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….

 

26 Responses to Making sense of ? hic : (
  1. Why, under the threat of gaol, must I fund these people?

    • Ah, because mini-quangos are a part, apparently, of the commonweal. John Locke’s as good a place to start as any. But cap it off with Rod Liddle, for balance….:-)

  2. Perhaps someone in government (or even parliament) could look at reducing the amount of taxpayer funds going towards the likes of ‘Charity’ Alcohol Concern?

    Especially since, in 2012, (the latest year I have figures readily to hand) over 95% of Alcohol Concern’s £919K income came either directly or indirectly from government in the form of grants, and funding from the likes of NHS trusts.

    • It does seem amazing, when it’s fairly clear Alcohol Concern’s primary aim is to keep itself in the public eye rather than take an authoritative and objective position when it comes to reducing the ill-effects of alcohol. I think some such organisations exist primarily to keep the public affairs professionals who run them in a job.

  3. On a related note, you may find this article about “White Hat Bias” in research, particularly in public health, interesting: http://theviewfromcullingworth.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/white-hat-bias-fixing-results-to.html

  4. Thanks Mr Joyce. Thought provoking and insightful – as always. You & Frank Field: the only two politicians left-of-the-dial worth attention. Close attention at that.

  5. Mr Joyce,

    First sorry about the blank post.

    Yes, thank you, a good piece.

    The most egregious source for noble cause lying I know of is Climate Change ” advocacy”.

    They may be right (of course they may be wrong) but they do believe. Some also believe that they have a DUTY to lie. A very dangerous path to follow!

    Regards,

    • Thanks for this, Ed. I think about GM crops. I went on tv a number of times 10 years ago with folk from various NGOs who had really no coherent argument at all – their pseudo-objections to GM related more to the nature of the ownership of seed-producing companies. In one case, I debated with a chap who turned out to be a huge organic farmer. The organic lobby at the time wanted Fairtrade to sanctify their Norfolk output. It really seemed amazing to me that people could serve their own commercial interest so blatantly in the guise of ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. And, of course, they won the day, holding up GM technology – which literally has the potential to feed the poorest of the world – until this year.

  6. I regularly get into an argument with my house mate over this. Just because they’re a charity or have a “noble” aim doesn’t mean they can’t fall into the same trappings of “big bad business” Especially when Charity CEO’s can be earning 6 figures.

    Ends never justifies the means as whatever your noble aim is someone else’s will and can be different.

    It’s such a shame more MP’s don’t lose the whip or are independent. Since being able to be “off record” you can really critique issues properly.

    • Thanks, Jamie. I’m coming to the conclusion that you can’t read anything at all into lobbying/lobbyists because they happen not to work for a ‘for profit’. First, most of my constits work in the private sector and I don’t see their perspectives a somehow inherently less morally sound than folk who work in other sectors. Second, I think it’s probably true that by far the most lobbyists work in the public/charity sectors – plenty of such folk put their careers first and I really don’t blame them -but that’s the realpolitik of it. Third, why should a cause be more just simply by virtue of being not-for-profit? I’m always aware, too, of where not-for-profits get their funding from and also where personnel move from one side to the other effortlessly.

  7. You ask “why should this be?” Here is the answer: ‘Noble Cause Corruption’ and the Noble Cause Lie’ are common phenomena among ideologues, such as socialists. Conservatives tend to tell fewer lies because theirs is a pragmatic cause which is undermined by untruths. For a socialist, the ends are justified by the corrupt means.

    • Interesting thought. A lot of the ‘good cause’ lobby groups are run by people who are quite a long way from socialist, though. Moreover, there are very few socialists in parliament – insofar as they take the ideology seriously. Socialist is more of a signifier as a term these days. I think it’s true that some folk are so consumed by their own moral superiority that they aren’t prepared to engage in serious debate nor value the actual truth. Sometimes, of course, the driver of that approach is a hidden commercial one. So, for example, green ‘technologies’ fund green campaigns; drug companies fund ‘good causes’ in order to place their products alongside the superior moral status some lobbyists claim for themselves. It isn’t unusual for lobbyists to move directly from ‘good casuse’ orbs directly to the commercial interest which benefits…

  8. “alcohol is consumed by 650 MPs” is that not 649 now you have been banned?

    • I was referring to the total numbers of each. Quite a lot of MPs don’t drink at all, but it’s still true that as a group (of 650) they consume x amount, no?

  9. Eric,
    Couldn’t you simply check the price alcohol was selling for a year ago within the establishments you mention – if that price has indeed increased by more than 10% then you prove your case, whereas a less than 10% increase would surely prove that consumption has in fact increased?

    • Thanks,David. I imagine the best comparison would be done in terms of volume sold (it’s impossible to break out how much is consumed by visitors, really, but you could, for example, break out how much is consumed at sponsored events rather than in the bars). My instinct is that if you compare volume sold then you’ll probably get the same kind of reduction as you’d get across the UK and you’ll also find that there’s an increase in the percentage consumed by visitors owing to the new drive to make more use of the premises when, for example, MPs aren’t there. The figs aren’t avail, as the pieces note, but it might be possible to get some in due course. I’ll plug away. In the meantime, it’s worth noting (which, to be fair, the papers flag) that if you want to make more use of the facilities and get more folk from outside using them, and if you want the proceeds of that to reduce the cost of parliament to the taxpayer, then it won’t make sense to attribute any future increase in consumption to MPs or staff (or peers and even some by journalists!). If I were the Speaker, I’d be ensuring I measured each of these variables and made them public as far as I could. I imagine you’ll find Speaker Bercow will try to do that in due course.

  10. When the ends justify the means then you know that the organisation behind the push will be doing everything in a dodgy manner. Falsehoods, outright lies, twisting the truth, shouting down opposition, are standard practises for organisations like Greenpeace and Occupy and other charities. They are more interested in being Nannying Fussbuckets than allowing people to live their own lives.

    • Yes, some of the stuff I get lobbied on seems more like a religion than a coherent policy argument – some orgs v keen to moralise and tell us all how to live…

  11. Great post Eric. On another note, when are you coming out for ‘Yes’? Other former Labour men of integrity are there waiting for you.

  12. Blame the dog …
    Interesting, hadn’t realised we Brits were drinking less and paying more. Even the very cheap 2.1% abv packs of 4 cans bitter have, so it’s not likely differentiated vis a vis the perception that we are all going to hell in the Flying Inn …
    The dog whistles some politicians use to assemble votes look to me like derivatives of the advertising industry, the charities are organisations and are bound to adopt similar methods if unchecked.
    The Daily Mail is as notorious as the Taliban – turnip and original – in such techniques with me and my dog. And apparently dragging canines in is another ..

    • Yeah, consumption has declined almost every year for the last 10 years.

      • Chesterton’s The Flying Inn is an anti Muslim romp, fun on the way, imagining a conspiracy against alcohol.
        As Vernon Bogdanor was suggesting on Ch 81 via an interesting debate on the EU elections, part of Ukip’s appeal is cultural.
        He didn’t examine the root of it. Cultural Changes have less to do with immigrants than other aspects of globalisation and American dominion.
        The Muslim sect’s battles likewise arise out of oil many and the challenges to their cultures from globalisation.
        But dog whistles ever appeal more than facts and figures as Bogdanor suggests. Thatcher, Reagan and Farage need addressing: “There you go again …” (I paraphrase his argument and language.)
        Jimmy Carter, Neil Kinnock and Ed Mili all capable of that.


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