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The whole truth?


Every morning, my grandfather collected two bottles of milk and his copy of The Age from the front verandah, wandered down the passage to the kitchen, set the bottles on the table, and propped the newspaper against them. He then read as much as he could, starting at the front page and the headlines while eating his porridge and before leaving for work. My sport-mad father, on the other hand, read The Sun over his bowl of Weeties, but always started at the back page: for him, this was simply part of the natural order of things.

Every evening, listening to the news was compulsory, and so was household silence. Majestic Fanfare heralded the ABC for my grandparents, while my parents favoured 3DB and Heart of Oak. Now I wonder whether they believed all that they read and heard? Living when they did, they must have known about propaganda because of the two world wars. But all of them had been raised in Christian households and thus believed in the supreme value of truth. I also think they believed in trust as a value, and so trusted the government. At least most of the time. But I was a child then; what did I know?

What I know now is that both trust and truth seem to be in very short supply everywhere, despite the much-vaunted emphasis on so-called transparency. Polymath Francis Bacon, whose famous essays were published in 1625, opened his writing Of Truth with the lines: ‘What is Truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ How canny the man was, for it turns out that the matter of truth is one of the most complex concepts in the history of philosophy: there are five basic theories of truth, I have discovered. And it was Greek playwright Aeschylus who is supposed to have first expressed the idea that the first casualty of war is truth: I wonder what he would have to say about the current Gaza/Israel conflict? Then there is the problem that individuals can have their ‘own’ truth. For example, some people still believe, despite the evidence, that Planet Earth is flat. And two thirds of Republican voters believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election.


'Once upon a time it was fairly easy to distinguish fact from fiction, but now journalists in particular regularly merge the two.'


I recently watched the BBC’s Katty Kaye interview Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who has advised seven American Presidents, and who became world-famous during the recent Covid pandemic. From the outset, Fauci said, he made up his mind that he had to tell each President the plain, unvarnished truth, things that they might not want to hear. He relied on the available data and always tried to puncture the balloon of misinformation that was often flying high. Almost inevitably, however, he was reviled and threatened with death by various extremists who could not accept his views. His detractors seemed to think he was concocting a kind of fiction aimed at undermining President Trump.

Once upon a time it was fairly easy to distinguish fact from fiction, but now journalists in particular regularly merge the two. And when emotion, bias and prejudice take over in reporting, then truth seems elusive indeed. As for trust, how can that be maintained when politicians (and others) argue that black is white? In the UK, the latest example of this tendency is the claim made by Home Secretary James Cleverly that the backlog of asylum seekers’ applications has been cleared. But the data clearly indicates that this is not the case. When pressed on the matter, the Home Office admitted that there about 4000 cases not included because of their ‘complexity.’ One wag has commented that it is 26 miles of ‘complexity’ that has prevented him from ever winning a marathon.

I know I have written about the matter of truth before and have also quoted Bacon before; I may well do so again. Because ideas about truth keep changing, people are becoming increasingly cynical and suspicious. We are now forced to cope with notions such as alternative facts and the post-truth era. I, for one, cope badly with both, with this twisting of what I would like to be an essential and straightforward matter.

Aeschylus and Bacon. Let Shakespeare have the last word. In Henry IV, Part 1, he has his character Hotspur say: ‘Tell the truth and shame the Devil’. The play appeared in 1597, but the saying had been commonly known for at least 40 years. Four hundred and more years later, we would do well to remember it.




Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Vintage British satirical cartoon. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Truth, Lies, Media, Elections



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Existing comments

A great piece, Gillian.
The failure of many people to distinguish between truth and possibly false information is the most disturbing feature of much journalism and social media and the tendency to trust the paid ‘influencer’ rather than the informed professional is very frightening.
One can but hope that the truth tellers win!

Juliet | 18 January 2024  

Hear hear!

Than you Gillian for another masterfully woven story.

Props too to ES for its steadfast journalism integrity. ??

Fiona Douglas | 19 January 2024  

What a fine essay - the nature of truth and whether it is yours or mine - "truths" manufactured by the spin-merchant political propagandists - doubts sewn into the trustworthiness of our news organs and statements from our "leaders" who are themselves following cleverly manipulated opinion polls which frame the questions in ways which lead to a particular answer. And to contrast it with the verities as understood by her grand-parents - as mine in fact lived by the Ten Commandments - a list of "shalts" and "shalt nots" covering most aspects of life in a smiting one's foes kind of Old Testament world (including smiting the Amalekites)- reduced, sensibly, to Two Commandments in the New Testament - (a) to love God and (b) to love thy neighbour (implication being not just the person living alongside - but the rest of the world, in fact). Self delusion and hubris - and carefully crafted arguments and perspectives - the serving of vested interests and money-making operate against the truth - "caveat emptor" the market shouts while doing its best to tell lies about the product or belief system it is promoting. Way back in the early 1980s I was an Education Officer. I'd get my broadsheet SMH at the local railway station and read (from the front) till arriving at Circular Quay and then walking the 150 metres to my office. By which time my frustration with the world in general was often at a boiling point - the terrible things happening and being done. An advertising campaign at the time asked if one had the habit - the SMHerald habit! The SMHabit. I realised I was in the grip of an addiction. Some might argue that I am here in 2024 in the grip of a similar habit - this time seeking the truth beyond the mainstream and now largely untrustworthy media - Eureka Street being one avenue for finding that truth. Thanks, G.

Jim Kable | 19 January 2024  

Like most people I hope that I have the respect of the people around me. My education both from my parents and at school and in life since makes it clear to me that one of the important factors in gaining respect is honesty. This is not just being careful not to tell a lie. (Some people are very good at that and still they can be dishonest) It means being open, straight forward and not deliberately misleading people as well. Sometimes it can be embarrassing to admit mistakes or that you did something not very nice but most people will forgive honest mistakes. Once you lose someone's trust and respect is it almost impossible to win it back. I'm sure Gillian knows this and hence advises us to remember that very old saying.

Stephen | 19 January 2024  

I totally agree with you that our parents and grandparents were lucky in having a certainty in the order of things and a belief in the value of trust in the press and government. What happened i wonder?
I rather like Oscar Wilde’s epigram that the truth is rarely pure and never simple but i think we should be able to distinguish between truth and opinion.
Being asked to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ in circumstances such as the current Post Office scandal in the UK might require honest lawyers to identify the facts about computers being believed over the postmasters and postmistresses who were jailed for fraud.
I think we have to accept that some people would not recognise the truth regardless of the proof but to quote another cultural influence, the X files “The truth is out there.

Maggie | 19 January 2024  

Unfortunately in our society truth has become a commodity traded for big dollars.

John Frawley | 21 January 2024