The axiom “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” is widely attributed to Mark Twain - though that is fake news. The saying existed in various forms for nearly a century before Twain was born and is probably a corruption of comments by Jonathan Swift and the preacher Thomas Francklin in the 18th century.
Whoever originated it, the phrase can be applied to two well quoted figures in the UK who this week have been purveying their own versions of truth – Nigel Farage and Sir Jim Ratcliffe.
Farage has been caught out claiming his bank accounts were closed for political reasons. This plays into the narrative being pushed by both the right wing of politics and its cheerleaders in the media that society at large - and business in particular – is being subsumed by political correctness, or being “woke”. Turns out that his wealth dropped below the threshold to maintain an account at private bank Coutts and he was offered an alternative account at NatWest, which is part of the same group.
Sir Jim went on the offensive attacking the Competition and Markets Authority, saying it had effectively blocked a deal for his company Ineos to buy the concrete additives business being sold by Swiss giant Silka. This also plays into another current narrative – that Britain in general, and the CMA in particular, is hostile to business. Perhaps they are all part of the anti-growth coalition, called out by Liz Truss during her brief, disastrous premiership. However, Sir Jim’s claim was wonderfully skewered by Alistair Osborne in The Times.
Sir Jim is one of the UK’s most successful business leaders and Nigel – er – isn’t. Both are strong supporters of Brexit and very much in favour of less regulation (yes – those are related). Nigel has a track record of outrageous claims that don’t really hold water – which makes you wonder why his bank account story had such legs. Sir Jim also has a track record of…let’s call them fulsome statements. However up till now they’ve been mostly taken at face value.
The first question is whether his attack on the CMA will lead to his statements being taken with a pinch of salt in the future. I suspect that, while his credibility has been slightly dented, the media’s love of a swashbuckling business hero (Branson? Sugar? Trump?) will allow him a bit of leeway.
The second question is what does a respectable, serious organisation like the CMA or NatWest do when faced with claims that don’t appear to tally with the facts.
If the untruth isn’t challenged, people accept it as the truth. This is one of the first things I tell people when I’m media training them.
So you have to rebut the accusation - and quickly, because the news cycle is so fast these days that an inaccuracy repeated for only a few hours can become cemented in the collective consciousness. However most organisations are not set up for rapid response. Often it is hard to find the person who knows what the story really is. And in some organisations – especially engineering or science-led ones – verification can take some time.
Also – and I suspect this is what Farage was banking on with Coutts – many groups might be hampered by client confidentiality when rebutting accusations. The bank clearly felt getting the facts right justified its response.
There are also some excellent fact checking services – from Reuters and the BBC to Full Fact, which in particular calls out fibs from MPs. However, checking facts take time. When Donald Trump was found to have made dozens of false claims in his State of the Union addresses, the speed of rebuttal wasn’t up to the fake news machine this time.
So what hope is there? To paraphrase Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now: “The b/s piled up so fast…you needed wings to stay above it.” There’s so many challenges to the truth that it better get it’s running shoes on.
Now it appears - thanks to a subject access request by Nigel Farage which he gave exclusively to The Telegraph, that Coutts did compile a 40 page dossier on him to close his account.
So Farage was right - not something I like, or am used to, writing. However you have to wonder why Coutts - or its parent company NatWest Group - chose to brief the opposite? Why not stay schtum?
To quote Mark Twain again (and he did say this): "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."