31 May 2014
May 31, 2014

Making sense of ? hic : (

26 Comments

Politicians, the media and folk who lobby for this product or that cause often accuse each other of misleading the public. And of course it’s true that most people with an angle present  information in a way that helps their case, or cause. People expect that, though, and are pretty good at filtering. If they’re reading the Telegraph or Guardian, or listening to David Cameron or Ed Miliband, they atune according to the source.

But while it’s true that in many arguments it’s impossible to agree an objective truth, it’s also true that concrete facts have a critical status. You can present alternative perspectives, or introduce new information, but if you’re exposed as a liar, or – worse – as someone who has literally no concern about what the truth is – you’re toast. Readers, voters, consumers value the truth above everything else and if you lie they’ll never trust you again.

I’ve noticed recently that some lobbyists are prepared to simply lie – or give no value at all to the truth – in pursuit of their apparent aims. Oddly, it’s often ‘good causes’ that are guilty. Why should that be? Well, I’m not sure, but I think it may be connected to the fact that they tend to get a more sympathetic hearing than political or overtly commercial interests – maybe they’re sometimes lulled into a false sense of security? They get cocky and disrespect the truth?

Here’s a super example of what I’m talking about. [Note: the Speaker of the House of Commons has banned me from drinking anywhere in the Palace of Westminster, and from donating bottles to constituency events, and from having people to lunch, or dinner, who might want a glass of wine. By extension, there are events close to my heart at Westminster I can’t be present at because alcohol is served].

This week, the media noted that over the last three years, the purchase cost of alcohol sold at the Houses of Parliament increased by a little over 10%. In parliament,  alcohol is consumed by 650 MPs, 763 Lords, thousands of staff and tens of thousands of visitors. In one way and another, the articles implied that alcohol consumption at Westminster had gone up. Wahey. In every piece I’ve seen, though, the writer has been careful to note that in truth the increase in purchase cost is likely to be accounted for by the increase in prices, not an increase in consumption. There’s nothing wrong or contradictory about this. Readers like a good, light, anti-politician story, but they also know how much alcohol prices have gone up each year, because of course they buy alcohol themselves and are not stupid.

Here  the Daily Mail gives a lot of space at the end of the piece to how parliament has, over the last few years, been looking for ways of making more money from selling alcohol to visitors. Added to the fact that the piece notes that MPs (‘thousands of staff’, ‘visitors’) are in fact responsible for a small minority of alcohol consumed within parliament, the Mail seems on pretty solid ground. “Look at these blinking MPs having a drink” – but no actual claims that MPs or even staff are drinking more. Because while price increases alone would suggest that alcohol consumption on the premises is actually declining – not increasing – the commercial direction parliament is taking would further suggest that the actual proportion accounted for by folk who work here has also declined.

A couple of days ago, I read this piece in the Daily Express (I’d noticed the story first in the Littlehampton Gazette) because I get a Google Alert whenever my name comes up in the news. I scanned the piece: alcohol – check; photo of me looking pissed (but actually outside court, so very much not) – check; vague references to possible subsidies (taxpayer obviously doesn’t subsidise MP’s beer) – check. In all, a normal piece using factual information and presenting an unflattering view of politicians – yet one which also carefully notes in respect of the rising purchase costs: “but this may reflect rising prices”.

The thing about the article which immediately struck me is that Alcohol Concern, a ‘good cause’ lobbying organisation who say in their website they want to ‘make sense of alcohol’, was quoted as follows;

“It’s disappointing that Parliament isn’t leading by example, instead alcohol consumption continues to increase. 

I wrote to Alcohol Concern and asked why it had given such a weird quote claiming increased consumption when it seems patently untrue – certainly un-evidenced. ‘Interim Chief Executive’ Eric Appleby, who’d been given as the source, wrote back. His reply, didn’t make much sense and included this classic of its genre:

“the niceties as to whether a 10% increase in spending represents an equivalent rise in consumption is frankly irrelevant”. 

So there it is. If you come across lobbyist Alcohol Concern, remember that it literally regards truth and falsity as “niceties” and “irrelevant”.  Jesus wept. But guess what? Alcohol consumption has, for some years, been declining in the UK as a whole. So It’s hardly surprising that this should be reflected at parliament. That shoots the fox for morally-minded Alcohol Concern, though. So it seems they’re prepared to tell the ‘noble cause lie’.

There’s a larger issue here, though. It’s that parliament exists to make lobbying open – the role of politicians is to legislate, having looked at the competing imperatives and priorities on offer in every policy area. Yet we seem to have entered an era where not-for-profits, charities and ‘good causes’ are excused when it comes to standards and open-ness. There are plenty of parliamentary groups fully paid for by ‘not-for-profits’ with serious business interests behind them (just as drug companies help fund Alcohol Concern) – while any effort by a commercial interest to put an open case for this or that world view is viewed as tainted.

A lot of people, maybe like the interim CEO of Alcohol Concern, across the charity and public sectors, are building successful and personally rewarding lobbying careers under cover of the ‘good cause’. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but the easy time they get from the media and politicians – which often leads to them becoming rent-a-quote merchants on issues they haven’t bothered to do their homework on – seems to be leading some to get casual with the truth. On the other hand, big commercial interests have to take great care with facts, because their statements will be picked over and lies would do serious harm to their brands.

For my own part, I’m becoming wary of lobbyists who claim a higher ‘moral’ agenda; who claim their mission places them above politicians and journalists, and above such ‘irrelevant’ notions as ‘the truth’. But what do I know? As soon as I hit ‘publish’, I’ll be on all fours drinking whisky out of the dog bowl. And that bowl had better not look at me funny….