Category Archives: The principles of deception

The curious timing of Ranieri’s removal

What do Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the owner of Leicester City Football Club, and Jo Moore, once a special adviser to Tony Blair’s government, have in common?

They both know that a busy news day is a good time to bury embarrassing stories.

Moore will forever be associated with the phrase that “this is a good day to bury bad news” which she uttered after the attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11.

Her only fault was to state baldly what every corporate and political organisation does: ensure there is a clear run for good news and plenty of distractions when an uncomfortable announcement has to be made.

This approach explains the strange timing of Vichai’s announcement that he was sacking the Leicester City’s manager Claudio Ranieri.

The team had just performed well in the Uefa’s Champions League and has a good chance of winning the second leg. Nor was there a high-profile replacement to slot in later that day. And Ranieri was not sacked after a humiliating FA Cup exit the previous weekend, which might have made sense.

The only explanation is that the manager’s sacking was carefully orchestrated by the owner, the ceo Susan Whelan and the director of football Jon Rudkin to take place when there was strong competition for lead story in the media.

So, it is a fair assumption that when Ranieri received the dreaded vote of confidence a couple of weeks ago (all too often a forerunner to the sack), the question was not if, but when he would be fired.

And you can be certain that, from that moment, Vichai, his management team and PR advisers would have been looking for the best timing to minimise the wider impact of a decision that was always going to cause anger and distress that would extend beyond the football world.

February 23rd would have been pencilled in as an early target date. Media and public attention would have been diverted by the two of the most important parliamentary by-elections in many years – and the fallout from the results was certain to last for the rest of the week.

The date began to look even more attractive last Monday with forecasts (later fulfilled) that Britain would be ravaged by Storm Doris a few days later.

Add in the bonuses of the Iraqi government attack on Mosul (with lots of headline grabbing film coverage of the fighting) as well as the decision to sentence the murderer of a popular children’s author and the case for a Thursday announcement becomes irresistible.

If further proof of the strategic plan were needed, it came with the meeting between owner and players after Wednesday’s Uefa Champions League match.

The timing appears nonsensical as it is ridiculous to expect a coherent response from players who were physically and mentally drained after one of the toughest games of the season.

Unless of course you have decided to sack the manager the next day, need to spin a story about player discontent and have to act before any challenges can be made to that version.

There is of course a limit to damage limitation – social media went into meltdown (though the timing of the announcement ensured the impact was minimised) and it was the lead sports story on radio, TV, on line news sites and the written press.

But the sacking had to fight hard to get near the top of the main news agenda – let alone to lead it. On a quieter day, it would undoubtedly have been the top story.

That does matter. Remember that the owners have a global commercial brand to protect as well their image as football owners.

Ulimtately, the removal of Ranieri was a reminder of the way owners and their chief executives like to spin failure as the fault of the manager, while being all too ready to bask in the fruits of success.

At the end of last season, VIchai’s media managers were careful to ensure a careful branding of the owner and his senior managers as the publicity shy unsung heroes without whom Ranieri could not succeed.

No newspaper was more complimentary in lauding this faux modesty than the Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2016/05/03/how-leicester-citys-quiet-thai-owners-turned-the-foxes-into-the/

And even the Guardian, usually a reluctant fan of global business tycoons, was grudgingly generous

https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/may/04/thai-billionaire-leicester-city-vichai-srivaddhanaprabha

Failure of course is a different matter. Ranieri alone is paying the price with his departure is presented as “painful but necessary”.

But that will always be the case in the modern Premier League.

Owners and chief executives will always bask in the glory of success, but, even though they hold the purse strings and ultimately set the club’s culture, they will always blame the manager when things go wrong on the pitch.

 

 

Advertisements

Leadsom continues to exploit motherhood row

 

Andrea Leadsom is continuing to make the maximum mileage out of her remarks that being a mother made her a better candidate for the premiership than her rival Theresa May, who has no children.

As I say in my blog yesterday https://wordpress.com/stats/day/deceivingus.wordpress.com?startDate=2016-07-11

Leadsom’s comments in an interview with The Times were coolly calculated, designed to raise an issue that would run well with the section of the Tory party she was trying to attract, give her the publicity boost that a less well known candidate needs and deflect attentions away from questions about the accuracy of her CV.

She – aided by some of the most skilful political PR operators in the country – is now using the criticism of her remarks to present herself as the outsider who is the victim of establishment dirty tricks.

Leadsom wants to ensure that the message on motherhood is still out there while maintaining the moral high ground; and in the last 24 hours she has used two tactics to do so.

First, we have seen the classic non-apology apology, so beloved of corporate executives. Leadsom appears to be expressing regret when she tells the Daily Telegraph that she had “already said to Theresa how very sorry I am for any hurt I have caused.”

Note that she is not apologising for the comments but simply any offence they might cause – and as May’s aides noted, they did not think Leadsom had meant to cause offence. So Leadsom is apologising for something she had not done.

Leadsom then insisted that she did not believe motherhood should play a part in the leadership campaign – though it was her choice, as the interview transcripts have shown, to raise the subject in the first place.

And despite the clear evidence to the contrary, she is still insisting that the article in The Times “said the opposite of what I said and believe.”

This is a key element of the second element of the strategy – that is to present Leadsom as a victim and outsider, who the Tory establishment is trying to destroy.

So she attacks The Times for gutter journalism and says she feels “under attack, under enormous pressure – it has been shattering;” meanwhile her supporter tour the television studios, complaining about dirty tricks.

Former Tory leader and keen supporter Ian Duncan Smith has says there has been “a lot of sniping, a kind of black-ops operation to denigrate her reputation.”

The strategy is clearly working. She is keeping herself in the headlines, ensuring she is seen as the outsider and victim while controlling the agenda.

And those senior Tories who want to criticise her are not now quite certain what to do. In an excellent article in The Times today, Clare Foges, David Cameron’s speech writer from 2011-15, warns that “Vilifying Leadsom will only make her stronger.”

She points out that “anyone hoping to halt the progress of Leadsom should be wary of piling in too heavily” as this would reinforce he position as the anti-establishment candidate; as political experience is complicit in a stitch up against the people, anyone lacking that experience is “bestowed with valuable outsider status;” and that any attempt to caricature Leadsom as an extremist, liar and homophobe will “only underline her underdog status in a way that may appeal to some Conservative party members.”

The coming day will show if and how May’s advisers and supporters can develop a strategy to regain the initiative that Leadsom has so cleverly seized.

.

 

Leadsom uses Trump-style tactics

When Andrea Leadsom told The Times that being a mother gave her the edge on her rival for the Tory party leadership, the childless Theresa May, the general reaction was to suggest that she had made a blunder which made it less likely that she would win.

That response could not be more wrong. Now that The Times has released the transcript and the tape of the interview it is clear that these were measured, calculated answers designed to generate the response they got.

Don’t forget that Leadsom is apparently receiving public relations advice from Lord Bell, who masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s most successful campaigns, and Nick Wood, one of the sharpest political PR men around Westminster. They would not have let her go into this interview without carefully planned answers on this subject.

Her comments clearly indicate that Donald Trump style campaigning – where you can get away with the most extreme, unpleasant and outlandish comments that more establishment candidates would not dare to – has arrived in British politics.

Let’s look at exactly what she said. She started by saying: “I am sure Theresa will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.”

She continued by saying that having children kept her focused. “It means you don’t want a downturn, but, never mind, ten years hence it will be all fine. My children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”

She then said: “I think when you are thinking about the issues that other people have you worry about your kids’ exam results, what direction their careers are taking, what we are going to eat on Sunday.”

Two points on this are decisive. First she did not have to make the second half of her statement. She could have closed off the answer by saying that parenthood made no difference to the relative abilities of herself and May to be leaders.

Second, her initial comment that it would be “horrible” to make the distinction between herself and Theresa has no value because she went to do precisely what she said would be “horrible.” It is best to see this as a clever phrasing to allow her to pretend righteous indignation when the story appeared.

So why did she do this?

First, there is the lesson from Donald Trump’s campaign to win the Republican nomination in the United States. His campaign was full of offensive remarks that his rivals were convinced would destroy his support. In fact they seemed to have the opposite effect.

His remarks ensured that he was always in the headlines and, being relatively unknown as a politician, made him the centre of the debate. He came over as a plain-speaking outsider, who represented real people. This is what Mrs Leadsom is trying to do – and making a few remarks about family life won’t do her campaign any harm.

You can be sure that her media-managers will be all too aware of how effective Trump’s campaign and be eager to see how it works in this country.

Second, the row that followed the article and the response of many senior Tories has helped reinforce her chosen image as the outsider. She accused The Times of gutter journalism, helping her to present it as part of an establishment attempt to stop her winning. Likewise those Tories who condemned her could be presented by implication as part of the same attempt to exclude her.

The success of this attempt to create a campaign of the outsider taking on the power of the Westminster elite was demonstrated by the first sentence in the lead story in today’s Sunday Times.

“The Tory establishment launched a concerted attempt to derail Andrea Leadsom’s leadership bid yesterday…..”

There could not be a better way of encapsulating her campaign had her media managers written the headline themselves. This was a triumph by Lord Bell and Mr Wood.

Third, this was a very effective way of deflecting attention away from the questions about her CV, which had dominated newspaper headlines for the previous 48 hours. An argument about her family life is much safer ground than one about her CV, which casts doubts on her integrity.

And finally, this it is a good issue for her in creating her persona with the Tory party members who will have the final vote on the leadership. There is still a significant number who are suspicious of women who do not have children and it will reinforce their determination to support her.

In the short term, this Trump-style strategy seems to have worked extremely. Mrs Leadsom can now present herself as the establishment-persecuted outsider who has a special reason to care about families.

And you can bet that her media advisers will sampling opinion to see how her remarks have gone down with Tory supporters to see if the gains from making strong comments that upset the party hierarchy outweigh the risks.

If they conclude this, watch out for some more of the same.

 

 

How Sir Philip Dilley misleads

I have always believed that it is not the big distortions that say everything about people with power  deceive us, but the little deceptions.

And this weekend we have had a classic of its kind with Sir Philip Dilley caught out in an apparently small distortion that is hugely damagin to him.

Sir Philip, the chairman of the Environment Agency, which is responsible for flood defences, stayed at his second home in Barbados rather than return home when the floods hit the north of the country over Christmas.

The Agency said he had stayed there because he had family connections in Barbados. But it is now clear his wife in fact comes from Jamaica which is some 1,200 miles away.

It is at least arguable if he could have done anything more useful had he been in London or indeed appeared in the flooded area – modern communications make it just as easy to lead a response from thousands of miles away as from close to hand.

But in the modern world, senior figures are means to appear on the site of the worst floods and show their support for those whose homes are under water.

It hardly helps when Sir Philip was in an exotic part of the world and his wife accused the press of “being out to destroy people” – this is an unwise statement when the lives of the victims of floods think their lives are being destroyed by the inaction of the Sir Philip’s organisation.

Worst of all was the original statement by the Environment Agency that Sir Philip had “been in Barbados where his family are from.” It later transpired that his wife is from Jamiaca which is 1,200 miles from Barbados.

Then Sir Philip opted for vagueness when he said that his wife was “from the Caribbean, we have a home there and I spent some time there over Christmas.”

Strange how they all thought they could get away with it. Perhaps they assumed journalists would concentrate on the main story and would not bother to follow up this angle.

Whatever the reason, this just shows how careful one has to be when looking at anything said by people in power. This episode is further evidence that we should never take their word for granted.

 

 

 

Can Lord Coe regain our trust

Lord+Sebastian+Coe+IAAF+Congress+Day+One+2015+dU60h7F70Ael

Later today Lord Coe appears before British MPs who will question him about the athletics’ doping scandals. It is possibly his last chance to restore his reputation.

I urge everyone to read Matthew Syed’s superb article in today’s issue of the The Times.

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/sport/columnists/matthewsyed/article4629691.ece

He traces how he built his professional reputation when he took the reins of the London 2012 Olympic bid;  explains what scintillating company he is; and argues that his political machinations were forgiven because he was trusted as much as he was admired and was “motivated by the right things.”

Yet, as Syed documents, he has in the space of a few short months lost s reputation once described as bulletproof and has appeared less than short-footed. As Syed says, “he is sleepwalking towards calamity.”

Syed’s analaysis is correct. But I would go one stage further. For me it is the public relations strategy orginally designed to protect him and his campaign that has directly lead to the collapse of his repuation.

Coe made a terrible decision in August when he decided or was persuaded (we will never know) to adopt an aggressive stance and attack the Sunday Times and ARD for suggesting that athletics was riddled with drug taking.

It was a key element of a public relations driven strategy which I have tracked since August in my blogs https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/nike-episode-humiliates-coe/

This sort of approach – that aggressive assertive public relations is the best way to deal with the media – used to work well, particularly in a crisis.

But the fact that it has failed so disastrously – and has indeed done profound damage to the man it is meant to protect – shows how out of date it is today.

Hopefully, Lord Coe will return to the approach that made him so trusted and respected – and jettison anyone who designed the third rate PR campaign that has brought him so low.

As Syed concludes: “Athletics and perhaps sport itself needs a Damascene moment. It is not just Coe’s fragile reputation nut the credibility of the sport that is on the line.”

Let us hope that Lord Coe listens to Syed.

 

 

 

 

 

Can we trust the IAAF this time?

Can we trust the word of the IAAF, the international governing body for athletics, when it says that it had started taking action against drug cheats before a series of critical articles were published in the London Sunday Times?

If you recall, the Sunday Times and the German television channel ARD have alleged that the IAAF did not follow up suspicious blood test results in major athletics’ championships and the London marathon.

The reports are based on the leak of blood test results from the IAAF’s database between 2001 and 2012. They show that one third of the medals in endurance races in the Olympic Games or world championships were won by athletes with suspicious blood readings, possibly owing to doping. The allegation is that this revealed an “extraordinary extent of cheating.”

Lord Coe, one of the candidates to head the organisation, and the IAAF responded with a classic public relations defence which I highlighted in a recent blog.

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/06/lord-coes-deceptive-response-to-athletes-drug-allegations/

This strategy failed to stop of the criticism as more allegations appeared in the press and some athletes decided to release their test results.

Now, the IAAF has announced that it has provisionally suspended 28 athletes who competed at the 2005 and 2007 World Championships and returned “adverse findings” from retested samples.

Most significantly, the IAAF insists the retesting process was already underway before the Sunday Times/ARD allegations were published.

They may well be telling the truth – and it is important to state that this is a different testing to process to the one criticised by the Sunday Times and ARD.

But announcing that you have taken action and that the initiatives predated the criticism is also a classic public relations ruse used by virtually every organisation that finds itself in this position.

Indeed I highlighted it as a strategy in one of my early blogs some three months ago

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/out-of-the-mouths-of-knaves/

and scarcely a week passes without it being used by some public or private sector body. It shows that the organisation is being pro-active, had identified the need for action before the critics and that it is in control.

The truth will no doubt emerge in the coming weeks. But, given the response of Lord Coe and the IAAF to the original revelations, it is wise to remain sceptical.

The perils of media partnership

The furore over the decision of Glasgow Rangers Football Club to ban the BBC reporter Chris McLaughlin and Times columnist Graham Spiers from reporting their matches seems to me to miss the point.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3186022/BBC-boycotts-Rangers-matches-football-club-bans-reporter-Times-columnist-negative-stories.html

Politicians, foreign governments, commercial organisations, lawyers and PR executives have been trying to bully, intimidate and take sanctions against reporters as long as the media has existed.

The greater concern though is surely when media organisations become too close to those with whom they should have an arms-distance relationship.

My alarm bells ring when a media outlet is offered something on a variation of “unprecedented and exclusive access” by some company, organisation or government departmen. The price paid is invariably soft treatment.

Even more disturbing are the occasions when a media organisation refers to its “commercial partners” when they are talking about their advertisers. Even calling it a partnership is deeply unhealthy and can raise dangerous questions about the way stories are covered.

In fairness, neither Spears nor Professor Tim Luckhurst of Kent University seemed terribly worried about the impact of Rangers’s ban on journalists when they appeared on Radio 4’s Media Show last week.

In a modest way, Spears seemed to wear it as a badge of honour, in the way that most journalists frame legal letters and hang them in their toilets.

Indeed there can be few reporters – including the distinguished presenter of the Media Show Andrea Catherwood – who have not from time been charmed or bullied over lunch; accused of writing the “worst piece of journalism I have ever read” by the Prime Minister’s or party leader’s spokesperson; banned from a country; thrown out of a country; written a story that turns out to be true, but which is vehemently denied at the time: and threatened by lawyers and PR departments.

It is part of the web and waft of our lives – and it is always worth remembering that organisations only really turn their guns on you when something critical and accurate is written.

My concern is not when Glasgow Rangers tries to ban reporters, but when football clubs decide to establish exclusive relationships with a television channel or newspaper.

In June for example, when Newcastle announced Steve McClaren as their new manager, he was only allowed to speak to what the club called “preferred media partners” – a newspaper and a television channel. I commented on this in an earlier blog and went to examine they way in which the Telegraph Group refers to its “advertising partners.”

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/how-the-word-partner-is-used-to-deceive-part-one/

Royal Ascot is interesting too. The course boasts that its races are not sponsored. Yet there is plenty of promotion of what it describes as its commercial partners – clearly not a journalistic issue but it helps illustrate how fast and loose corporations can be with the language when it suits them.

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/06/17/more-partner-deceptions/

This is all part of a strategy by those in power to blur the once clear divide between the media on one side and, on the other, those they report on.

Indeed the most interesting moment in last week’s Media Show was when Professor Luckhurst identified the way in which organisations use their own television channels. It is PR masquerading as reporting and it blurs the distinction between public relations and journalism.

The other concern is about “unprecedented access.” Radio Five Live has been a particular culprit here – even boasting about the unique access it has been given and I think this included visiting GCHQ. This is not a new phenomenon but instinctively I feel it is getting more pronounced.

I don’t want to claim too much of a moral high ground here. I have taken my share of scoops from friendly politicians, bankers and business leaders. It is also true too that every journalist gets too close to some of their sources and that contributing to sponsored sections in newspapers can give an overly flattering impression of a country.

But it is also true that for friend a public figure has in the media, there are plenty more hostile commentators. And that the coverage in sponsored sections is clearly defined. However even I am becoming concerned, as identified by my friend Mihir Bose, about the Telegraph’s regular Russian and Chinese sections.

When there are regular Chinese and Russian sponsored propaganda sections –as is the case in The Telegraph – there is a real danger that it will affect editorial coverage in the main newspaper.

So there are very clear warning signals. In the drive for survival, the commercial departments of our newspapers and television channels will become ever more powerful.

But we can keep our eyes and we can see the warning signs. And that means that we can at least, as readers and viewers, operate our own checks and balances.

Lord Coe’s deceptive response to athletes drug allegations

Don’t be deceived by the theatrically furious way Lord Coe has reacted to the reports in the London Sunday Times (ST) and the German television channel ARD that the IAAF did not follow up suspicious blood test results in major athletics’ championships.

The reports are based on the leak of blood test results from the IAAF’s database between 2001 and 2012. They show that one third of the medals in endurance races in the Olympic Games or world championships were won by athletes with suspicious blood readings, possibly owing to doping. The allegation is that this revealed an “extraordinary extent of cheating.”

There is a classic crisis PR response when faced by these sorts of allegations, particularly when they are accurate. These include 1.Try and change the terms of the debate. 2. Challenge the credentials of your critics. 3. Switch discussion on to the way the information has been acquired, hinting this has been done illegally. 4. Get your PR team and lawyers to write something long and convoluted.

This reaction is used by government departments, corporations, bureaucracies and almost every organisation when confronted with a hostile story, as I have documented in most of my earlier blogs.

In this case, the lead response was left to Lord Coe.

  1. He tried to change the terms of the debate (using a lot of pretend wrath) and he used the expertise of an executive well versed in the black arts; he used to be chairman – and is still on the board – of Chime, one of Britain’s leading PR companies.

He declared that the reports were “a declaration of war on my sport. There is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug-testing that warrants this kind of attack. We should not be cowering. We should come out fighting.

“Nobody should underestimate the anger at the way our sport has been portrayed. The fight-back has to start here. We cannot be portrayed as a sport that is in any way dragging our heels.”

This sounds like real indignation but this disguises the fact that he was operating extremely cleverly to change the debate. Until that point, the lines were clearly drawn; The Sunday Times and ARD had the moral high ground as they were examining doping allegations.

Coe responds by saying those who accept the ST/ARD report are anti athletics. So, according to him, you are either for us or against us – and if you don’t reject the ST/ARD conclusions, you are betraying your sport.

It is a subtle way to brand the ST and ARD as anti athletics when they are in fact anti-doping in athletics.

Note also the use of pseudo-militaristic language in the call for a fight-back. That means it is not enough for athletes and fans to be neutral about the reports. So, unless you join the condemnation, you are also betraying athletics.

  1. The second strategy is to play the man rather than the ball. Coe was scathing about the two expert analysts used by the ST/ARD, Robin Parisotto and Michael Ashenden. “These co-called experts – give me a break.” He mentioned the names of the IAAF experts and said: “I know who I would believe.”

Again this is a classic PR strategy when you are in a hole and have no other option. You try to demean and denigrate the messenger, rather than provide proper analysis of the specific points they make.

  1. For the third element, which is to condemn the way the information has been acquired and used, has been adopted by the IAAF in its statement http://www.iaaf.org/news/press-release/statement-response-ard-sunday-times-anti-dopi

This stated that the “IAAF condemns in the strongest possible terms the distribution, sharing, and publication of private and confidential medical data that was obtained from the IAAF without consent. The IAAF retains the right to take any action necessary to protect the rights of the IAAF and its athletes.”

Note too the comments of Professor Giuseppe d’Onofrio, one of the world’s leading haematologists working as an expert in the field of the Athlete Biological Passport, commented: “Ethically, I deplore public comments coming from colleagues on blood data that has been obtained and processed outside of the strict regulatory framework established by WADA which is designed to ensure a complete and fair review of ABP profiles. There is no space for shortcuts, simplistic approaches or sensationalism when athletes’ careers and reputations are at stake.”

This is again a classic counter to a difficult story – it is an attempt to deflect attention away from the substance of the revelations. We see this all the time, particularly when there are leaks from any government department or corporate organisation. The emphasis is always on the leak inquiry and the betrayal by the leaker rather than any policies or malpractices that have been exposed.

4. Finally, there is the way in which the substance of the response is presented. In this case, we see all typical elements as the statement has the length and convoluted incoherence used by lawyers who want to deceive. The document flops all over the place, mixing hysteria and pedantry. This is again the usual PR/legal approach when it is necessary to create confusion. What they said actually makes their case seem less plausible.

Now I don’t have any expertise in assessing the legitimacy of the ST/ARD reporting. But I do have some expertise in journalism and watching PR companies.

The Sunday Times has a long tradition in exposing sporting corruption – particularly in exposing doping in cycling. And it received similar vilification when it did so.

So anything it reports has to be taken seriously.

It may be that they are wrong on this occasion. But if that is the case, one would expect a point by point statesmanlike rebuttal.

Instead they responded by using every PR trick in the book – and they will probably involve the lawyers, if they have not done so already.

I suggest the following is a good principle to adopt; when any organisation reaches for the dirty section of the PR book and/or its lawyers, its credibility is profoundly diminished.

Of Blair, Reid and elections

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.

Out of the mouths of knaves

Those in power don’t even need to tell lies – it’s amazing what you can do by combining the English language with a devious mind.

Statistics are easy enough to manipulate – just listen to the gas and electricity companies deliberately confusing us with talk of benchmarks and wholesale prices – and hospital waiting lists can be arranged to be as long or short as the managers like.

But there are more devious strategies.

Managers say: “the company/organisation has decided.” This distances the individuals from responsibility for the corporate decision.

Or: “this may have been the case but we have taken action already” – very useful when there are a few months between an investigation and its publication.

For example, last month the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust faced being placed into “special measures” after “serious problems” were detected during an inspection in which it was rated “inadequate”.

The Care Quality Commission report was in October 2014, enabling the Trust to use a classic defence – we have new management, we knew what the problems were anyway and we have already taken action – but of course we are not complacent.

CEO Michael Scott said: “We are under new management, the new team is bedding in, and there is no complacency on our part about the need to continue to deliver improvements. I would like to assure our patients, staff and our partners that this is a turning point for the Trust and we will continue to do everything possible to address all of the recommendations the CQC has made.”

So they say they have used the three months since the inspection to change management (therefore current leadership not responsible), make changes (thereby implying that the report is out of date as action has been taken) and insisting there is no complacency (so no need to take any further action against the Trust like putting it into special needs as is recommended).

As always, this approach may be legitimate or an attempt to dodge accountability.

Then look at Rotherham Council’s response to a succession of reports into allegations of child abuse. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotherham_child_sexual_exploitation_scandal)

The council’s consistent theme has been that its services have improved significantly and that its services were stronger than ever before and that any complaints would be taken seriously.

The only problem with this line is that every new inquiry seemed at the very least to show that progress was much less than claimed.

When any organisation says it has already responded to criticism it is worth checking back to see what they said in reaction to earlier criticism – the more evasive organisations will use the same defence from year to year.

Another defence is that “we are examining our procedures.” This is an ideal way of shifting the blame from individuals to processes. And you can’t attack a process.

When we hear this, we should always ask the obvious next question: “If procedures are so important, who is responsible for your procedures?”

Another example of taking responsibility away from individuals came with West Yorkshire police’s response to the investigation into Jimmy Savile’s activities.

It argued that “there was no evidence of misconduct but there was evidence of organisational failure, with a number of lessons to be learned which have now been rectified for the future.”

It too was trying to demonstrate that no individuals were to blame, action had been taken so no more had to be done.

That takes us on to the multi-agency defence, where a number of organisations, like the police, social service and doctors, have been involved in dealing with a case. Rather than all of them being accountable, invariably none of them is.

And when a high profile prosecution fails, there is invariably an elegant passing of the buck between the police and Crown Prosecution Service.

Sometimes senior figures like to present false choices. Remember the recent case when the police issued an arrest warrant for parents who took their sick child from a Southampton hospital and went to Spain. When it became clear that the warrant was wrongly issued, the police argued they would have been criticised whatever decision they had taken. Not true – their job was to make the correct call.

When they get really desperate, companies and civil servants say they have lost the files. You know you have first class bureaucrats when they know in advance which files to lose.

There are a couple of new trends. The first is “bogus integrity.” Instead of dodging and weaving the chief executive will appear to be open, say the complaints are legitimate and he or she is taking on the challenge of resolving the problems.

They say they are disappointed or words to that effect by the performance of their company. They don’t mean this of course but it gives the appearance of activity which is enough until the news agenda moves on.

Secondly, there is the exaggeration of popular dissent. There will appear to be a groundswell of public opinion as similar concerns are represented on phone ins or as petitions gather large numbers of signatories.

Sometimes this a genuine phenomenon – but one should be aware that there are now professional petition organisers and it is pretty easy for any union or trade body to ensure that its members sing the same tune when talking to the media.

And finally, I have noticed that when they face a problem, more and more organisations are blaming cuts in resources which they say lead to changes in working practices that put people’s lives at risk.

This has become very popular, particularly from the police, the fire service and the ambulance service. And their senior executives increasingly use the tactic.

For example, Surrey police face questions about how they handled the case of Lewis Daynes, the gamer, who killed Breck Bednar. The police did nothing even though information about Daynes’s earlier arrest on suspicion of rape and sexual harassment was in the system and Breck’s family had warned police about Daynes.

Likewise, when the IPPCC reported that complaints against the police have reached record levels, Alex Duncan of the Police Federation blamed government cuts. “The biggest rise is due to incivility and neglect of duty and while there is no excuse for this, there are far fewer officers with far more to do and, unfortunately, overworked and exhausted people are often less tolerant and understanding.

This approach is clever as it puts politicians on the defensive, shifts responsibility and is almost impossible to disprove.

Government cuts may well be responsible for problems. But when I hear the formula of cuts putting people’s lives at risk trotted out as an all-purpose response every time an organisation is blamed for something, I get very suspicious.