I used to work in UK Government. Quite rightly it is the lot of government in democratic societies to be scrutinised and held to account. The negative side effect is it tends to create a climate of fear of saying anything and a tendency to obfuscate and hide things.
This is not unreasonable. Most political careers end in the 36 hour media storm of three ‘news cycles’: discovery, pursuit and resignation. “S/he has my full support” is the sure sign it’s coming to the end.
What costs UK politicians their jobs? Scandal? Affairs? Corruption? Incompetence? Bad luck? More often than not none of these, more than indirectly.
What costs most of them their jobs in modern times is ‘rapid rebuttal’. 24/7 media pressure forces a hasty and strident statement which then turns out to be factually wrong or doesn’t pass the common-sense test. Confidence in honesty and competence vanishes and the end comes in being shown to have misled or misspoken in front of parliament or the public.
Public servants always want to avoid giving precise facts and figures, not least because they are so hard to get right. So when the Minister or Political Adviser gets their Q&A on a tricky subject, invariably the killer question either has been omitted or has blather and obfuscation as the answer.
So what to do when you are asked a direct question about a difficult thing – for which you are accountable – to which you know the answer but wish you didn’t, or worse don’t know the answer but feel you should? Lie, make it up, bluster, waffle or blurt?
The answer lies in ‘ring-craft’ as the BBC’s Nick Robinson calls it. Successful politicians like boxers know how to jab, cover and move. They know how to say what they know and what they don’t in a way that makes sense, sounds in control but doesn’t overreach. It is an art not a science, involving luck and chutzpah as well as craft.
But having seen it close up (both when it goes right and wrong) I have learnt that sometimes in working life, as in politics, you just have to take a deep breath, say what you know, and what you don’t, and invite people to trust you and accept that.
As a Russian proverb says: With lies you may get ahead in the world – but you can never go back. Or the other way round: a lie may take care of the present, but it has no future.
Concealing, avoiding, dissembling, not answering, obfuscating or misleading makes things worse. And they make you feel worse.
I’ve found quite a few times in the last few years that sometimes you can’t avoid the punch. So better to stand your ground and roll with it than run away and hide.