What price, to lie?

STRETCHING noses, Pinocchio-fashion, is not really an option - so what should the penalty be for telling lies?It all depends, of course, on the type of lie, where it is made, and why.

STRETCHING noses, Pinocchio-fashion, is not really an option - so what should the penalty be for telling lies?

It all depends, of course, on the type of lie, where it is made, and why.

What if someone were to say, for example, that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction?

Or that the Holocaust never happened, and the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis was a collective fantasy?

Both examples would no doubt have pleased Adolf Hitler, who among other innovations was responsible for a concept that has been invaluable to politicians ever since - the Big Lie.

Strangely enough, when Hitler first wrote about the Big Lie, it was to accuse the Jews. His propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels then attributed its use to the English. Presumably he did so with approval, since lavishness with the untruth was his speciality.

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It was an American psychological profile of Hitler that summed up the idea in its neatest, best-known form: “People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

George W Bush is only the latest, and possibly not the greatest, exponent of this tried and trusted technique.

Like most political leaders, he generally gets away with saying anything.

Unlike David Irving, who has finally got his comeuppance after a long career as a supposed “historian”.

Irving is scum, and his repeated denial of the facts of the Holocaust is at best barmy, at worst wicked. But I have grave misgivings about his imprisonment.

There is, first, the danger that he could become a neo-Nazi “martyr” - though that's a pretty barmy idea too.

If I went out and broke the law - if I stole a car, say, or beat up an old lady - I would expect to be jailed. And I wouldn't expect to be considered a martyr.

Irving knew perfectly well when he went to Austria in 1989 and delivered his Nazi-apologist speeches that he was breaking Austrian law. And he knew when he returned there last year that he did so as a wanted criminal.

Essentially, he knew what was coming to him, and he got it.

And that begs the question why he did it.

One can only assume he wanted to be “martyred” to give more publicity to his repugnant views.

That falls down slightly with the most bizarre twist of this curious tale - the fact that he stood up in the Vienna courtroom and admitted making “a mistake”, and that the Holocaust had indeed happened.

But only slightly, because he still went on to make excuses and quibble about numbers - as if murdering 2.7million people, rather than six million, were somehow OK.

If this was a weaselly attempt to get off the hook, the Austrian judges weren't having it.

There is, I suppose, a faint possibility that Irving really believed what he said in 1989. If that's the case, he was not lying - just deeply, dangerously incompetent.

Either way, he should not be allowed to go on calling himself a historian.

If historians had a professional register as doctors do, he would surely have been struck off it years ago.

But the very existence of the law Irving broke is awkward. And not just because it gives people like the Iranian government another opportunity to squawk about the hypocrisy of supposed Western freedoms.

Whatever happened to that great moral value so perfectly put by Voltaire: “I detest your views but am prepared to die for your right to express them”?

The legal crushing of free speech - even barking-mad speech - is a starting-point on the road towards Nazi-like oppression.

Not, of course, that the Austrians see it that way. It is no coincidence that Holocaust denial should be explicitly a crime in the country where anti-semitism had a flourishing tradition long before Hitler learned it there.

It is cruelly ironic that Austrian efforts to put that grim history behind them should provide a pretext for renewed anti-semitism.

The proper way to deal with a creep like Irving is not to bang him up.

It is not even, as some have suggested, to debate with him. Because a debate implies the possibility that what he says might be true.

He should be taken to Auschwitz, he should be shown the films from Belsen.

And then, like all liars, he should be persuaded to tell the truth. The whole truth, and nothing but.

****

I WENT for a walk the other day to enjoy the Suffolk countryside, as I do.

Very lovely, until my route took me half a mile or so along the Woodbridge-to-Tuddenham road.

It wasn't the fact that this country lane is now a fairly busy rat-run that upset me. I knew that already - I've been driving it myself for years.

It was the litter.

You don't notice so much from behind the wheel, but walk along the verge of that road - or others like it - and it's like wading through an overturned bin.

There were a few broken CDs, a child's mattress and even an old computer - but mostly it was beer cans, crisp packets, cigarette cartons and plastic drinks bottles galore.

It left me wondering how many squashed Coke cans there are in the world.

And why the manufacturers of all this throwaway packaging aren't made to pay to have their mess cleared up.

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