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10 August 2021

When should a government lie to its citizens?

During the pandemic, No 10 has pursued a propaganda strategy that at times has seen the truth misrepresented.

By Louise Perry

Sometimes governments lie to their citizens, and sometimes those lies are necessary. During the Second World War, in an attempt to conceal the existence of their radar technology from the enemy, the British government told newspapers that British fighter pilots had excellent night vision because they ate so many carrots. Propaganda posters encouraged the public to do the same. 

Another lie, far grimmer this time, was the attempt to cover up the Bethnal Green Tube disaster, which is thought to be the UK’s largest single loss of civilian life during the Second World War. More than 170 people fleeing an air raid were crushed to death when the dimly lit entrance to the station became blocked. Joan Martin, who as a young doctor received the dead and wounded as they arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in east London, spoke many years later about the attempts to silence those who had witnessed the tragedy: “I suppose the government didn’t want to look as if things were out of hand. The newspapers said nothing.” 

Coronavirus poses a different kind of threat to that of a Nazi invasion, but during the spring and summer of 2020 there were some attempts at reviving a Blitz spirit, with people rallying around to do their bit to contribute to the “war effort”. 

For my part, I signed up to help make scrubs for doctors and nurses, collecting together spare bits of blue and green fabric and feeling rather chuffed to have finally found a good use for my overlocker sewing machine. But in the end my sewing skills were never called upon because it turned out that a lack of clothing was not the problem, and amateur seamstresses cannot make hospital grade PPE, or indeed contribute anything particularly useful to a pandemic. In this, as in so many other ways, the new crisis would be nothing like the mythologised vision of the old one. 

And yet, Boris Johnson’s government has attempted a propaganda effort that is in some ways not dissimilar from that attempted by Winston Churchill’s government during the Second World War. And there have been times when the truth has been, if not outright distorted, then certainly misrepresented.

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[See also: Most voters now oppose the government’s Covid-19 response]

For instance, the inconsistency of messaging on face masks. Initially, the World Health Organisation emphasised that masks were needed for healthcare workers who were at risk of being directly exposed to infected patients, but that members of the public should only wear them if suffering from respiratory symptoms. 

In the UK, this anti-mask message was repeated with particular vim. Care homes were advised by the government that “during normal day-to-day activities face masks do not provide protection from respiratory viruses, such as Covid-19, and do not need to be worn by staff”. In March 2020, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty advised the public not to wear masks, and the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, said in a video shared by the Prime Minister on Twitter that wearing a mask was “not a good idea and doesn’t help”.

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We can’t say for sure why the anti-mask position was held to so strongly at the beginning of the crisis. It’s possible that government officials were unpersuaded by the evidence in favour of their use, which was very patchy in the early months of 2020. It’s also possible that the UK government, similar to  the WHO, was alarmed by the possibility that a panicked public would buy out supplies and leave none available for healthcare workers. If so, it could well be argued that propagating an untruth for good reasons – Plato’s concept of the noble lie – may have been warranted in the circumstances. 

[See also: Why are UK Covid-19 cases falling?]

But how severe does a crisis need to be to justify a noble lie, and does this one really meet the threshold? The journalist Laura Dodsworth, author of A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic, argues compellingly that behavioural scientists employed by the UK government deliberately provoked fear in the public in order to encourage compliance with lockdown. One particularly piece of evidence in support of this thesis is a report produced by the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), on 22 March 2020, which included the following: 

“[A] substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group, although levels of concern may be rising… [Therefore] the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

This messaging included frightening advertising campaigns (the “look him in the eyes” posters, for example) which encouraged obedience, but also contributed to worsened anxiety among those already vulnerable to mental illness. Perhaps this was necessary in order to contain the virus and “protect the NHS”. But, then again, perhaps it wasn’t. 

Dodsworth does not see anything noble in this strategy, condemning the government for having “weaponised our fear against us – supposedly in our best interests” and pointing out the terrible personal cost suffered by those who have been consumed with anxiety. One interviewee describes the effect it has had on him: “for a long time I was frightened of everything: the world, the air, other people, physical objects… I’m awfully angry about the fear now.” 

Sometimes governments lie to their citizens, and sometimes those lies are necessary, but sometimes they’re not. And there is a big difference between encouraging the public to eat more carrots, and encouraging us to needlessly live in fear. As more is written about the events of the last 18 months, more truths, half truths, and untruths – both noble and ignoble – will surely come to light. 

[See also: Why the coronavirus mental health crisis may not have peaked]