Friday, 28 November 2014

Truth decay

Politicians don’t tell the truth.

This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. Though surely we should all be recalibrating our gauges of newsworthiness in the week when ‘David Mellor is obnoxious’ was considered front-page news.

Politicians don’t tell us the truth partly because they only ever speak to the public through a media engagement. If we hear David Cameron it is because a media organisation and the No.10 press team reached an agreement that this would happen. The subject was agreed and the messages rehearsed. It’s not real, it’s not a slice of life, even if the politician is in his kitchen making pancakes for his children. In fact, especially if the politician in a kitchen making children pancakes. It’s probably a studio, and those kids are probably off Outnumbered.

An interview is not a conversation, so the normal rules of polite society do not apply. It is much more like a verbal game, like Articulate. The interviewee draws a card with key messages on it (‘Sensible policies for a safer Britain’, perhaps) and scores a point every time they manage to say it; the interviewer draws a card with a list of gaffes on it (‘I distrust the poor’ or ‘I hate vans’) and scores a point every time they force the interviewee to say one of them.

The general public listen in and hear two people behaving in a baffling, and pretty beastly way. So they switch over.

There is always some truth in what a politician says. They tend to avoid any verifiable inaccuracies, as they can be embarrassing later. It is the truth and nothing but the truth - but never the whole truth. If politicians were forced to swear a court-style oath ahead of interviews, they would have to claim that ‘two out of three ain’t bad’.

Politicians don’t answer the question, because they are playing the game. But equally interviewers don’t often ask real questions. They prefer to set traps, because they’re playing the game too. Take the question: ‘What did you do last week?’ What is a true answer to that question? First you have to decode what is meant by it. If you are asked the question socially, it means: “Did you do anything last week interesting enough to warrant inclusion in this conversation?’

In the unlikely event that a politician was asked that question in public, it would have a different meaning. During a friendly interview it would mean, ‘Give us a flavour of what it’s like being you.’ If it was asked with venom, it would mean, ‘Name a single thing you did last week to justify your continued existence.’

But the politician hears the question as, ‘Which of your well rehearsed key messages is in any way relevant to something that happened last week?’

Interviews where the politician just repeats their message are pretty irritating. But even worse are the ones where they say nothing, then high-five themselves at the end of an interview for not having been caught out. Why did they ever agree to the interview? They seem to think that to avoid saying something stupid on the news you should stonewall an interview. But actually the best way is to decline the interview and stay at home practising the bassoon, or watching New Tricks.

Of course, if you entirely avoid the question, you end up looking like Michael Howard in May 1997. Howard didn’t realise that if Jeremy Paxman asks you the same question 12 times, people are going to feel that it’s you being evasive, not Jezza being irritating. Howard, in his answers, was trying to suggest that Paxman’s question was in some way not valid. It didn’t work.

This comes across most clearly in the magnificent moment just after Paxman announces that he is going to be “frightfully rude” and ask the question again (a tenth time). Howard, with a staggering lack of self-awareness, says, “You can put the question and I will give you an answer.” Howard really thinks it now looks like Paxman is not asking the right question. Instead, it suddenly seems like the most important question in the world.

The problem with communicating entirely through this media game is there’s not a lot of truth knocking around. And when people hear the truth, they recognise it, and respond positively. And this is a gift-horse to Farage.

UKIP tell their fair share of political lies. They will bend, ignore, or misrepresent the facts. They will be partial, misleading, and evasive. When they are talking about policies, it’s the same game everyone else is playing - get your message across, and try not to say anything too racist.

But if you ask Farage about elections, votes, and UKIP’s chances of success in individual seats, or nationally, he just seems to tell the truth. There’s no great moral virtue to it. He’s not doing it because he’s a wonderful person, nor necessarily as an evil Machiavellian double bluff. But, whatever is behind it, when you ask Farage to play election pundit, he seems to say exactly what he thinks.

Imagine asking the party leaders about a hopeless constituency. Ask Cameron what the Tory in Kirkcaldy is hoping for, and he’ll say something bland. Ask Ed Miliband about Labour’s chances in Witney, and he’ll say ‘hardworking families’, possibly in a sentence.

But ask Farage how UKIP are going to do in Peckham, he’ll say, ‘We don’t stand a chance.’ Ask him how many seats they will win next year, he says, ‘Could be 30 or 40, if it goes well’. He seems to be giving the same answer as he would behind closed doors. He’s telling the truth. It’s weird.

And it puts him at a very unfair advantage. He gets to tell the truth in public sometimes, where the other leaders are not allowed to. Eventually, politicians get the questions they deserve. No one would ever ask Nigel Farage how he feels when he sees a white van, because he’d probably tell them it was a bloody silly question, and ask them if they were foreign.

If UKIP get some sustained success, then this truth-telling won’t last. Soon, they’ll be calculating and over-thinking every answer like proper politicians, and they’ll have lost their advantage along with their novelty. When Farage tells a UKIP conference, ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government,’ then we’ll know the UKIP threat has finally passed.

But until then, their truth-telling example must be followed. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, if a politician has even the most occasional opportunity to tell the truth to the public, they should take it. The public will notice, and give them the benefit.


Anything will do. The classified football results. The rivers of Yorkshire. The films of Denholm Elliott. Anything, just as long as it’s true.

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