Friday, April 15, 2016

Trust and Deference

Phil Collins has a column in the Times today the headlines for which must be strong contenders for the title of the most counterintuitive headline of 2016.

 (I am assuming, of course, that only headlines which despite being apparently unlikely might possibly be right would be eligible for any such hypothetical award. Any idiot could write headlines which came over as counterintuitive because they were complete nonsense.)

The main headline is "Lack of trust is what makes our MPs so good"

and the subheading "We've never had a high opinion of our politicians, which has helped make them some of the least corrupt in the world."

Generally we tend to think of a lack of trust as a bad sign. Where you get to the stage where you assume of every politician, in the words of Jeremy Paxman, "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" then that can be pretty corrosive.

The late Bob Monkhouse used to have a joke about politicians,

"The only time they tell the truth is when they're calling each other liars."

Actually in my experience reality is the exact opposite - comments from politicians are least likely to be fair and accurate when they are making insulting comments about their opponents.

Although instances of candidates telling out-and-out lies about their rivals for office are rare for a simple reason - it's illegal and can get you removed from office if you win having done so.

Knowingly or recklessly telling a direct lie about an opponent during an election is a breach of election law, currently under section 136 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 though there were similar rules under previous legislation. If you are foolish enough to do it in a manner which  can be proved the consequences can be serious and include being fined thousands of pounds, banned from holding public office and your election being quashed if you had won.

In the 32 years since the Representation of the People Act 1983 was passed there have been, to the best of my knowledge, only two cases of people being removed for this offence, one MP and one councillor, both of whom were Labour candidates who were removed after election courts found that they had told particularly egregious lies about their Lib/Dem opponents.

So it does happen. But it's pretty rare. Actually I think when lies are told about candidates during election campaigns (and I had a few lies spread about me) it is more often rogue individuals doing it than rival candidates.

Similarly it does happen from time to time that MPs and councillors lie to the press or in Parliament of the Council chamber. But again, knowing telling a direct lie is very rare precisely because if you are caught it can finish your career. If I had to guess I'd say the ratio of the number of occasions I have heard someone involved in politics accused of lying to the number of occasions when I believe the person concerned actually was knowingly telling a deliberate falsehood is something like fifty to one.

Having said that, although someone who accuses a politician of telling a direct lie is rarely right about that, they often are right that he or she has got the facts wrong. And that, bringing us back to Phil Collin's article, is why it is important that we have a sceptical press.

A couple of decades ago, during the early stages of Glasnost, a Russian Television channel invited the then British PM Margaret Thatcher to do a TV interview, thinking they would be able to make her look bad by asking a few difficult questions. They were not the first or the last people to catastrophically underestimate Maggie.

Russian interviewers were used to spoon-feeding easy questions to Soviet ministers. Mrs T was used to dealing with hostile questions. Consequently the interview looked somewhere between a village cricket team's reserve bowler trying to dismiss Don Bradman and a wombat trying to attack a tiger.

If governments know that they will have to produce good arguments to retain the support of the electorate they will try harder to do so. If they know that they will be asked difficult questions and made to look like idiots if they have made a mess of something, they will be less complacent about the need to avoid making mistakes.

The most important line in the article is this:

"The British once trusted their elders and betters too much. A correction was a good thing."

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