A Political Life: It’s the shameless doublespeak that makes politicians look like liars

With the public already disdainful of politicians, how can so many continue with the tactics of public obfuscation and diversion?


Ask the public what they’d like to see politicians give up as a new year resolution, and I’m sure top of the list would be “lying”. Or possibly “expenses”. Or “lying about expenses” to cover all bases.

Is that fair? Well, frankly, it depends what you mean by lying.

In the earliest recorded example, when the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel?”, He received the answer: “I don’t know” – a blatant lie – followed by: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, a skilled politician’s answer.

In my experience, even the least moralistic politicians don’t usually tell blatant lies, because any benefit they might gain is outweighed by the danger of getting caught. Only the wilfully reckless ignore that rule. The difficulty comes when a politician faces such damage if they tell the truth that the rewards for lying appear worth the risk. Hence, Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Archer denying sexual relations with their respective Monicas (Lewinsky, and Coghlan).

The only time I saw Gordon Brown face anything like that dilemma was when a journalist asked me if Tom Watson had visited his Scottish home prior to the 2006 “coup” against Tony Blair.

They had no evidence and asked the question with no confidence. So when Gordon told me Tom had indeed visited, I said – to my shame – we could probably get away with it. He replied instantly: “Never do that. It’s the lie that kills you.”

Of course, there’s a time-honoured alternative for politicians who want to tell the truth but avoid the damage, namely blaming bad advice from colleagues or civil servants, also known as the Adam and Eve defence.

One thing in private...

But then we look at the second half of Cain’s response, and it’s here where some politicians undoubtedly do make their profession look dishonest.

In a bygone era when a broadcast interview was just an annoying ritual for a politician to endure, the refusal to give straight answers to straight questions was understandable. Now that those interviews offer one of the few remaining opportunities to communicate directly to a mass audience, it is baffling that some politicians remain wedded to the tactics of diversion, obfuscation and half-truths. If someone like me cringes when an interviewee begins their answer with the phrase “What you should be asking is ...”, how are listeners, already hostile to politicians, expected to feel?

Old habits die hard, though, and the oldest for politicians is to say one thing in private and another in public. A biographer of Gordon’s once told me how a member of the current Shadow Cabinet waited until the tape recorder was off after a two-hour interview before saying with relish: “Right, now I can tell you what I really think.” For me, that shameless doublespeak – and public awareness of it – is as corrosive of trust in politics as any expenses abuses.

Micro-managing expectations

The doublespeak is especially deafening on election night. By early evening this 2 May, thanks to reports from members around the country, the respective party HQs should be able to forecast their share of the local elections vote down to the first decimal point.

Yet the triumphant party will downplay to journalists the scale of its expected victory so it can later call it “stunning”, while its opponents will warn that they’re set to lose one or two safe councils, turning these into “surprising” holds. This is justified by spin doctors of all parties as trying to get expectations in “the right place”, by which they mean lying to get them in the wrong place.

In his later years in office, Tony Blair’s team tried the opposite strategy, telling journalists they’d done much better than they actually had, simply in the hope that the first editions of the papers wouldn’t be such a bloodbath.

Personally, I made a point of telling journalists our full forecast as soon as I had it, on the grounds that being accurate, honest and helpful was better for our long-term relationships and credibility, whatever the overnight headlines.

I wasn’t around for the 2009 local elections, held at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, and not long after my own. The Tories polled 38 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 28 per cent and Labour 23 per cent. With those figures as the baseline and the rise of Ukip to contend with, trying to get expectations into the right place for the 2 May elections will be one hell of a job. I’m glad it’s not mine any more.

At least we don’t have the violence

But if Coalition spin doctors are apprehensive about those elections, at least their only worry is lost votes. This week, I’ve been talking to partners of Cafod, the charity I work with, in Kenya and Zimbabwe about their forthcoming elections, and the violence seen in 2008 when they last went to the polls.

Abdi Rauf was 14 when trouble erupted in the Nairobi slum of Korogocho. Rival factions rampaged through the tiny streets, and Abdi says: “It was difficult to sleep at night worrying that your house would be torched.” Korogocho’s St John’s Sports Society, funded by Cafod, organised football tournaments to get young people off the streets. Ahead of Kenya’s March elections, Abdi says: “St John’s is already working with all the different groups to build friendships and make sure they do not engage in violence. A lot of young people who witnessed the chaos five years ago say this time round, they have learned the lessons and are willing to work for peace.”

For the sake of Abdi and others like him, let’s hope Kenya’s and Zimbabwe’s politicians have learned the lessons too and are similarly resolved for peace. In private as well as in public.

Damian McBride is a former special adviser to Gordon Brown. He is the head of communications for Cafod.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Illegal African migrants arrive at the port in the Tunisian town of Zarzis, some 50 kilometres west of the Libyan border after Tunisian fishermen rescued 82 African migrants off the coast of the town aboard a makeshift boat bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa  

Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

Andrew Grice
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own