Semi-truths told with bad intent

By Jill Segger
April 19, 2010

Nick met a nurse, Gordon met a cancer patient, Dave met a black man from Plymouth. The leaders' eagerness to demonstrate how in touch they are with 'real people' and to use them in the popularity stakes is a little toe-curling, even when the accounts are accurate. But the three anecdotal encounters which David Cameron used during last week's debate have unravelled to his detriment and to the further alienation of an already cynical electorate.

The “forty year old black man from Plymouth” who told the Tory leader that immigration was “out of control” sounds rather like a convenient construct. The 2001 census shows 0.19 per cent of the population of Plymouth describing itself as black, so finding this obliging citizen might not have been all that easy. According to Cameron, he had also served in the Royal Navy for 30 years, thus revealing himself to be the youngest recruit since the days of the Press Gang.

Then there was the woman who Cameron had met “the other day in Crosby” who had been burgled and whose son had died in the fire set by the departing criminal. This tragic event did actually take place – over two years ago in Anfield. The two inaccuracies do not alter the central fact, but they do indicate a carelessness suggesting a certain contempt for the electorate.

A similarly cavalier attitude towards veracity in pursuit of party advantage was displayed by Cameron's ersatz indignation over the supposed £73,000 “about" to be spent by Humberside police on a Lexus - again the implication being that he had just uncovered this information “the other day”. The conclusion voters are invited to draw is that the local force was on the point of being prodigally self-indulgent at the expense of officers on the beat. The facts – which should not have been too difficult to obtain, show that the last visit David Cameron made to Hull was in August 2009, that the list price for the vehicle concerned is £53,000 and that Humberside police had actually bought it over a year ago, paying around £50,000. It serves as the command vehicle of their fleet and the decision to purchase was taken only after 12 months of testing and evaluation.

Tim Hollis, the chief constable, justifiably annoyed at the slur on his force, pointed out two more facts which Tory researchers and fact-checkers should also have unearthed: “the bulk of our fleet are general patrol vehicles made by Proton which are economic to buy and run”. Adding that specialist units need high specification vehicles, he reminded the Conservative leader that such cars are “driven at speed and the safety of the public and of our officers is of paramount importance.”

Careless and selectively accurate anecdotes may not seem to rank particularly high on the scale of mendacity, but they are a manifestation of something disordered in the ethical framework of a politician who makes use of them. They tend towards that category of deceit described by William Blake as truths (or semi-truths) which “told with bad intent, beat all the lies you can invent.” They are also far easier to expose in the internet age than they were even 10 years ago.

Cameron is not the first politician to utilise creative licence in campaigning narratives, nor will he be the last. But we have been warned that “those who are dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much”.

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