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Terms of Deference

Skimming over the Wikipedia entries regarding the Iraq War Trilogy (Inquiries Hutton, Butler and Chilcot), it occurs to me that the political lexicon might benefit from some new terminology. Nothing new, just shorthand for a well known phenomenon:

Terms of Deference


1. An unwritten companion to the formal Terms of Reference of an inquiry or investigation, the Terms of Deference establish the boundary within which the truth is permitted to be found.

2. The invisible hands of the inquiry place that perform self-regulation without direction or coercion, balancing the supply of excuses with the demand for alibis in order to produce the optimal amount of whitewash.

– Jonathan Walls, The Contrary Dictionary

Squeezing Truth From Power

It’s interesting how the resignation of Andy Coulson reveals the insular attitude of the media and political classes. Andrew Marr had Amanda Platell, Peter Hitchens and Clare Short as guests on his couch yesterday. Tabloid employees and New Labour cabinet ministers make for perhaps the worst collection of people to talk fairly about spin doctors. Actually, Clare Short wasn’t really one of the on-message Labourite drones. However, Platell, Hitchens and Marr are all tabloid columnists. It would have been nice to see some recognition that they are industry colleagues to Coulson, not independent commentators.

Three points stood out to me. In disbelieving tones, they hinted that:

  1. People should not feel the need to resign unless there is proof they are directly and personally responsible
  2. Neither press nor public should be all that concerned about spin doctors
  3. The electorate should not be interested in people in unelected posts

Each of which is nonsense, because:

1. Resignations do not have to involve proof of wrong doing. Getting caught is grounds for sacking, not resignation. Resignation is often expected when you have failed in your duty of care, whether people demand it of you or not. In this context, there is proof against Coulson: a criminal conviction of one of his staff for illegal practices that he knew it was his obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent. Assuming that tabloid hacks are entirely ethical of their own accord is laughable, not reasonable.

2. Of course we should be concerned about spin doctors. It is practically the PM’s spokesperson’s job description to be the best informed person in the world regarding the mood and mindset of the British public. Not only is it naïve to assume such a person is anything other than an important part of the policy making process, but the Iraq War’s dodgy dossier story is evidence that the PM’s spokesperson is a powerful player in the very most important decisions a nation can make.

3. The behaviour and character of all people in powerful, national roles are of legitimate interest to the public, irrespective of their electoral status. It would be no bad thing if the consequence of Coulson’s departure is that people of ambition, including tabloid editors, concluded that genuinely serving the public interest was also in theirs (no bad thing, but unfortunately not a likely thing, either).

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