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” ( 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.


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