One of the great stalwarts of 20th-century British journalism, Louis Heren, was given a piece of advice when he was a young reporter in Washington. Whenever you are interviewing a politician, a veteran US journalist told him, always keep at the front of your mind the question: "Why is this lying bastard lying to me". It would be overly cynical to suggest that the maxim should be applied to every statement made by the current Coalition Government in Britain. But it is unfortunate that ministers have in recent days made two significantly misleading statements to the public or to Parliament.
First, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, claimed that graduates would not have to start repaying their tuition fees until they were earning £21,000 a year. The Independent revealed yesterday that the payback will begin at as little as £18,000, which will leave thousands of the poorest graduates worse off. Now it emerges that the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has misled Parliament by making out that figures quoted to justify cuts in housing benefit were from the Office for National Statistics, when they turned out to be taken from a property website owned by the publisher of the Daily Mail.
These are not innocent errors but ones with political consequences. On housing benefit, the real statistics show that landlords will have no need to drop rents – as ministers have suggested – if benefits are cut. Rather, they are far more likely to evict low-income tenants and find other tenants. That would mean that the housing benefit cuts could, after all, lead to mass evictions of people who rely on housing benefit to pay the rent.
In opposition, the two Coalition parties laid much store on the need for greater government transparency. Indeed, the Chancellor, George Osborne, went so far as to set up the independent Office for Budget Responsibility in protest against what he claimed was the dodgy use of statistics and fiscal forecasts of the previous Labour government.
The public has the right to expect better of politicians but, most particularly, those who have, in opposition, made a point of promising greater integrity.