Edward Fido | 14 May 2021  

Thanks, Andy, for your reminder of the importance of truth and reliability in the multi-faceted modes of communication available today. The entertainment value of communication goes only so far before it becomes tedious and unsatisfying. As the school motto of St Aloysius' College, Milson's Point, "Ad maiora natus", suggests: the pursuit of what is true - a necessarily metaphysical activity - and its expression - supplies spiritual purpose and meaning to even our most mundane activities, underlining the special dignity of linguistic discourse - one reason why Jesuit education's rational for studies places the emphasis it has and does on languages and humanities. The misuse of language, regretfully not uncommon, makes a mockery of Yeats' claim: "Words alone are certain good," and facilitates mischief, even in the guise of good, as Orwell and others have exposed.

John RD | 14 May 2021  

‘We have the responsibility to ask whether what we want to communicate is true, and whether our hearers will be the better for hearing it.’ ‘….truth lies at the heart of communication.’ Perhaps only Christ gets the privilege of saying that one (greatest) commandment has two conditions. Usually, when there are two distinct concepts, the human rationality of hierarchy requires one to prevail. Which is it, truth, or that the hearers will be better for hearing it? Fallible humans get around the problem by saying that because they are not omniscient, they don’t know which value prevails in general and can only make the prudential assumption that truth is the better value, not that they are above asserting, in particular instances, that ‘white lies’ or censorship are more moral than truth. The serpent was perhaps justified in losing its legs because it lied that they would not die. Had it confined itself to saying that their eyes would be opened, the justification for losing its legs would have had to be that the hearers would not be the better for hearing it. After all, God didn’t mention anything about eyes being opened.

roy chen yee | 16 May 2021  

Roy chen yee, it's my understanding that Fr Hamilton is talking about the responsibility to ask questions - one on truth and the other on what is legally referred to as "the public interest". Nothing about a messianic complex of commandments and obligations to impose a new dogma. You seem to be confusing the truth with facts. The biblical book of Genesis is true, although the facts rightfully accepted as allegorical. The truth you've gleaned from the account of The Fall and the role of the serpent and temptress Eve may differ from mine.

AURELIUS | 17 May 2021  

Aurelius: ‘one on truth and the other on what is legally referred to as "the public interest".’ The two are not the same? Why not?

roy chen yee | 19 May 2021  

Roy chen yee, I can only attempt to answer your question about the difference between "truth" and "public interest" by using examples: 1. It may be true that a politician or celebrity is having an extramarital affair, but is it in the public interest? (ie should it be reported in the media?) 2. War crimes and atrocities committed by troops in Afghanistan were leaked by Wikileaks, and we would have to say it's in the public interest to know the truth. The US and Australian governments however don't agree that everything published by Wikileaks is in the public interest, or at least government interests, and claim that the lives of some officials have been put at risk. 3. Some of our church officials once believed it wasn't necessary to tell the public about reports of abuse by their clerics, and they were instead secretly transferred to other locations to avoid scandal and save the reputation of the church. Attitudes and policies have obviously changed since the royal commission- and we now have mandatory reporting. When I witness the way our politicians increasingly fail to answer journalists' difficult questions directly, and fall back on predicable "talking points" instead, it's not just the journalists they are treating with contempt, but us as citizens.

AURELIUS | 21 May 2021  

Thanks, Aurelius, but only your first example doesn’t mix up the issues. If truth isn’t good enough a reason, it must be truth plus public interest? It still leaves open the question whether public interest on its own is sufficient. What if the truth isn’t provable, say, an allegation of rape thirty years ago, the complainant has committed suicide and can’t testify (Porter), or the complainant of attempted rape is alive but doesn’t have the proof that a court can accept (Kavanaugh) and somebody’s career is being torpedoed after thirty years (at least in the case of Kavanaugh) of a life seemingly beyond reproach? Is it public interest to air laundry in the hope that some dirty truth might fall out? Shouldn’t there be dirty truth first? Isn’t gossip the passing around of truth? If so, why the pejorative ‘gossip’?

roy chen yee | 24 May 2021  

Roy chen yee, I must wholly agree with the examples you've given, and in no way hold any conclusive beliefs about these cases. But can I also add that even when the truth of a media report can be verified as true, it is not necessarily a defence in a defamation trial. Even when reporting a fact, the media can still be found guilty of defaming someone. If a personal fact about someone is published merely with the aim of humiliating someone without any public interest, it can be regarded as unethical ie defamatory,

AURELIUS | 26 May 2021  

Thanks, Aurelius. ‘Transparency’ isn’t everything. And it was just that the serpent lost its legs for telling the truth out of turn. The notion, therefore, is contestable that the human (or, at least, the Christian human) has a right to know everything simply because it has a powerful brain. For example, Christians are forbidden to increase their knowledge of the occult and there is a legal or social prohibition against investigating human cloning. It might be argued then that other species of knowledge-expansion, for instance in the LGBTIQ* domain (or even in any sexual domain pertaining to heterosexuals, eg., the manufacture of hyperrealistic sexbots), are illicit and the less investigated the better. Of course, outside theology and sex, means of space warfare is perhaps another area where the less we strive to know the better off we might be.

roy chen yee | 27 May 2021  

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