Brian Edwards Media

Of Politicians and Porkies – Are our elected representatives by nature incorrigible liars?

Tony Blair giving evidence at the Iraq War Inquiry

Made an appearance on Russell Brown’s Media 7 programme last night with fellow commentators David Slack and Sean Plunket. We were there to discuss whether politicians are by nature incorrigible liars.

The public seem to think so. Polls asking people which occupations they trust, and which they don’t,  have our elected representatives languishing near the bottom of the rankings with those other devious and dissembling rogues – journalists and used-car dealers.  

But the media consultant, the speech writer and the interviewer last night tended to the view that, in New Zealand at least, Members of Parliament were not generally given to telling porkies.

That is certainly my experience. In almost half a century of living in this country I can count on two hands (and with a finger or two to spare) the number of MPs found guilty of lying to Parliament. And if we’re talking about  premeditated, shamefaced lying to us, the voters, the number probably isn’t  much higher.  

For 12 of those years my wife Judy Callingham and I provided media advice to Helen Clark and, when she was Prime Minister, to the members of her Cabinet. I cannot recall a single occasion when anyone suggested the best way to deal with an issue or problem was to lie about it.

With the exception of the Brash years, when the commonest advice the Leader of the Opposition appears to have received from his lieutenants was to lie through his teeth, I’m willing to accept that mendacity is not the norm among New Zealand politicians of any stripe.

One reason for this may be the smallness and the relatively intimate nature of New Zealand society. Our politicians are familiar to us in a way that the 650 members of the British Parliament, for example, can never be to the average Briton. In a country like New Zealand, where seemingly everybody knows everybody, lying politicians are less likely to go unnoticed.

This is not to say, of course, that our MPs do not present themselves, their policies and actions in the best possible light. Gilding the lily is a political art form. But then we all attempt to present ourselves in the best possible light to others. And if we overdo it, those others generally have very little trouble in seeing through us.   

Why then is it the popular view that you can’t take the average MP at their word?

One reason may be the electorate’s unreasonable expectation that an honest politician will hold the same view, take the same position next week, next month or next year that he does today. That is a view fostered in particular by the broadcast media in this country, most of whose efforts are directed towards uncovering inconsistency in what our political leaders have said and done. This approach is at the heart of most radio and television interviews with politicians.  You might call it ‘Google journalism’ – find out what X said in 1987 that is different from what X is saying in 2011.  Or more commonly – find out what X said before the election that is different from what X is saying or doing after the election.

Sensible people of course adapt their views and behaviour to changing circumstances. A government that said the same things and retained the same policies after an international financial crisis or a devastating earthquake that it had before these events, would be a very bad government indeed.

But the relentlessly negative questioning around consistency that is the Kiwi broadcasting journalist’s commonest tool, serves to reinforce the public view that politicians set out to deceive the electorate by making promises they have no intention of keeping. More often, in my submission, they make promises before elections that, after the elections, they find they cannot keep. That may suggest ineptitude, but it is not evidence of dishonesty or lying.

Two recent interviews with the Opposition Leader, Phil Goff, illustrate this very well. In the first, with Sean Plunket on The Nation, which I dealt with in an earlier post, the interviewer devotes the greater part of his time to suggesting that the things Goff believed in during the Lange/Douglas administration are not the things he appears to believe in now. Goff spends most of the interview defending himself against this charge.

In a later interview on Q & A, Guyon Espiner devotes almost the entire time to asking Goff firstly to tell him what he is going to say to Labour Party delegates in his speech to Congress in two hours time, and secondly  to lay out Labour Party policy for the November election on a number of core issues. Goff quite clearly cannot be expected to reveal what he is going to say in a major speech in two hours time, nor to reveal specific Labour policy six months before an election. He nonetheless has to spend most of the interview justifying his unwillingness to reply.

A viewer watching these interviews might conclude that Goff was a) inconsistent and b) evasive, not because this was actually the case, but because of the constant repetition by the interviewers that it was. No smoke without fire.

If you were to examine the cases where Kiwi politicians have lied to Parliament you might find a common thread in that the lies followed the exposure of some previous error, embarrassment or wrongdoing on their part. Of the three components of our advice to clients – be straightforward; tell the truth; admit your mistakes – admitting their mistakes is the one politicians have the most difficulty with. Accused of having done something wrong, they do what we all did as children – deny, deny, deny and, if necessary, lie through our teeth.

“Johnny, who ate all the chocolate biscuits?”

“Don’t know.”

“Come on Johnny, you were the only one in the house. You must have eaten all the biscuits.”

“No, I did not.”

Which is technically true: Johnny gave two of the biscuits to Toby, the family dog, so he didn’t eat all the chocolate biscuits. (‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’)

In my limited experience, exposure (or threatened exposure) of some previous misdeed tends to produce panic in the politician. There is, after all, a lot to be lost. Panic inhibits rationality and, instead of ‘fessing up, which would be the best and least damaging thing to do, the politician initially angrily denies the charge, later perhaps softens the denial by saying that he/she can’t remember, it was a long time ago, before finally (in some cases) accepting that whatever it was may indeed  have happened.

O what a tangled web we weave…

But, overall,  I have found politicians, from all colours of the political spectrum,  to be decent people who enter Parliament full of idealism and good intentions and who, if they had any doubt about it, quickly discover that the most practical reason for not telling lies is that it simply doesn’t pay. In the end you will be found out.

Here endeth the lesson.

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36 Comments:

  1. Fair enough- your sins will be found out in a village, so don’t lapse… But do you believe that a politician’s ONLY raison d’être is to get re elected, and they’ll all say what the voters want them to say at any given time to achieve that?

    BE: I think there’s an element of truth in that, though idealism is not unknown among politicians. Telling them what they want to hear may get you elected, but is unlikely to get you re-elected when your performance fails to match your promises.

  2. They may not lie, but the dishonesty of politicians certainly annoys me. e.g. speaker after speaker for the National Party speaking against the introduction of paid parental leave because it didn’t cover the self-employed or non-employed.

    This was not the reason why the opposed. They’d have opposed it even more vehemently if it had covered the self-employer and non-employed. But that was the argument they went with.

  3. Somewhere in a video archive is a clip of Richard Pebble making excuses for not telling voters what Roger Douglas really planned to do if Labour the 1984 election. The unforgivable sin any politician or party can commit in a democracy is deliberately misleading voters as to what they intend to do if elected. If we include lies of omission, then the record of deceit by many of our politicians looks quite different.

    BE: “If we include lies of omission, then the record of deceit by many of our politicians looks quite different.” No denying it.

  4. How would the Roger Douglas era be explained.An extreme right wing politician in a left wing party hijacks the party and establishes a right wing policy within.May not have been lying but really lacks ethics and might be considered to a deception on a grand scale.

    BE: Well yes. A lot of people were taken in by that, including Lange himself and Yours Truly. After a meeting with Lange, Douglas, Prebble, Palmer, Simon Walker and others, I wrote Lange’s opening TV address after Muldoon called the ’84 election. The piece was pure Michael Joseph Savage, cradle-to-the-grave socialism Not exactly what Douglas et al had in mind.

  5. One personal bugbear is politicians who don’t lie, but make egregious mistakes about things and present a falsehood (they sincerely believe) as fact. I think there is a great responsibility on politicians to be accurate.

    My mother was a case manager for ACC until she retired a few years ago, she watches Parliament on telly and is routinely outraged at the incorrect things MPs state that she knows from her work are dead wrong.

    Another bug bear is misinterpretation which seems to border on malicious deliberateness. And that’s misinterpretation of what people say or do as well as misinterpretation of research.

  6. “I cannot recall a single occasion when anyone suggested the best way to deal with an issue or problem was to lie about it.”

    So, I guess David Benson Pope didn’t seek your advice on how to handle the Setchell affair? Sean sure seemed to catch him out in a honking great lie.

    BE: “So, I guess David Benson Pope didn’t seek your advice on how to handle the Setchell affair?” No, he didn’t. He’d have got the usual advice – tell the truth. Trouble is, advisors can advise but they can’t read minds to be certain they’re being told the truth.

  7. Not telling a lie is not the same as failing to tell the truth.

  8. “One reason may be the electorate’s unreasonable expectation that an honest politician will hold the same view, take the same position next week, next month or next year that he does today.”

    I don’t think people do that at all. Sorry for sounding like I’m picking on Phil here, but it’s one obvious example that comes to mind.

    When Labour is running an ‘Ax The Tax’ bus tour in opposition to raising GST from 12.5 5o 15% I think it’s entirely reasonable to ask what changed between the last GST rise in 1989 (which the leader of the Opposition and his deputy both voted for) and now.

    As you say, it’s perfectly possible to say “well, circumstances were totally different then. Raising GST was justified in 1989, even though we’d explicitly promised not to do so two years eariler.”

    You can even say: “Well, I didn’t believe that GST is a severely regressive and unfair tax in the 80′s, but I was wrong. Now I do.”

    But you don’t get to pretend that being held accountable for your own voting record is dirty pool.

    Or put another way: Even politicians are entitled to change their minds. But nobody is entitled to pretend they never changed it in the first place. That may not be a “lie”, but it sure is treating everyone else like fools — a discourtesy voters can, and do, repay with interest.

    BE: “Or put another way: Even politicians are entitled to change their minds. But nobody is entitled to pretend they never changed it in the first place. That may not be a “lie”, but it sure is treating everyone else like fools — a discourtesy voters can, and do, repay with interest.” I agree with that, but if the general view is that changing your mind is actually evidence of dishonesty, you can see why politicians might be unwilling to say they’d changed their minds. But, as you say, that’s precisely what they should say: I thought about it and I’ve changed my mind.

  9. “Not telling a lie is not the same as failing to tell the truth.”

    @Ben: Well yes, perhaps this is my parochial education showing again but I was taught that lies of omission (withholding the truth) are no less acts of intention deception that lies of commission.

    And before anyone asks, yes I would LIE LIKE A PRO to the Gestapo about the Jews hidden in the attic. Not even in the same moral universe as a politician spinning like a top in a centrifuge during tornado season.

  10. While, our self-serving pollies might not tell bare-faced lies, most of them have very selective memories and a slippery hold of the truth. When it suits them.

    No one, but no one, can convince me that Helen Clark was being truthful when she claimed she wasn’t aware the vehicle she was travelling in, doing a hair-raising 180 kph while transporting her to the rugby game, was speeding. A case of where blank-faced denial is indistinguishable from lying faster than a horse can trot.

    BE: You might say that; I couldn’t possibly comment.

  11. “I cannot recall a single occasion when anyone suggested the best way to deal with an issue or problem was to lie about it.”

    @Craig – I believe this is referring to the NZ context.

  12. Recently while in the UAE I was travelling in a car on the highway which is marked at 120kph, but often cars travel at 150kph+ (and one overtook at over 200kph estimated by us.) The sensation at 150kph in a big car is quickly normalised. I asked others in the car what speed did they think we were travelling at and they guessed wildly and inaccurately. Try it some time Merv.

  13. Merv, have you ever driven over that road in South Canterbury? well I have many times. It’s long and straight with an occasional bend across a railway line. Some of the straights are over 20ks, when driving at around 100 – 110 if your not watching the speedo constantly your speed creeps to 140 -160km and that’s when you’re driving, not sitting in the back of a big Ford LTD reading a book.

  14. Your article did raise one further thought and that is the media give Goff a far harder time than Key was ever given in opposition or for that matter since becoming PM.

    Key appears to be able to simper and grin his way through interviews while Goff gets interrogated on every action he has taken in the last 20 years plus every action that he might take in the next 20 years. I cannot recall the last time that Key was pushed into a corner and forced to account for some of his more stupid statements such as forecating rapid growth, ‘hefty pay rises’ (his words) but not for the public service. When are journalists going to deal to this con artist and expose how little substance there is there. I am sure Key has never told a lie; but only because he never says anything of substance.

    All this really shows once again is the apalling standards of journalism in the media.

    BE: “All this really shows once again is the apalling standards of journalism in the media.” Indeed it does.

  15. Thanks for fostering the discussion, Brian.

    Helpfully enough, John Armstrong has a column in today’s Herald that speaks directly to the point I raised in the show about political journalists turning into race-callers and applauding political lies.

  16. @Ben: Well yes, perhaps this is my parochial education showing again but I was taught that lies of omission (withholding the truth) are no less acts of intention deception that lies of commission.

    That’s why the phrase “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is so long.

  17. i used to live in waimatie its is a lie to say that the straights are 20ks long
    they had to put in a passing lane at otaio because the road from timaru south is quite winding not hair pins but lots of 70 or 80 k corners
    that my friend is a 49km streach
    even north of timaru you still get corners humps etc you would notice it
    And to compare nz roads which are tarmac
    with concrete roads is like compareing apples with oranges
    In short i drive my car somtimes at 160 ks
    it sounds and feels differntly to 100ks
    try it some times
    Now helen lied on that ocasion it doesnt mean she is a bad person its her job
    But what is sad is when people try to make up stories about it
    Much better to use brians line

  18. @ BEN: “All this really shows once again is the apalling standards of journalism in the media.” BE: “Indeed it does.”

    Or, to be more specific, the consistent ideological bias of much of the mainstream media.

    Not so much a noble, principled ‘Fourth Estate’, more a collection of banal cheerleaders for the political Right. ‘Deception in the media’: now that would be a particularly useful post.

  19. markus -or the political left. the media blow with the wind too.

    BE: An interesting observation. When Helen Clark was rating so poorly in early 1996, the media showed her no quarter. When her ratings improved hugely later in the year, not only did her coverage and reviews improve but the media actually began to use her as a commentator on political events and issues.

  20. 20

    @Ben: “Your article did raise one further thought and that is the media give Goff a far harder time than Key was ever given in opposition or for that matter since becoming PM.”

    YMMV, but I think that’s a load of male bovine excrement. The current “blame the media” mindset among some sections of the left reminds me a lot of the epic bathing in the river Denial in 2002 after National got the lowest share of the popular vote in the party’s history. Blaming the media was easy. Confronting the reality of a nice but ineffectual leader fronting a lousy campaign, incoherent policy platform, and a caucus compulsively fouling its linen in public? That was hard.

    Whatever you think about Clark (take it as read: not a fan), you had to admire the ferocious discipline of the woman and the party she lead. When the wheel fell off, it wasn’t pretty — but that juggernaut went a long way.

    “Or, to be more specific, the consistent ideological bias of much of the mainstream media.”

    Meah… how about the increasing economic and statistical illiteracy of journalists? The surprising fact that when you walk into a newsroom and slash their operating budgets and staff (quelle surprise!) it has an effect on the work? How about this (and with all due respect to our host): The rather disturbing number of very experienced journalists who’ve gone over to the dark side of PR/spin flackery. (You really think someone like Mike Munro would have broken a sweat wrapping around his little finger a noob whose media studies diploma wasn’t even dry?)

  21. 21

    Gertrude Arthritis

    Craig Ranapia, you are coming across as a crotchety contrarian. You’re always so negative about everybody.

  22. “That’s why the phrase “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is so long.”

    And certain sectors of the population are very good at only telling part of the truth, and you being part of the media, Russell, would know that. Read the news reports of an event in different publications and from differnt writers and one would wonder whether the same event was being described by each.

    Politicians are especially skilled at telling only just so much of the truth as they need.

    Craig, I am not blaming the media I am merely making an observation on the behaviour of many journalists which appears to be self evident at the moment.

  23. Craig Ranapia, you are coming across as an articulate and thoughtful commentator, unafraid of skewering those blinded by their biases. Please keep it up.

  24. “Why then is it the popular view that you can’t take the average MP at their word? One reason may be the…view fostered in particular by the broadcast media in this country”.

    Maybe. More likely though, it is because politicians continually accuse their political opponents of lying, and the electorate actually takes them at their word.

    Perhaps if politicians had more respect for the good standing of their vocation, they would all receive a lift in the collective estimation. If they can’t reform and manage their own working environment, they deserve precious little respect of trust to reform and manage the country. Perhaps then, the widespread contempt for our politicians is merited.

    Until such time as they start showing one another more respect, I’m not buying the “poor, misrepresented politicians” line – although I defer to your greater experience of what is the reality of actual political liars, Brian.

  25. Graham, If you lived in Waimate you think you would know how to spell it. Anyhoo ( Sp.Homer S ) Helen was being driven from Waimate to Christchurch and the car was clocked about 30ks south of Ashburton.

  26. 26

    Gertrude Arthritis:

    I am rather negative about the media on many fronts — and would like to think I give credit where it is due and would love to be able to do it more often. I just don’t share the view of others around here that the Press Gallery has its collective lips super-glued to to John Key’s backside. Just as I didn’t buy the same denialism from the right when Helen Clark was occupying the Ninth Floor of the Beehive.

    But, hey, I’m sure the latest poll on Three has cheered some Labour folks up a bit. And as they say: A week is a long time in politics, and six months is an epoch.

  27. No offense Mr E but I’m struggling to picture you in a Smart car.

  28. i managed a farm down there
    in fact i know one of the policemen who was in the car
    Again if you know the road they went though a corner in temuka which is a 30k corner in a 50k zone at 100k a hour.
    Look where helen went wrong here was not to own up
    her staff told the police to speed.
    where they guilty of thinking thats what the boss wants
    Takeing into account not once did helen tell the police to slow down the staff were right.
    then the cops were hung out to dry
    one guy left the force in anger because he felt the bosses were gutless in standing up for the local cops who were told to speed by the most powerfull women in new zealand at the time.
    It wasnt the speeding that was bad it was how thoses police were treated and that still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the locals

  29. Well, yeah, admittedly I did overstate my case somewhat to provoke a little reaction. Wasn’t necessarily the most subtle or nuanced argument in the world.

    But, to take my local paper as an example, so often over the last 6 years (certainly since the beginning of the 2005 election campaign), I’ve witnessed the Dominion Post doing little more than providing National party PR.

    National campaign strategists decide on their issues-agenda, and again and again the Dom Post is happy to provide ideological support (through timely supporting stories). At times involving quite deliberate deception.

  30. @ graham: I — being tactful — hesitate calling Helen Clark a “liar”. But, I have no problem describing her as “an inveterate teller of untruths”.

  31. Craig Ranapia wrote:-
    “But, hey, I’m sure the latest poll on Three has cheered some Labour folks up a bit. ”
    Funny, I happened to channel swap from 1 to 3 (or vice versa) in time to hear the results of both their polls last night. What a surprise – they were completely different!
    I think one of them had Key at 53% and the other at 48.5% and they probably claimed a margin of error of 2% or something although, to be fair, I didn’t notice.

  32. If anyone needs convincing of politicians’ capacity for failing to tell the whole truth read Matthew Hooton’s excellent article in this week’s NBR, “Labour and National both lied over ETS”.

    One could not say I don’t think that either party told outright lies, but throughout the debate on ETS they have been ‘economical with the truth’.

    And this is what happens in every important area of policy affecting the lives of NZ citizens; we never get told the whole truth. Information is drip fed, squeezed out by the small number of political commentators who do not spend all their time trying to trap politicians with loaded questions that can easily be avoided. When was the last time we had Key or Goff interrogated in depth and backed into a corner on the matter of ETS?

  33. Ben makes a good point – while it’s probably true that outright lies are rare the bigger concern is what Ben calls being “economical with the truth”.
    I think it’s worse than that, its being creative with the truth. The whole process of softening people up, inoculating ideas, spreading lots of small untruths over time so they seem to amount to a “truth”, diverting attention and generally using ad agency psychology to trigger primal responses in people. Its not lies but its deceptive and manipulative. Fear is a good one, the Asians/Maori/Greenies/Left wing/Right wing are taking over and will destroy all we hold as good.
    Sadly many of our media seem to be part of the game.
    Just watched the Hollowmen Doco (courtesy of this site) I was shocked at the depth of deception it showed. Who can we trust? No one it seems. The doco leaves the message its up to us as individuals to figure out the deceptions – not easy. The temptation to become totally cynical of all politicians is huge.

  34. Great quote from Fay Weldon: “Its not the lies that kill the soul, its the effort to believe them, especially your own”

    While its probably true that politicians rarely tell outright lies, in the narrow definition of that word. They are however, creative with the truth. Ben points out the drip feeding technique but there is the wide range of manipulative techniques used to massage public perceptions. The lie behind this is the public is too stupid to understand the truth.
    Politicians also have to line up with the party truth even if it’s at odds with their own – swallow enough of that and your soul must surely start decaying.

  35. Well I can only conclude that you have never listened to, for example, Nick Smith, John Key, Stephen Joyce or Bill English if you say there isn’t much lying by politicians (e.g. ACC accounts, shares held in NZ Rail, haven’t broken election promises on kiwisaver and working or families, I live in Dipton, the account of the Radio Works welfare loan and who talked to who, …. And we don’t even have to start looking at the Hollow Men’s set of lies.

  36. The British set a course before 1962 that would have got us at least to where their colonies UKVI and Cayman are today – safe and prosperous. We did all that the politicians asked – sacrificed tightened belts bought local – the lot!