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What lies beneath?

Janet Cooke, of The Washington Post, throws up her arms after winning the Pulitzer Monday for feature writing, April 12, 1981. Ms. Cooke wrote an article about an 8 year old heroin addict. The article was met by a wave of shock and disbelief, the Pulitzer jury said. But, the panel added, social workers and school teachers confirmed that heroin was being used by others of the boy's age.

The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke reacts to winning the Pulitzer Prize, 13th April 1981. Two days later she admitted to having completely made up her winning article.

On Thursday 29th March, a 20-year-old lie came back to haunt Pál Schmitt. Schmitt was always a master of deception – an essential skill for any swordsman who wants to conceal a strike from an opponent. He competed as part of the Hungarian National Fencing team 130 times, winning the team épée gold medal at the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. When he retired from competition, he worked towards a doctorate at Budapest’s Semmelweis University in 1992, penning a thesis entitled “An analysis of the program of Modern Olympic Games”. He went on to become Chief of Protocol of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and president of the World Olympians Association between 1999 and 2007. Having established himself as surely in the field of politics as in fencing, he eventually became president of Hungary in 2010.

But on 11th January 2012, the Hungarian magazine Heti Világgazdaság (World Economy Weekly) published an exposé of Schmitt’s doctoral thesis. It claimed that he had plagiarised it in spectacular fashion – translating the entirety of a similar work by Bulgarian sports expert Nikolay Georgiev. Schmitt denied the accusations, but failed to conjure a convincing riposte to the overwhelming evidence, and had his doctorate revoked by the university senate on 29th March. He resigned on 2nd April.

“Presidents, public officials and CEOs are being deposed – not for wrongdoing in their jobs, but for lies told in the past”

2012 is shaping up to be a vintage year for uncovered lies. Romania had its own dose of embarrassment when President Victor Ponta nominated Corina Dumitrescu as his new education minister. The national press quickly picked up on several grammatical errors on Dumitrescu’s CV, and a misspelling of ‘Stanford University’ – an institution that journalists swiftly claimed she had never attended. She quit, although said that she had signed up at Stanford under her maiden name, which is why they had claimed to have no knowledge of her. Ponta swiftly nominated a new education minister, Ioan Mang. Within hours of the appointment, rumours of plagiarism in at least eight academic papers written by Mang prior to his political career began to circulate. He denied the allegations but quit.

Former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson

This isn’t an eastern European trend. A high profile example of comparable dissimulation also emerged this year, from the heart of corporate America. In January, Scott Thompson was made CEO of Yahoo. Just a few months later, he had resigned from the post after allegations that he had inserted a bogus IT degree onto his CV. While we should note that Thompson had also been diagnosed with thyroid cancer when he resigned, the alleged fabrication of such a fundamental qualification did cause widespread disbelief – not least over Yahoo’s vetting procedures.

Then in February, a US official took public lying to a new level by attempting to defend the telling of his own fibs as an inalienable right. When Xavier Alvarez was elected to the board of the Three Valley Water District in California in 2006 he brought major credentials to the post – not least his distinguished military record. Alvarez claimed he was a wounded combat veteran, once shot while rescuing the American ambassador during the Iran hostage crisis. His life outside of the Marines was no less exciting: he married “a Mexican starlet whose appearance in public caused paparazzi to swoon” and “played professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings”. Those quotes came from Alvarez’s defence lawyer, once his bullshit had landed him in court.

The lie that really undid Alvarez was his claim to have won the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the US government. When it was discovered that he had won no such thing, he was stripped of office and convicted under the Stolen Valor Act 2006 – which makes it a crime to “falsely represent himself or herself, verbally or in writing” as having been awarded military honours. Alvarez is claiming protection under the First Amendment – essentially saying that his right to lie is enshrined in the Constitution. The case is currently before the Supreme Court.

These are not minor cases of elaboration or fabrication. Presidents, public officials and CEOs are being deposed – not for wrongdoing in their jobs, but for lies told in the past. The American Constitution is being questioned. So why is all this happening now, when the lies happened so long ago? And do we really feel this strongly about liars?

One thing is certainly true: it has never been harder to get away with telling porkies. Witness the increasing frequency with which politicians are tripped up when they “remember” events that don’t stand up to scrutiny. When Prime Minister David Cameron assured the public that he’d bought a pasty from a bakery in Leeds train station, it didn’t take long for it to emerge that the bakery hadn’t existed at the time of his visit. Hillary Clinton told a colourful story about dodging sniper fire while landing by helicopter in Bosnia in 1996, only for footage to emerge of her rather unrushed and formal arrival on the Tarmac (Clinton later said she “misspoke”).

Hillary Clinton

David Cameron

For all we obsess about the speed of the digital age, it’s the fact that  information now lingers that is the undoing of public liars. Where once false facts may have been recorded on paper, slowly rotting away in a drawer, they are now preserved in digital aspic. They can be retrieved, pristine, and analysed at any time – whether academic papers, CVs, quotes or photographs. Back when this wasn’t the case, life for liars was easy.

Gregor MacGregor would have never gotten away with it in the modern age. MacGregor was a Scottish soldier and coloniser who fought in South America in the early 19th century. Returning to England in 1820, he declared that he had been made cacique (prince) of the Central American Principality of Poyais. With merchants salivating at the prospect of a new market, he raised bearer bonds as loans for his nation, appointed civil servants, and eventually sailed a ship full of colonists out of the Port of London. The Principality of Poyais didn’t exist. But there was no way for the victims of MacGregor’s outlandish lies to know this in time to stop him, because communications at the time moved no quicker than ships.

During the 20th century, the speed of communication increased exponentially. Lies could now be uncovered by a telegram, a motorcycle messenger, a plane trip, a phonecall, a television broadcast or – eventually – the almighty internet. Which is not say all nations or their leaders embraced this opening up of communications.

Dictators and despots focused with increased fervour on controlling the flow of information, if not the definition of the truth. Stalin literally painted people out of history once they’d been liquidised, by having official photographs doctored. Throughout North Korea it was well known that Kim Jong Il could control the weather, routinely shot three or four holes-in-one during each round of golf he played, and wrote 1,500 books during his three years at university. But, as Middle East incumbents have been finding during the Arab Spring, this absolute control (and the power to conceal lies that comes with it) is becoming increasingly difficult.

So as information becomes more readily available, lying becomes a more perilous pursuit. The risk/reward ratio for making things up is shifting – and this, you might think, will mean that lying becomes will become less prevalent. Those tempted to tell porkies will hesitate, in fear of their eventual digital downfall. This, however, is not necessarily true – people may well lie even when faced with such penalties.

Former Hungarian President Pál Schmitt

Lies, particularly when they take the form of exaggeration, may actually be a way of expressing hope for the future. This certainly fits with academic plagiarism, or CV embellishment. In fact, two studies in 2008, one at the University of Southampton, and one in the journal Emotion, suggest that not only are those who exaggerate more confident, but they may also be more likely to gain the achievements they lied about in the first place.

Unless, of course, they get caught. Scott Thompson’s lie about having an IT degree – fairly important for the industry he was in – wasn’t spotted until he’d made it all the way to the lofty heights of CEO of a leading American multinational. His lie worked, for a while, but ultimately it crushed any good work he may have done after he made that little CV enhancement. So why doesn’t the fear of getting caught put liars off?

The problems begin if the lie isn’t caught straight away. There are numerous examples of prolific liars who started with minor fabrications and escalated once it appeared these had eluded discovery. It’s no coincidence that many of the examples above were lies told in younger days, when a heady combination of naiveté and arrogance made the initial steps into lying easier, and the thrill of getting away with it more potent.

Even if the liar realises that detection is becoming ever more likely, the longer you go after telling a lie, the harder it is to recant. And once you’ve piled genuine truths and achievements on top of that lie, you can find yourself having to make a decision between admitting a mistake that may have occurred many years in your past, when you were young and stupid, and protecting your life and career now, with all the dependencies of lifestyle and family you’ve built up in the meantime.

Janet Cooke joined the Washington Post in 1980, as a staffer on the ‘Weekly’ section. On her CV she claimed that she had a degree from Vassar College, and a master’s degree from the University of Toledo. In fact, she’d attended Vassar for just a year, and received only a bachelor’s degree from Toledo – small embellishments that, when they escaped notice, set her on the path to bigger lies.

Desk editors at the Post found Cooke a smart, articulate self-starter. She was ambitious, and open about her aim to get off the Weekly and onto the Metro desk – reporting on serious city issues. She appeared to have earned that move with a spectacular story that came out of her digging into Washington’s drug underworld in September 1980. Entitled “Jimmy’s World”, it told the heart-breaking story of an eight-year-old heroin addict.

With the appalling tale of its central character, and evocative detail, “Jimmy’s World” gained massive attention, including from the mayor of Washington, DC, Marion Barry. Barry and other city officials organised a search to find Jimmy, but the search failed to find him.

“This is the Catch-22 of lies. Once they’ve been left unexposed for long enough the penalties for admitting the lie become the same as those for getting caught”

Bob Woodward, the veteran Watergate reporter and then assistant managing editor of the Post, put Cooke’s story forward for the Pulitzer Prize. On 13th April 1981, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. With Cooke firmly in the public eye, the editors of the Toledo Blade where she had worked previously raised concerns with some of her biographical details – and once the thread was tugged, everything unravelled. Two days after picking up the Pulitzer, and under pressure from her bosses, Cooke admitted that she had not only embellished the story – she had fabricated every single part of it, including the existence of Jimmy and all of his family.

At what point should Cooke have come clean? Once she got away with her initial fibs to gain a place on a high-level newspaper, she saw what was possible. Once she had created her monster lie, there was no going back. How could she admit what she’d done when a full-scale manhunt was being funded by public money? How could she recant when Bob “Watergate” Woodward was putting her up for the biggest prize in journalism? The penalties for confessing had become the same as for getting caught. Cooke felt her only option was to keep on lying.

This is the Catch-22 of lies. Once they’ve been left unexposed for long enough, and an entire reality has been built on top of them – a life, a career – the penalties for admitting the lie become the same as those for getting caught. The only option that doesn’t result in humiliation and downfall is to carry on lying, and not get caught.

It is tempting to say that everyone gets caught in the end. But how would we know? The facts are out there to be analysed and checked. The past history and every recorded utterance of our public figures are available to be raked over, cross-matched and verified – as Pál Schmitt knows to his cost. And what’s definitely true is that there are liars in the highest positions in society – CEOs, presidents, professors or fencers – who are worrying that their own personal fabrication may at any moment be dragged into the light.

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