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An American suicide

There was no subject about which David Foster Wallace could not write brilliantly, from politics to

On the evening of 20 October this year a memorial service was held at Amherst College, Massachusetts, for the writer David Foster Wallace. Wallace, who graduated from Amherst in 1985, had hanged himself the previous month at his home in California. He was 46.

Since the publication of his voluminous and extravagantly ambitious second novel, Infinite Jest, Wallace had been widely acknowledged as the finest American writer of his generation. When Infinite Jest came out, in 1996, New York magazine's Walter Kirn declared that the competition had been "obliterated". It was, he wrote, "as though Paul Bunyan had joined the NFL, or Wittgenstein had gone on Jeopardy!". More or less instantly, Infinite Jest became the benchmark against which any ambitious and intellectually curious young novelist would measure himself. And so, when Wallace died, American fiction lost its lodestar. His suicide was a kind of Kurt Cobain moment, a profound generational shock. (Cobain, frontman of the rock band Nirvana, shot himself at home in Seattle in 1994. He was 27.)

Wallace had begun to write fiction while at Amherst, and his first novel, the antic and exuberant The Broom of the System, published when he was 24, was based on his senior English thesis. One of his professors, Andrew Parker, told the congregation at the Amherst service at Johnson Chapel how Wallace had insisted on writing a thesis in the philosophy department at the same time, and had still managed to graduate summa cum laude in both subjects. Sue Dickman, an Amherst alumna, remembered the year Wallace spent there as an instructor after an abortive attempt to start a PhD at Harvard; she recalled how he would come to class with a tennis racket and let his students take breaks so he could smoke.

The mourners also heard from Mark Costello, Wallace's college room-mate in the early 1980s, who implored them not to forget "how painful Dave's day-to-day life was". Wallace had suffered from depression since adolescence, and was hospitalised during his sophomore year at Amherst. Later, he briefly shared an apartment with Costello in Somerville, near Boston. Wallace was drinking heavily and experimenting enthusiastically with drugs, and eventually ended up in McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution that had previously counted the poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell among its patients. The "power of death", Costello said, was his constant companion, and "eventually it cornered him and killed him".

While he was at McLean, Wallace was prescribed Nardil, a powerful antidepressant that he would take for most of the next 20 years. By the summer of 2007, however, the drug had begun to have unpleasant side effects, and it was decided that he would come off it. Doing so had catastrophic results. "Severe depression came back," Wallace's father, James, told the online magazine Salon. "They tried all kinds of things. He was hospitalised twice . . . and had a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments, which just really left him very shaky and very fragile and unable to sleep."

By this summer, Wallace hadn't written anything for more than a year. He had been granted medical leave from his teaching job at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and had stopped going to the gym with his friend and colleague John Seery, where they had been the only "skinny-ass egghead types" in the place.

When, in mid-August, his wife, Karen Green, had to go away on family business, Wallace's parents came to stay with him in Claremont. "He was very emotional," his mother, Sally, said. "He was just terrified of so much. We would just try to hold him. He did tell me that he was glad I was his mom." James and Sally Wallace flew back home to Illinois at the end of the month. A fortnight later, Karen came home from a shopping trip to find her husband dead.

News of Wallace's suicide first broke on the Twitter page of the Brooklyn-based writer Edward Champion. By the time the mainstream media picked up the story, Champion was already gathering tributes and testimonials from the "literary community" on his blog, the comments box of which was soon filling up with expressions of shock and anguish from Wallace's fans. The confession of one devotee that "I haven't really cried over the death of someone I haven't met since Kurt Cobain" was typical.

Within a couple of days, Dave Eggers's McSweeney's ope ration had a virtual book of condolence up on its website, and people were posting reminiscences of meeting "DFW" at readings in out-of-the-way branches of Barnes & Noble, of taking writing classes with him and, in one case, of playing tennis against him in fifth grade. (Wallace had been an adolescent tennis prodigy, playing the junior circuit in the Midwest in the mid-Seventies. The first piece of extended narrative journalism he wrote, for Harper's magazine, was about summers spent "being driven through dawns to tournaments all over Illinois, Indiana and Iowa"; and Infinite Jest is, among other things, probably the finest, and certainly the longest, work of fiction about tennis ever written.)

The internet is a uniquely effective mechanism for processing public grief, of course, but there was something striking nevertheless about the sheer copiousness of the reaction to Wallace's death. This was partly because he was the kind of writer who attracts acolytes as well as admirers. The esoteric, self-enclosed quality of much of Wallace's fiction, not least the great thousand-odd-page slab of Infinite Jest itself, tended to inspire unusually fierce allegiance in many of his fans - the sort of obsessive who can tell you the likely effects of putting your head in a microwave (this being how the father of one of the central characters kills himself) because they've checked with a "med-school acquaintance", and who posts elaborate theories about arcane plot points online ("It sounds far-fetched, but check this out . . .").

Just as striking, and much more significant, however, was the reaction of other writers, Wallace's peers. There was spontaneous, unanimous agreement that he had been the best of them. Jonathan Franzen described Wallace as a "huge talent, our strongest rhetorical writer". In Zadie Smith's view, he had no "equal among living writers. He was an actual genius". He was also, everyone agreed, an unusually generous man: as "sweet a person" as Franzen had ever known, "meticulous about putting people at their ease", according to Smith.

Eggers posted a series of anecdotes about Wallace on the McSweeney's website. In one, he recalled the first time they met, in the mid-Nineties, at a diner in New York. While Wallace chewed tobacco, using a teacup in his lap as a spittoon (a habit he would never give up), he and Eggers "talked about how he'd grown up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and how I'd gone to college there, how his father taught there, about the pleasures and quirks of east-central Illinois. There's something very strange and uniquely powerful about meeting a guy whose writing you find world-changing but who also comes from your part of the world."

Who else could have written a story about a marketing executive who plans to inject deadly cultures into a snack he’s testing with focus groups?

Wallace was, by his own description, an “infantile transplant” to Illinois from upstate New York: his father had done his PhD at Cornell University and had come west to teach philosophy at the University of Illinois in Champaign. His mother taught English at a local community college. Wallace described the atmosphere of the family home in an essay he wrote for Harper's: “Suppers often involved a game: if one of us children [Wallace had a sister, Amy] made a usage error, Mom would pretend to have a coughing fit that would go on and on until the relevant child had identified the relevant error and corrected it. It was all very self-ironic and light-hearted; but still, looking back, it seems a bit excessive to pretend that your small child is actually denying you oxygen by speaking incorrectly.”

Being raised as an "extreme usage fanatic" by a teacher of composition certainly left its mark on the mature Wallace's prose style. In another of his McSweeney's posts, Eggers remembered the time Wallace sent him a story, "Mister Squishy", together with a note asking that if it was to run in his magazine, it should do so under the pseudonym "Elizabeth Klemm". Eggers agreed ("we were so proud to publish it"), but the subterfuge didn't last long: Wallace was simply "too recognisable to hide, too singular to fool anyone". Who else could have written a 60-page story about a marketing executive who hatches a plan to inject deadly cultures into the "snack cakes" he is testing with a focus group? And all this in sentences of improbable length and fiendish complexity.

Take the passage in which the protagonist fantasises, while briefing his focus group, about how much ricin or botulinus it would take to bring the entire corporate snack industry to its knees. As he is doing so, he is struck by his ability to entertain such fantasies in "total subjective private" and then by the thought that half the people in the room with him are doing the same:

. . . Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness . . .

This is writing of extraordinary syntactic control, and it is characteristic of what Eggers describes as Wallace's "dense, discursive, and insanely detailed style". The sentence continues for almost another page; the paragraph in which it occurs runs over four pages. Eggers says that he asked Wallace to consider breaking up some of the paragraphs before the story was published: "It was as if he were visiting the notion . . . for the first time. He was that kind of genius, whose understanding of the workings of his own fiction was, I think, largely separate from ideas of audience."

Actually, Eggers is missing something here, because Wallace thought more deeply about questions of audience and address than any other American writer of his generation. All that "insane" detail, and the formal strategies he borrowed from postmodernism (authorial intrusions, digressions, footnotes, flash-cutting between scenes and so on), were meant in fact to serve the rather traditional end of saying something about "what it is to be a fucking human being".

Wallace believed that each of us is "sort of marooned" inside our own skull, and that it is fiction's job to "aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people". It was the estranging apparatus of his style - the postmodern rhetorical devices, the hyperextended sentences - that was meant to do the aggravating.

That, at least, was the theory. However, Wallace was tormented by the thought that the “antagonistic elements” in his fiction might in fact just be manifestations of a pathological exhibitionism. He deplored his own “grossly sentimental affection for gags” and weakness for “formal stunt-pilotry” that served no narrative purpose. But he also understood that this predicament was not his exclusively; it was that of an entire generation of writers who, in a sense, had come too late – who had arrived, that is, just as the bold innovations of postmodern novelists such as John Barth, William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon were being absorbed and neutered by the culture.

Wallace believed that each of us is “sort of marooned” inside our own skull and that it is fiction’s job to “aggravate this sense of entrapment”

This highly developed generational self-consciousness is one reason Wallace was held in such esteem by his peers: he held up a mirror to their own anxieties, and articulated them more clearly and honestly than they ever dared.

Infinite Jest bears the scars of Wallace's parricidal struggle with his influences. He insisted that he had wanted it to be an "extraordinarily sad" book about loneliness and addiction, rather than a postmodern one. And to this end, the novel's two principal settings are a tennis academy, which Wallace depicts as a kind of laboratory of obsession (he writes with considerable feeling about the psychic costs exacted by endless early-morning tennis drills), and a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. However, it is also crammed with set-ups and gags that could have come straight out of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: a geopolitical agglomeration with the acronym ONAN; a gang of wheelchair-bound Québécois separatists; and a film so entertaining that it paralyses anyone who watches it.

At times it seems as if the novel is conducting an argument with itself - for instance, in a long scene in which Don Gately, a former drug addict who is now a live-in staffer at the half way house, goes to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Boston. One of the residents in Gately's care is there, too, and complains about the "psychobabbly dialect" that's de rigueur at events like this. Gately admits that the "seminal little mini-epiphanies" routinely experienced by new inductees into AA come embalmed in language of "polyesterish" banality. Then someone else says they also find the sentimental argot hard to stomach - especially the habit the speakers have of saying they are "here but for the grace of God", which phrase, she points out, is "literally senseless", and should be used only when introducing a conditional clause. Wallace is flattering his hip and savvy readers here, inviting them to identify with this sophisticated cynicism. But it is also clear that we are meant at the same time to find something ridiculous and overwrought about someone who is driven to want to "put her head in a Radarange" by a home-spun solecism or two. Indeed, Wallace said later that the scene was designed to get his readers - privileged, educated Americans, most of them - to "confront stuff about spirituality and values", stuff "our generation needs to feel".

Infinite Jest turned out to be Wallace's last novel. He didn't stop writing fiction - there were two further collections of stories, the second of which, Oblivion, contains some of his finest work - but, as Mark Costello observed in his Amherst encomium, something changed: "If you sit down and read his prose from the early Nineties to later, you'll hear the music changing. You'll hear sentences getting longer and longer, with these wonderfully balanced dependent clauses."

According to the novelist and journalist Tom Bissell, who knew Wallace, this was also a shift in "world-view". Bissell told me: "I think the man who wrote Oblivion would not have been satisfied with the cross-dressing leader of a Québécois separatist group whose primary mode of transport is wheelchairs, or with the political acronym ONAN, both of which are kind of silly in the way Pynchon is silly, but not in the way the world ever feels silly. I believe he escaped the anxiety of his influence."

Wallace's deepening ambivalence about the moral as well as aesthetic legacy of postmodernism is especially noticeable in the non-fiction he wrote in the last decade of his life. In many of his essays, whether the brief was to write about Caribbean cruises or the Maine Lobster Festival, he can be seen grappling obsessively with all that "stuff about spirituality and values".

A good example is a piece he wrote after Harper's sent him back to Illinois to attend the state fair, and to gorge on corn dogs while watching the rural Midwest at play. "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All" derives all its considerable force from the tension between Wallace's self-acknowledged "East Coast cynicism" and his yearning for a kind of authenticity.

He describes coming across a small hillock that, for some reason, has been covered in artificial grass: "a quick look under the edge of the fake-grass mat reveals the real grass underneath, flattened and already yellowing". Now, the postmodernist debunker in him would have been content to leave that image to stand for the emptiness and shoddiness of the state fair as a whole. But Wallace doesn't settle for simply unmasking the event as a sham; and this is partly because, for all his protestations that he is no longer "spiritually Midwestern", he remains of the place he is describing.

He understands that to be Midwestern is to be "marooned in a space whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual", and that what the state fair provides is a kind of temporary communal respite from that condition. As Bissell, himself from the Midwest, puts it, "in terms of literary persona, [Wallace] was temperamentally speaking a rural Midwesterner, intellectually speaking a high-wire postmodernist, and emotionally speaking an artist-as-priest type. I'm not sure anyone else has really managed to combine those qualities."

Wallace’s best essays are artefacts of this multifarious literary personality, dramatisations of its internal conflicts. Nowhere is this drama more powerfully performed than in the 15,000-word article he wrote for Rolling Stone about a week he spent following John McCain during his Republican primary battle, in 2000, with George W Bush. (The article was turned into a short book this year to coincide with McCain’s second run at the presidency.)

It is unsettling reading the piece now - after a Republican campaign this year conducted mostly from the sewer - to recall that eight years ago McCain represented to many the last, best hope for decency and truth in American politics. Even the most jaded hacks aboard McCain's bus, the Straight Talk Express, were wondering if "humanity and politics, shrewdness and decency" really could coexist. And Wallace finds himself as inspired as anyone: "It's difficult not to feel enthused and to really like this man and want to support him in just about any sort of feasible way you can think of."

Underpinning McCain's promise in 2000, of course, was "something riveting and unspinnable and true": that the candidate had been imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War, and spent five years in a box-sized cell at the "Hanoi Hilton". But whatever it was in his character that sustained McCain during those five years was shut away in that box, too. This, for Wallace, was the essential "paradox" of his campaign: the fact that the "box that makes McCain 'real' is, by definition, locked. Impenetrable." Which meant that it was up to the voter to decide whether McCain was "truly 'for real'".

What the essay is really about, therefore, is the "interior war" inside Wallace's own head between the need to believe in something larger than himself and his anxiety that the need to believe might be a sham or a fraud. And "fraud", Mark Costello reminded the mourners at Amherst, "was one of the worst words in his personal vocabulary".

In the end, Wallace took his own life. Perhaps the struggle to believe in something was too great; he had suffered too much. He was the ultimate victim of his own interior war.

Jonathan Derbyshire is a writer and philosopher

The best of David Foster Wallace

1987: The Broom of the System

The metafictional game-playing and sheer verbal inventiveness of Wallace's first novel established him as a successor to American postmodernists such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. It is set in the near future in Cleveland, which now stands on the border of the Great Ohio Desert (or GOD), a vast tract of land filled with black sand.

1989: Girl With Curious Hair

The centrepiece of this first collection of stories is "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way", a 150-page novella set in a creative writing workshop. Wallace said the story was "written in the margins" of Barth's Lost in the Funhouse - the professor running the workshop is the author of a famous story also called "Lost in the Funhouse".

1996: Infinite Jest

The gargantuan novel that sealed Wallace's reputation as the most exciting and ambitious American novelist of his generation. The plot motor of Infinite Jest, which is over a thousand pages long and weighed down with more than a hundred pages of endnotes, is a movie of the same name which paralyses anyone who watches it.

1997: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Wallace's first collection of extended non-fiction contains some of his most celebrated essays: the titular record of a comically awful Caribbean cruise; a paean to the genius of David Lynch; and "E Unibus Pluram", his account of the way the "rebellious irony" of postmodernism was co-opted by television.

1999: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

In the title story of this second collection of shorter fiction, several unidentified men describe their sexual proclivities - including one who can't help shouting "Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" when he is on the point of ejaculating. Another story, "The Depressed Person", with its extravagantly long sentences, footnotes and abundant psychotherapeutic jargon, is typical of Wallace's later fictional style.

2004: Oblivion

Oblivion has several of Wallace's finest stories, notably "Good Old Neon" and "The Suffering Channel". The former is narrated from beyond the grave by a high school acquaintance of "David Wallace". In the latter, a journalist on a hip New York style magazine travels to Indiana to profile a man who developed an ability to shit perfectly rendered sculptures while on latrine duty during the first Gulf War.

2005: Consider the Lobster

When Gourmet magazine sent Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival, he came back with the title essay of this collection, in which he asks whether it is morally acceptable to boil sentient creatures alive (short answer: no).

2008: McCain's promise

This short book about John McCain was published this year to coincide with the US presidential election. Originally published as a long narrative report in Rolling Stone magazine under the title "Up, Simba!", it is an account of a week spent following the McCain's campaign during the 2000 Republican primaries. Wallace admired McCain the man, if not the politician, and was fascinated by his years in prison in Vietnam. He did not live long enough to see the outcome of this year's presidential election.

the death of Kurt Cobain

Whatever the cultural significance of Kurt Cobain's suicide, his reasons, as with David Foster Wallace, were first and foremost personal. Struggling with heroin addiction, various medical problems and facing an impending separation from his wife, Courtney Love, the lead singer of Nirvana shot himself at home in April 1994. Yet when news broke, the public outpouring of grief among teenage fans in his home city of Seattle resonated around the world.

To many, his death represented a clash between conflicting value systems: the counterculture from which Nirvana had emerged, and the corporate world of MTV and major record labels that transformed them into global rock stars just months after the release of their 1991 album, Nevermind. Cobain's suicide seemed like an admission that these two worlds could not be reconciled. "The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100 per cent fun," he declared in his suicide note. The irony is that this exit only pushed Cobain deeper into music-industry mythology.

But it is a mistake to see his death as an artistic gesture. Cobain had come adrift in his life, which is something he shared with the increasing numbers of young men who kill themselves every year. In England and Wales, for example, suicide remains the second most common cause of death for men under the age of 35. If you really want to know something about the hopes and fears of a generation, understanding these everyday tragedies is as important as unpicking the famous ones.

Daniel Trilling

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

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The age of lies: how politicians hide behind statistics

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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