Truth and Lies

Ranald Macaulay


Lord Browne is not the first eminent Cambridge graduate to fall from dizzy heights. The same fate befell Francis Bacon almost four hundred years ago. Both, interestingly, had young homosexual partners.

Browne joined BP already in 1966 while an undergraduate at St. Johns College. There he earned a first class degree in physics and rose steadily to become the company’s chief executive earning more than £5.4 million in 2004.

Bacon by contrast was at Trinity College in 1572. The advancements he expected as nephew of the famous Lord Burghley eluded him until James I arrived from Scotland. Thereafter he ascended quickly becoming Lord Chancellor in 1618. His eminence, however, was the prelude to disaster as with Browne. Charged with corruption in 1621 he was imprisoned in the Tower, albeit briefly, and deprived of all honours.

The two events are widely separated, admittedly, but their human dimension echoes through the centuries. We even now wait to see if ‘Baron Browne of Madingley’ - a village just outside Cambridge incidentally - has to suffer the indignity, as Bacon did, of a prison sentence.

All this because of a few words, a short but twice repeated sentence in court whilst seeking an injunction against a British newspaper for publicising his amours. “I met him in the park jogging”, he said. Little words. Not many words. Seemingly insignificant words as the judge admitted. Yet they cost him dearly. In addition to honour he may have forfeited the £15 million his BP retirement bonuses and pension would have brought him.

The tragedy in these events reminds us, first, of universal human frailty. We may not be eminent like them and our weaknesses may not be theirs, but we are similarly frail. So we have to be aware of our own vulnerability even as we scan the news for new developments.

Secondly and more generally, we are reminded of the peculiar power of words. Lord Browne’s were few but they were enough to fell a mighty tree – three times cited as ‘the mot successful businessman in the world’, in 2005 elected to the Royal Society, president of the Royal Academy of Engineers etc. What was it about these insignificant words that could wield such power? Simply that they were untrue. Lord Browne did not meet Jeff Chevalier out jogging. He met him through an escort agency.

And because no legal system can survive perjuries of this kind, innocent and innocuous as they seem, the mighty must fall.

The power of words, then, is that they relate to real things in the outside world. Certainly they can do more than this as in the use of imagination, but fundamentally they are the tools with which we negotiate reality. Therefore they cannot be made to mean anything. The table is a table and not a chair, a dog is not a cat, some statements are true, others false. The issue of ‘truth’, in other words, presents itself even when least expected. And with truth comes morality. Lord Browne was wrong to tell a lie in court, but was he wrong to have a homosexual relationship with a young Canadian? Well now!

The truth of the matter is that a moral dimension exists within all human experience even in simple statements of fact; and if in statements of fact in court, then why not in statements involving moral judgement? What about cruelty to animals, for example, or racism, or pornography? At this the image on the screen begins to blur, the eyes mist over. What about adultery, homosexuality, paedophilia, prostitution? They seem obvious questions do they not? But quickly back comes the incensed reaction of the modern mind ‘who are you to make moral judgements’. Even the word ‘morality’ seems angular and uncomfortable today. Why? Because it inevitably smacks of moral assessment, possibly even of metaphysics - maybe even of God! Help!

Yet no one can avoid moral judgements. They suffuse all human experience. Ironically the press is littered with tales of wrongdoing like Lord Browne’s. It has always been the case, but now even the broadsheets report lurid stories on their front pages and not simply because of the scandal involved. The scent of moral offence lingers in the air and stimulates the conscience to say ‘this is wrong’.

So just as courts cannot function when litigants tell lies, societies cannot function without morality. Which then poses the ultimate question: who defines the boundaries of morality? Is it the State? Is it statistical averages? Is it the individual? The mere framing of the question unmasks the tenuous nature of morality in the West today. Not that Europe or the other western nations are without morality altogether, of course not. What can be argued, however, and many have done so even from outside the Christian camp, is that western morality is unsustainable. Bryan Appleyard, for example, goes so far as to say that ‘the tolerant society can easily decline into a society that cares nothing for its own sustenance and continuity. The fact that the democracies constantly seem to have a crisis in their schools is important – it is a symptom of a crucial uncertainty about what there is to teach, about whether there is anything to teach…’ Behind this lies a ‘spiritual vacuum’…at the heart of (which) lies the lack of a sense of self’. Why? Because a purely physical description of reality is inadequate to support what we know best about ourselves, that the distinction between truth and falsehood and right and wrong is not a matter of fashion but of fact.

All pretty obvious stuff: an ultimately impersonal reality out there, so no ultimate meaning, therefore no stable morality. Why be so hard on Lord Browne, then, for ‘little words’ within the authority of a human court when human experience as a whole lacks any overarching authority for itself?

An interesting question.

Text: Ranald Macualay, Photo:A@lbi, 15/05/2007