Searching for the truth in a post-truth era

Atholl Duncan By Atholl Duncan, Executive Director, UK and Global with ICAS

9 March 2017

In a world of fake news, alternative facts and post-truths, Atholl Duncan has a noble mission for CAs

“Quaere verum” may sound like the next JK Rowling novel or a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s much more serious than that. Quaere Verum means “seek the truth”. It’s the motto of ICAS. It’s etched on the wall at the entrance to our Edinburgh offices, lest we forget. But in a world of fake news, alternative facts and post-truth politics, has the search for the truth ever been more challenging?

Donald Trump has no monopoly on mendacity. Yet his performance so far as the leader of the free world does appear to take things to a new level. His outburst over whether the size of his inauguration was bigger and better than Obama’s gave birth to the concept of “alternative facts”. It’s a phrase which now joins Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” and George Osborne’s “omnishambles” in the Scrabble of political history.

Some say fake news propelled Trump to the White House. Whether that’s true or not, faking it has taken on a far more sinister meaning. First it was social media warriors sitting in the dark shadows of their Anglepoise, making up “facts”. Now it is commercial websites profiting from codswallop.

Amid all that, political leaders seem emboldened to jump on the bandwagon of fibbery, unconcerned by the remaining grains of truth.

Brexiteers told us we would get £350m a week for the NHS if we voted to Leave. Remainers told us the economy would be in meltdown by now.

In Scotland, many Unionists compare the SNP’s white paper on independence to the fairy-tales of Hans Christian Andersen. While nationalists rightly point out that “Better Together” assured us the only way to guarantee Scotland’s place in Europe was to vote to stay in the United Kingdom. Now we know they were ALL telling porkies.

So, who do we trust to carry us on our quest for the truth? Increasingly the media seems a less effective bearer of the sword of truth and the shield of justice. It’s true that the role of the press in exposing MPs’ expenses, corruption at FIFA and Russian state doping still makes a powerful contribution in the public interest.

Nowadays, however, these journalistic howitzers seem few and far between. Take the good old honest sleuthing of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who brought down Nixon in Watergate. Their world, where the pen was mightier than the sword, has long been consigned to the dustbin of history.

So, who is left to carry the torch of truth?

Finance professionals may not be the first to spring to mind. Yet maybe they are now the last ones standing on the right side of the tussle between fact and fiction. After all, we now look to the Office for Budget Responsibility to challenge the Chancellor.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies leads the second charge of the Right Brigade. It is their analysis of the “Whole of Government Accounts” which highlights that deficit reduction is not the key measure; it is the exploding £3.6trn in public liabilities which should be the real cause of our sleepless nights.

The National Audit Office and Audit Scotland both deserve much acclaim for their diligent, detailed and fearlessly independent scrutiny of what is really happening in health, education, policing and the rest of our public services.

It must now be in the public interest to increase the resources, expertise and impact of all these financial watchdogs. The ethical standards of those who independently carry out this work could become the new kryptonite, when speaking truth to power.

Maybe we even need to create some new institutions and arm ourselves with more post-truth warriors – the modern equivalents of those Washington Post reporters.

At a recent claret-filled City lunch, one old school journalist, preparing to raise the white flag, claimed that what we need is an “Independent Truth Commission”.

Initially, I dismissed this as, at best, Orwellian and, at worst, bonkers. But now the idea is rather growing on me.

It is certainly in the public interest that we chart a better course between the icebergs of fake news and the sandbanks of alternative facts. “Quaere Verum” is a noble mission. If we don’t pursue it, who will?

This article was first featured in the March 2017 edition of CA magazine


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