By Geoffrey Lyons

06 Mar 2018

Is truth scarcer than it used to be? Claire Foster-Gilbert, director of the Westminster Abbey Institute, sits down with Geoffrey Lyons to discuss the idea of truth, the Abbey’s role in politics, and the Institute’s latest lecture series

Photos: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Nick Clegg wants you to know there are 104 hours of How I Met Your Mother. This figure towers over the paltry 62 hours that make up the entirety of Breaking Bad, which the former deputy prime minister had to wait until he was out of government to devour. But together with the 115 hours of The West Wing, 122 hours of The Big Bang Theory, and 138 hours of 24, it’s a number that contributes to a larger point: “There’s a lot for folk to choose from.” The combined volume and variety of modern television is just one example of how technology has cheapened political discourse by giving people the option to lead what Clegg calls a “bubble life”.

The occasion for these reflections was a 2017 lecture on the coarsening of political language, part of a series on democracy hosted by the Westminster Abbey Institute. This year’s series has a new theme – truth – which will feature speakers like former cabinet minister Jack Straw and BBC home editor Mark Easton, and will cover topics that range from the sacred (“Truth and Beauty”) to the profane (“Lies, Diplomacy and Politics”). One of the speakers is the director of the institute herself, Claire Foster-Gilbert, who met with The House to discuss what’s in store and how she thinks truth ought to be regarded in modern society. 

Truth be told

“For the civil service it's about speaking truth to power. For the politicians it's about speaking truth in power"

Foster-Gilbert’s book-lined office overlooks the tranquil Dean’s Yard, a leafy quadrangle on the Abbey’s precincts insulated from the flurry of tourists just beyond its walls. But it’s the location of the Abbey itself – sandwiched between Parliament to the east, Treasury and FCO to the north, the Supreme Court to the west and the Home Office just south – that seems to galvanise her. “This configuration is probably unique in the world,” she says. “And the Abbey must respond to that.”

The Abbey’s function in this arrangement, according to Foster-Gilbert, is to be a dedicated space for deep reflection, where people both religious and non-religious can seek calm, beauty, and “nourishment beyond anything your intellect can offer.” Accordingly, the Institute’s role is to put all of that into a public context.

“The Institute is the Abbey’s way of bringing what it has got on the inside out into the public square,” Foster-Gilbert says. It does this by organising under-the-radar seminars for MPs and peers, a fellow’s programme for younger public servants, and, of course, the public lectures.

The Institute’s lecture series “Truth”, comprised of five lectures, ran its first on February 27 and will finish with Foster-Gilbert’s lecture “Truth Told” on March 20. “I'm going to talk about the challenge of speaking the truth and what truth looks like in the different public service areas,” she says. “For the civil service it's about speaking truth to power. For the politicians it's about speaking truth in power.”

Truth: schedule

Truth and Beauty
Tuesday 27 February in the Nave, Westminster Abbey
Speaker: Professor Janet Soskice
Chair: The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

True Enough? Lies, Diplomacy and Politics
Thursday 1 March in Cheyneygates, Westminster Abbey
Speakers: The Reverend Professor Michael Banner; John Raine; Rt Hon Jack Straw
Chair: The Reverend Jane Sinclair, Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret’s Church

Truth Pursued
Tuesday 6 March, 6.30pm, in the Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey
Speaker: The Reverend Professor Vernon White
Chair: Mark Easton, BBC Home Editor

Truth Sustained
Tuesday 13 March, 6.30pm, in the Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey
Speaker: Sir Stephen Lamport
Chair: Lord Saatchi

Truth Told
Tuesday 20 March, 6.30pm, in the Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey
Speaker: Claire Foster-Gilbert
Chair: Lord Judge, former Lord Chief Justice

For Foster-Gilbert, truth is a platonic notion, much like beauty or goodness, impossible to fully realise but necessary to conceptualise. “We know in some intuitive sense what truth is even though we’ve never seen it,” she says. “And actually, the reason we know we’ve never seen it is precisely because we have an intuitive sense of what it is.” 

This ideal conception of truth is, in Foster-Gilbert’s opinion, not only correct in theory but also pragmatic. “It’s a helpful way to think about it because it takes us away from the idea that you can have something like absolute truth that any of us could tell,” she says. “All we can do is get as close to it as we possibly can.”

And while getting as close as one can to truth is everyone’s duty, there are some for whom it’s more important than others. “For a profession like journalism, truth is the lodestar,” Foster-Gilbert says. “If journalists don’t tell the truth, then what is the point of journalism?” 

Telling it like it is 

Apart from running the Institute, Foster-Gilbert is a leading voice in medical ethics, an expertise that gives her a unique perspective on issues of public interest. “Well it certainly gives me a perspective,” she says modestly. She has published weighty reference works like The Manual for Research Ethics Committees (1995) and The Ethics of Medical Research on Humans (2001), the latter providing a framework for establishing whether experiments involving human subjects are ethical. 

“Many in public office have a notion that it may be harmful to tell people the truth. More often than not I think it wouldn't be"

Her framework requires three conditions to be satisfied: the experiment must have a good outcome (“goal-based”), it must treat the human subjects ethically (“duty-based”) and it must be upfront and transparent with them (“rights-based”). Sometime after constructing this “three-legged stool,” Foster-Gilbert came to the realisation that the same scheme can be used for policymaking. “We can use this for the various conversations that we’ve had about ethics in public life,” she says. 

On the topic of truth, Foster-Gilbert says quite a lot has changed in the medical community in the past 50-60 years. “For a very long time doctors thought it was harmful to tell patients what was wrong with them,” she says, relating a story about her father’s stay in a hospital in the 1950s. “He had jaundice, and he was in a ward where there was one man who had cancer,” she says. “Everybody in the ward knew he had cancer except him, and the nurses would discuss it amongst themselves but say to others ‘don’t tell him!’.” 

To Foster-Gilbert, it would be rash to say those doctors were being unethical. They were simply living in a time when, in this particular context, paternalism was valued more highly than autonomy. “And I think that reads across another context where you can have paternalism, which is public office,” she says. “Many in public office have a notion that it may be harmful to tell people the truth, but more often than not I think it wouldn't be.” 

And in those rare instances when it is in fact harmful, Foster-Gilbert believes there may still be a duty to tell it. She relates how in a series on the power of the media, BBC presenter Nick Robinson gave the example of Robert Peston breaking the story of Northern Rock. “[Robinson] had said that even though it might have created a run on the bank, it was [Peston’s] duty as a journalist to tell the truth about what had happened,” she says. “For journalists above all else, that’s a consideration.” 

Foster-Gilbert is gentle on points like these. It was a “consideration” for Peston to tell the truth, not an imperative. This lack of clear prescription is sourced not in moral laxity but rather a conviction that everyone has the capacity and desire to do good. “Most people want to be good. They don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I’m going to be bad today’,” she says. But for one’s good side to prevail, it must be exercised. “It's an active engagement,” she says. “We have to tend to our moral health just as we tend to our physical health.” 

There is, in Foster-Gilbert’s view, a certain moral malaise in today’s political environment. “I think it’s fair to say that the notion of truth is under threat,” she says. “And there’s a lot of talk about ‘post-truth society’ and ‘fake news’.”

But she is unmitigatedly opposed to the notion that now is the worst it has ever been. “The Abbey itself has seen 1,000 years of far more turbulent history than what we're having at the moment,” she explains.  

Truth is perhaps being tested, but it’s been put through tougher trials. And people themselves aren’t at present singularly wicked. Politicians, for example, have always been ill-regarded. “Shakespeare’s plays are full of dreadful references to politicians,” she says, quoting King Lear to the blinded Gloucester: “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.” Foster-Gilbert leans back and laughs, as if to say, “Things aren’t so bad”.

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