Monthly Archives: March 2015

How politicians tell lies

Yesterday (Sunday March 29th) we had the rather unedifying spectre of the Conservatives’ Ian Duncan Smith and Labour’s Lucy Powell dodging and weaving for all they were worth in the face of some shrewd questioning from Andrew Marr and Andrew Neil respectively.

My aim here is not to judge the content of their arguments (there were plenty of commentators doing that) but to identify where they were using tricks of language whose effect is to deceive.

At the end of February in my blog “How they abuse language” (https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/02/) I identified a number of warning signs – and both politicians used (or abused) many of the verbal tricks I highlighted.

I think it is a good rule of thumb that the more tricks they use, the less likely they are to be telling the truth.

Let’s start with Duncan Smith, who was questioned about where he intended to find £12 billion welfare cuts.

A. Deflection tactics

  1. “Can I just say a couple of things” – enabled him to ignore the question and make two points he wanted to get across.
  2. “When we are right and ready we will talk about what we plan to do”
  3. “We may or we may not decide..”
  4. “Can I make this point because you have pressed me on this…” He goes on not to address the point atall but attack the opposition.

B. Answering different questions to those that are asked;

  1. The helpful whats: “What I will say”, “what we are saying”
  2. “I cannot in this programme go through the spending review” – well he was not asked to – and of course politicians are more than happy to announce cuts/increases where it suits them to do. In fact he uses this line several times.
  3. “I am not going to start ruling things in and things out” – actually in the interview he does rule a couple of things out.

C. The useful word “clear” – used when you want to be anything but clear – as in “We have already made it clear”

D. Picking up a word used by the questioner but not the rest of the question.

  1. Marr’s question used the word “honest” and Duncan Smith replied: “I will tell you what is honest..”
  2. Marr’s question used the phrase “know for certain” and the response was “They know for certain…”
  3. “The reality is… ” for completely avoiding the question.

E. Bogus clarity: “No decisions have been made” – it really entirely depends on when something has become government policy – even if it is something you are determined to do, if it is not formally policy, you can pretend that no decision has been made.

This brings us on to Lucy Powell, who was questioned on Labour’s deficit reduction plans.

A. Bogus certainty.

“We set out what we would do….” – when they have not done that at all.

“We have said…” – not necessarily an answer to the question

“We have said we will be abandoning exploitative zero hours contracts” – without explaining exploitative.

“We are very clear…” (about as clear as Duncan Smith was), similarly “we have have been absolutely clear about what we intend to do” (and going to be less than clear)

“We have been absolutely clear about we intend to do” – and the rest of the answer shows she has not.

B. Three point strategy – I didnt make enough of this when I was drafting my initial tricks. This involves making the same three points you want to make whatever the question – I lost track of the number of times Powell tried to do this.

C. Using certain words to avoid answering the question – enables the person answering to take the reply in the direction he or she wants.

  1. “It is really important” (twice)
  2. There is a new word which may be just a Powell word or it could be a general escalation from important or really important. This is the word critical. There was “the critical point”, “it is an absolutely critical point”, “very critically”, “the critical thing here (three)”, “thirdly and most critically”, “it is a critical issue” (quite a lot of criticals for a 12 minute interview).

D. What people want – a way of changing the question and avoiding what you have been asked.

  1. Asked about deficit reduction plans, she says: “The Tories failed to reduce the deficit. Why has that happened?”
  2. “People want to understand” – follows by a winge about Paxo-style questioning.

E. Blaming the questioner – follows on from the complaint about Paxo-style questions

  1. Ignoring the question and saying: “You are not listening to what I am saying.” This is then followed by a return to the three point mantra.
  2. “It is really annoying…” comment on Andrew Neil

Mind you Neil has been around too long to be bullied – and he is equally robust with everyone he interviews. He responded: “You dont get to ask your own questions” and “Just answer the question.”

I have heard the same frustration from John Humphries earlier in the campaign. And I am sure all the parties will criticise interviewers for being too aggressive will refusing to answer the questions they are asked.

The interviewers are not being too aggressive. Those three and Jeremy Paxman are the only ones capable of stopping the verbal evasion and deceit that is destroying proper debate. We should celebrate them not sympathise with the politicians who try to evade their questions.

Cook at home, it’s bloody easy!

splendidredtrousers

The weekend is a time to show off one’s culinary skills to pals or loved ones – even the busiest of us can find enough time to create something interesting.

Even though there is a galaxy of celebrity chefs offering us simpler versions of sophisticated recipes, I find the irrational fear of many Londoners to cook a basic meal perplexing and sad.

All too often I see perfectly sane people perusing the aisles of Waitroses and other supermarkets, succumbing to the seduction of their exquisite sounding ready meals. Either that or they clutch a box of eggs, ready to jump onto the safety boat named omelette.

As a chef, I am lucky enough to know how to cook meals from scratch – so I find what may be tricky to most, is a piece of cake or a boeuf wellington to me!

That said, I am equally aware that though…

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Punishing leakers at Bolton University

As a general principle I support all whistleblowers and freedom of speech – and my instinct is to believe that any institution that cannot cope with criticism and the rough and tumble of even personal acrimony has pretty wet leadership.

However, it is not my role here to support or condemn the sacking of Damien and Jenny Markey for allegedly leaking embarrassing stories about the University of Bolton’s vice chancellor Professor George Holmes.

I was drawn to this story by the statement issued by the university after the two people were dismissed – I gather they are appealing against the decision.

A University spokesman is quoted as saying: “The University is comfortable that procedures have been followed and as yet no appeal has been followed. The process is not connected with a staff member being a Trade Union official.”

Rarely can 20 or so words have broken so many of my rules on deceit, rules which are designed to spot occasions where there may be an attempt to evade stating the whole truth – the use of words that are technically accurate but taken as whole are evasive.

Look at some of the specific words.

The University – means the speaker is declining to say who in the university is comfortable – it clearly has to be one individual or a group of individuals.

Comfortable – what on earth does this word mean in this context. “Comfortable” can mean anything from full support to just about toleraying – it covers such as raange as to be totally meaningless.

Procedures have been followed – note the use of the passive which means the spokesperson doesn’t need to say who exactly is following procedures. And the word “procedure” is so vaccuous anyway as to carry no useful meaning.

The process is not connected – I suspect that it is impossible for a process to be connected with anything. At the very least this sentence is constructed with utter cotempt for the structures of the English language.

One final thought. We rightly expect our universities and those who represent them, to adhere to the most rigorous standards of intellectual argument and the way that argument is presented. Don’t those 20 words say everything you need to need to know about the values of the University of Bolton?

Valueless statements

Politicians, civil servants and businesses have become increasingly attracted to the idea of issuing a statement on a subject rather than sending someone to debate it.

It may be just me, but I am pretty certain the use of these statements has become more prevelant and the content even more banal than when this tactic started to be used extensively, I guess about 15 years ago.

There is some logic to sending out a comment, particularly when there are simply not enough people to meet the demands of 24 hour news. And, when official statements were issued at the end of a discussion, as used to be the practice, it means that the official body had the last word.

It was a perfect way for someone in power to evade and avoid debate and get the final word.

There was a classic case today on Radio 5 Live which did a piece on the amount of financial help received if a child was seriously ill in hospital. The government pays disability living allowance (DLA) for seriously ill children who live at home, but removes it after nearly three months for those who are in hospital.

One carer and Amanda Batten from Contact a Family spoke and then there was the inevitable statement from the Department of Local Government.

“DLA is paid to help people who are unable to walk or virtually unable to walk or to do things like wash and dress themselves. After a child is looked after free of charge in hospital for nearly three months, we put payment of DLA on hold because their needs are met by the NHS. Children receive DLA for longer than just over 16s after being admitted to hospital because we recognise they need longer to adjust.”

Rather than that being the end of the discussion, the excellent Peter Allen asked Amanda Batten to respond which she did by pointing out omissions in the statement.

The DLG statement was a classic non-comment generalisation on an issue that really deserved better. Whoever drafted those words probably thought they were doing their job by issuing the statement. In fact they were damaging thwir own case by appearing evasive – a classic case of bureaucratic deceit.

But I would like to end on an opimistic note. I think I notice a trend, with broadcasters starting to treat these non-comments less respectfully and allowing more time for them to be challenged. We too should note when organisations duck a debate and treat them with the contempt they deserve where they try to duck a legitimate debate.

Blowing the whistle on referees

Sometimes relatively unimportant issues provide examples of apparent evasion or deceit. This example, for which I am grateful to Charles Sale’s Sports Agenda column in the Daily Mail, is carried out so crudely and ineptly that I wonder why the person involved thought her statement would be convincing.

Mark Halsey, a controversial former football referee, had been due to address the Sheffield Referee Assocation. But the invitation was withdrawn following an intervention from an unnamed football official to the national Referee Association (RA)..

According to Sale, Laura Ritchie, chairwoman of the RA, sent an email saying: “A senior member of the footballing world has brought it to our attention that you have invited Mark Halsey to be a guest speaker. It is a worry that a figure who is being very negative about top-flight referees won’t send the right message to members. It may be perceived Sheffield RA agree with his viewpoint.”

Sheffield referees’ management, clearly unhappy, then informed its members: “There was an agreement that we cancel Mark after pressure from the national RA and wider football world.”

I am not here to judge the merits of the case, but the way Ritchie has drafted her comment is staggeringly inept and actually damages any case that she is trying to make.

At least her first sentence has a subject, though ‘a senior member of the footballing world’ does not exactly narrow the field and creates the impression that the individual wants to hide their identity which seems pretty evasive.

Then she continues with sentences which say ‘it is a worry’ and ‘it may be perceived’, which of course means that she is deliberately failing to say who is worrying and who is doing the perceiving.

The response from Sheffield is not much better, assuming of course that the RA shared the names of the individuals concerned – or perhaps the Sheffield RA was making a point. In any event, the statement that ‘there was an agreement’ does not state who the agreement was between, nor is it clear which individuals in the national RA and football world applied the pressure.

These exchanges illustrate yet again how important it is to read carefully what administrators say. A statement that appears straightforward actually contains, on the basis of what Sale has reported, a lot of evasion.

If Ritchie wrote that herself, she should get help in drafting; if she was taking advice from lawyers or her PR department, she should think twice before listening to them again.

Is Barnes or Woodward shortsighted?

This is not about deceit at all but it is an interesting insight into how one can build a myth on a mistake.

I dont know whether Stuart Barnes or Sir Clive Woodward got this correct but they cant both be correct. Both excellent columinists were writing about the magical England France rugby international on Saturday.

Barnes wrote about George Ford’s “moment of magic” when, he threw the ball into a line-out on his own five yard line to Jonathan Joseph, a decision that resulted in a try at the other end. Ford was, said Barnes, “brave and brilliant” and he spent the first part of his article focusing on this example.

If you turn to the Mail on Sunday, you will find Sir Clive Woodward saying that Ben Youngs was the “catalyst for everything good.” He said that “if you look at the replay today, you will see that it was Youngs who took the quick surprise lineout throw right back on his line.” It was, he said, “inspired play.”

Having watched the game, I have no doubt that both were inspired – but am equally sure that only one of them took the throw in.

Monday – It looks as if Barnes was correct. Sir Clive’s excellent commentary in today’s Daily Mail give Ford the credit for the throw in.

More lingusitic deceit

Yet another little example of professional deceit – this time from the Home Office.

A Japanese academic is being forced to leave this country because she has not spent enough days here over the last four years (the dispute is more complex than this but I just wanted to use it to illustrate how civil servants evade).

Asked about her case, the response was: “All applications are considered in line with the immigration rules.”

Woeful evasion here. 1. The response to a specific issue by making a general comment. 2. Use of the passive – so escapes the need to say who does the consideration at the Home Office. 3. Note the use of the phrase ‘in line with.’ What does this mean? It means almost nothing or anything

God’s little helpers?

I am always intrigued when I see research into social behaviour – and particularly so when the university concerned has to balance academic freedom and its religious values.

So it was interesting to read a report in the Daily Mail on line (at a glance it does not appear to have made it into the newspaper) – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3004161/Music-TV-linked-rise-teenage-sex-videos-make-teens-believe-peers-sexually-active-are.html?ito=social-twitter_mailonline – which linked the watching of music TV videos to a rise in teenage sex. It also said the videos made teens believe their peers are more sexually active than they are.

The Mail article started: “Music videos are often criticised for being overtly sexual and now a study has now revealed the influence these images may be having on teenagers.”

The article then revealed that the study was led by Eline Frison, a PhD student at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

KU Leuven is, as it says, a Catholic university in Belgium and the Catholic Church is not always happy when its activities deviate from the official norm.

Last Match, Tom Heneghan reported in the Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, that “Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), which came under Vatican scrutiny for its stem cell research in 2007 and considered dropping “Catholic” from its name, has mended fences in Rome with a visit by its new chancellor, canon law scholar Rik Torfs, along with Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard and Antwerp Bishop Johan Bonny.

“When they visited the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its prefect Cardinal Gerhard Muller said universities sometimes claimed academic freedom to defend deviations from Vatican teaching. Professor Torfs replied: ‘We cherish our rich Catholic tradition. We do not want to break with it, though we also cherish our academic freedom.’” http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/15th-march-2014/32/ku-leuven-mends-fences-with-vatican

It is worth pointing out that Andre-Joseph Leonard, who I understand (but could not confirm) is Grand Chancellor of the university, is a controversial figure who stands well towards the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.

At least one senior member of the department in which Erison researches is focused heavily on the sexualisation of young people, which is a legitimate area of examination.

But, at the very least, one can say that her findings are the sorts of conclusions that might have Archbishop Leonard nodding in agreement.

The message from this and every other piece of research one reads in the papers is clear to me: whenever you see a piece of research, always check the commercial, political and religious values of the institution and the individual producing them. All too often the results of the research chime with the views of the individual and/or the institution.

More trade association deceits about sugar

One more trade association – one more set of evasions, this time by Barbara Gallani, the Food and Drink Federation’s director of food science and safety, on the programme the Truth about Sugar (Thursday evening 9pm BBC1).

Dont get me wrong, I have no sympathy for the line being pedelled by presenter Fiona Phillips and her battalion of health-foucsed academics – they seem to be suggesting that if labelling has failed to change our eating habits, the solution is even more labelling.

This is nonsense. The solution is surely to tell people not to eat supermarket products but to buy their ingredients and make their own meals; and to convince people to do that by destroying the myth that products are more convenient, cheaper and tastier than the meals we make ourselves.

However, after listening to Ms Gallani being interviewed by Ms Phillips, I concluded that at least the health academics were the lesser of the two evils.

I dont think I have seen such a blatant case of a spokesperson completely ignoring the questions, which were about the benefits of the traffic light system (which helps identify high levels of fats, sugar and salt). The transcript speaks for itself – she can’t manage a direct answer to any question. Also note her wonderfully ambiguous use of the word nutrient – it covers such a multitude of sins.

Q. Do you think that if all food producers were made to adhere to the traffic light systems it might help because that is clearer than all other systems that exist?

A. Well I think that there is not a single solution for a problem such as obesity that is so complex.

Q. But a traffic light system would help, wouldn’t it, because if you see a red next to the sugar that would make me put it down?

Q. The information that is available on (unclear word), whether it is through the reference intake values, whether it is through the traffic light system, is clear and is accurate.

Q. Do you not think it would be a whole lot clearer if the packets showed how many teaspoons of sugar. Then everyone would understand that.

A. The reason for the amount of sugar having to be labelled per 100 grammes or per portion in grammes is again in the food information to consumers regulation, where all nutrients are treated the same. And a gramme is a very well recognised unit, when if you talk about teaspoons of tablespoons, what do you think, four, five, six grammes.

Not one direct answer out of three. No doubt Ms Gallani said what she had been told to say by the lawyers and PR department but, by looking so evasive, she destroyed her own case.

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Is academic research exactly what it seems?

Hardly a day passes without some academic institution issuing the results of research which are invariably presented in a way guaranteed to ensure they are picked up by the media – one issue of the Daily Mail earlier this year contained seven articles based on academic research.

This is probably inevitable as universities seek to put themselves in the limelight as they fight for students, as well as public and private funding – and they have PR departments that have to do something to justify their existence.

My concern is that media outlets usually carry this research without presenting any information about the researcher or asking if their research is promoting or reflecting any commercial interest.

The latest research to catch my eye was from Cornell University in the United States, which concluded that women who made dishes they saw prepared on cookery programmes by celebrity chefs were two dress sizes larger than those who did not.

The Daily Mail quoted Professor Brian Wansink, but did not tell us much about him. He is hardly a shrinking violet, openly saying that he advises the US government and a range of commercial interests including McDonalds – and he makes no secret of the fact that he can help companies save money by the way they present their food; and he can help help them sell more of the correct foods. His methods are controversial and rejected by those who advocate lots of government guidelines about content.

You may be convinced by what he says – or you may find yourself wondering whether there is a link between his interests and the research. Whatever the conclusion, my advice is to look at his activities before accepting his research.

Let me give you some other interesting examples. Recently there was some coverage of research by Rush University  which said home-made food is more likely to give you a heart attack than micro-waved meals.Those sort of conclusions should make you want to check if Rush University has any connection with the fast food industry.

And remember too that academics can have their own private companies. Dr Gavin Sandercock of Essex University produced research in a blaze of publicity which said that young people held back from exercise because they were worried about showering. He also runs a company called Fitmedia which specialises in children’s health and fitness.

And the University of West Scotland produced research that suggested that the health policy from the 1980s that we should eat less butter was based on faulty statistics.

It confirmed the views of the head of the research, one Zoe Harcombe, who sees obesity as the major health threat. She has also published a book – The Harcombe Diet: Stop Counting Calories and Start Losing Weight.

The continuity of academic research and commercial interest may be genuine: it may be coincidence; it may be the old human failing of structuring what we research to coincide with our views; or there might be other motives.

So, even though academics will bang on about the integrity of peer revies, dont take any academic research at face value. Always check whether the authors have any interests, commercial or political to peddle – and, if they are discreet about those interests, always wonder why.