This is the sixth of my preparatory blogs which I have used to explain how people in power deceive us. From now on, I will try to use practical examples and, as the election approaches, politicians are likely to appear prominently.
So it is probably appropriate that I finish off this series of blogs with a look at how politicians can enable words and meaning to become disengaged; how one interpretation is allowed to float in the air, only to be followed later by a denial that this was the intended meaning.
Let me start with a silly English joke.
Dog owner: My dog chases anyone on a skateboard. What should I do?
Vet: Take away its skateboard.
Thousands of these jokes appear in crackers every Christmas, showing how easy it is to alter the meaning of the English language.
So, for now, I will remind you of a couple of classics.
Take Tony Blair’s statement that Saddam Hussain’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.”
The press assumed – or were perhaps briefed – that these included long-range ballistic missiles that threatened London. Ministers did not correct this impression although later Blair insisted he was only referring to battlefield weapons.
Similarly, John Reid, then Labour Defence Secretary, said British troops were being sent into Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2006 to “help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave again in three years’ time without firing one shot.”
The explanation offered to this day by the Ministry of Defence website is that “many misinterpreted this as meaning there was an expectation, or hope, that we would leave without having fired a shot. In fact, the quote had been intended to reinforce the position that the UK troops’ goal was to protect governance and development activities as opposed to taking deliberate kinetic actions.”
I tried reading that several times and am still not much wiser.
So phrasing has allowed Blair and Reid – and they are far from the only culprits – to claim they were misinterpreted. And of course politicians say they can’t correct every misinterpretation.
But spin doctors go out of their way to correct even the smallest error. So that excuse simply won’t wash.
So every time we read politicians from any and every party we need to look carefully at what they say and see how many meanings we can make from every sentence.