Politifact is a well-established US “fact checking” site which has now expanded to Australia under the guidance of former Fairfax editor Peter Fray. It’ s a different take to On Line Opinion’s on the classic question “what is truth”.
We take the attitude that most (but not all) facts are subject to some degree of uncertainty and subjectivity (partly the same thing) and that any attempt to impartially adjudicate between fact claims is most likely to fail.
What’s more, my understanding of the political process is that voters don’t ultimately choose between one party or the other on the basis of their truth claims on issues of policies, but on more fundamental emotional, attitudinal and philosophical grounds.
John Howard understood this, and when he was criticised in the 2004 election for being a liar he recast the issue as “who do you trust to [fill in your favoured outcome]”. Of course he was right. Voters think the choice is not so much between honest and dishonest politicians, but between effective and ineffective ones, it being given as a “fact” that all politicians are dishonest.
Our approach is dialectic. Put the adversaries in the ring together, let them slug it out and let the audience decide. Any other approach is bound to bring cries of partisanship, which is another criticism often levelled at Politifact in the USA.
Politifact Australia has made a mixed debut. Its choices for fact checking seem odd, but they at least appear balanced as the government and opposition both score some wins and some losses.
However, they don’t do so well when it comes to the nuances of language. They fact check as true Wayne Swan’s claim that “We face the second largest revenue write-down since the Great Depression”, which it is, if by that he means the shortfall between the government’s estimates of the revenue they will receive compared with the reality.
But that’s not the sense Swan is hoping that the public will take it in. He’s hoping we’ll think there’s been a collapse in revenue, which there hasn’t – quite the reverse, revenue has held up very strongly with 6.2% growth.
Their problems with language are further demonstrated in their finding that the claim that “Federal government public servants are purchasing gold-plated coffee machines” is so false it qualifies for their “Liar, liar pants on fire” classification.
What their analysis shows is that a number of departments have purchased coffee machines in the region of $15,000 each. For most of us that is “gold-plated”. They seem to have a problem separating fact from metaphor.
Can one look forward to their forensic exploration of the Prime Minister’s claim that electricity distributors are “gold-plating” their infrastructure?
Literal truth and truth are often two different things, and the Politifact approach ignores that.