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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

The art of lying

Seems the only place you can safely call someone a liar is in court. You can’t even do it in Parliament; you risk getting hauled up before its Committee of Privileges. Try doing it in public and you have got to get your facts right or face a defamation suit. So Cecilia Sue is being called a liar, again and again. Liar is not a term people use freely. You can call someone stupid, an idiot, a bitch…but liar really hits hard.
I don’t want to refer to the Ng Boon Gay and Cecilia Sue case. Her testimony is so riddled with contradictions that the only “safe’’ thing I can say is that she is one confused woman up against a pretty tenacious lawyer with a good memory. It’s hard to lie or get your story straight when you have to confront someone face-to-face. Far easier to do so on the phone or via email.
I have been conducting classes on interviewing skills in university and I always get asked how to tell if someone is lying. Frankly, I think too often, we tend to take people at face value and we’re just so glad to get responses that we prefer not to think that we could be lied to. In my past life, I’ve had occasions when newsmakers lie – and then promptly tell the truth the next day. That’s not because they have been caught out in the lie but because they were adhering to some time-line on when they should say certain things. Then I feel terrible about having swallowed the lie and having published it for the rest of the world to read the next day. That’s because the lie is extended to so many more people – and the liar doesn’t care. “Company policy’’, “Boss say cannot’’, “Please understand’’, “My hands are tied’’ – those are usual excuses that newsmakers give for lying. But what does it do for the reputation of the journalist whose name is in print? My own philosophy then was to make sure I say the person said this yesterday, and is saying this today, and here’s why he lied – without using the word of course. Which OF COURSE gets the newsmaker riled up. But it’s also a reflection of something else – the journalist being lied to wasn’t good enough at his or her job to ferret out the truth in the first place.
So I really envy defence counsel Tan Chee Meng. He gets to grill his “newsmaker’’ face-to-face and on the record too. He doesn’t have to contend with “cannot quote me’’, “this is for background only’’ or worse, “this is off-the-record’’ that I had to deal with in my previous life. There’s something we, I mean all of us, can learn from this exchange – always talk to people face-to-face. That’s what I keep telling class participants who are more used to talking on the computer than talking to a person. You can get the visual cues, the instant response, the body language and gauge the tone of voice. You get more “signals’’ to the brain than just mere text that has been prepared beforehand. Even if you are not a journalist, isn’t this a better way to engage someone?
But you know what I found out? It’s no point talking face-to-face if you are not good at thinking on your feet…The questioner needs questions and the ability to process responses on the spot that might lead to more questions…and maybe the truth will out. Talking it over with my class participants, they came up with this theory: They are so used to asking questions via email that they can no longer deal with the myriad signals that come from a person they talk to face-to-face. So those responses are “clouded’’ and the brain takes even more time to process the signals and come up with an appropriate question. I don’t know if there’s any scientific study on this but it’s real interesting…
Are we talking more? Or less? We’re talking more. On Facebook and all. But I think we’re more interested in telling people what we did or think than in engaging in anything more in-depth than a pithy, witty, sarcastic exchange. I am generalising of course. At least, I hope I am.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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