Lies, damn lies & politicians

I’ve worked in various sorts of communications consultancies since 2002. It’s been a mix of Investor relations, public relations, public affairs and international relations. For an industry that is based on crafting language to persuade an audience, accusations of dishonesty are only ever a word or pregnant pause away.

I’ve only ever been accused of lying twice.

The first time was in jest. A prospective client came to my team many years and a number of employers ago as he was impressed with the media coverage we had gained for a client. “How have you persuaded the world that X is a nice guy?” He asked. “You must be great liars”, he finished, whilst laughing.

The point is, he knew we weren’t “liars” but that we managed the client’s communications with a lot of care. He was looking for the same service.

The second time was less fun. A journalist who must remain nameless accused me of lying as I had refused to confirm his theory. The next day he insisted events had proved him right and me a liar. I suggested to him that he was still factually incorrect and that whilst he may morally have had a point, legally he could not write what he wanted to.

I am therefore well aware of the careful line communicators have to tread.

So the Prime Minister’s comments today at PMQ have left me annoyed. Not surprised per se, just anger combined with boredom at the pantomime that is UK politics. Cameron was responding to criticism over the sale of Royal Mail. He said that the same process had been in the Labour Manifesto.

But it had not.

A number of labour tweeters got on the case ASAP (including my boss) to make this point. No one used the word “lie”.

I don’t know for sure, but I think that’s because the political world is comfortable with falsehood than many others. Parliamentary Privilege exists to facilitate debate that could be strangled by threat of legal action and is a Good Thing. However it could be argued this safety net has now stretched beyond the House and has created a permissive attitude to lies if they are politically expedient.

In other industries, particularly regulated capital markets, there are consequences if you lie. Falsifying oil reserves. Pretending you had more customers that was the case. Both quite simple lies. Both major corporate scandals. Both punished.

I’d love to say positive things about my clients with the understanding that I wouldn’t be punished for it. It would make my life an awful lot easier. Or would it? Would I just lose any trust I’ve built up over the last decade?

So here’s my point, politicians lie with impunity because it has become a rule of the game that they’re all allowed to do, no matter what the party. It’s like diving it football. Please don’t think this is coming from a partisan POV. Blair, Brown and Miliband are just as culpable. Is it in any way connected that the UK has a serious problem with democratic deficit and respect for the political class because such a small proportion of the population votes at many of the elections in the last 10 years – especially if we compare our % to those of France? Of course there are other systemic issues, but if I had a quid for every time I’ve heard a variation on “they’re all the same, bastard liars” I could take Kirsty out for a great dinner.

I’m sure my PA colleagues will accuse me of chronic naïveté and I should be more respectful of the rules of the game. Others might suggest I remember how fundamentally unethical investment banks and wider capital markets have been seen to be, and that I should consider my own community before criticising others.

However I just can’t get my head around the simplicity of this particular lie. Either he knew, did it consciously and is therefore not to be trusted, or he didn’t know and he’s incompetent. Either way, he’s broken the 11th commandment, something I’d prefer it if our Prime Minister didn’t do. As an ex PR guy himself, it’s deeply unimpressive.

It’s not the reason why I won’t vote Tory. It is emblematic of why I despair of British politics and I hope that it doesn’t become SOP in my corners of communications.

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