In which I ruminate on fact and fiction …

*** Update – the Woolas decision ***

I wonder if I’m the only one feeling a little troubled by Courts getting involved in elections. Who’s to say where this particular line will end up being drawn?

All the parties, for example, entered the election knowing that severe public spending cuts were coming but each went out of their way to avoid talking about it. All sorts of pledges were made by politicians seeking our vote. We have seen that these have turned out to be worthless.

Some politicians apparently privately changed their minds about key parts of their own manifestos but didn’t feel that was something they should share with us before we voted.

Mr Woolas has been accused and found guilty of telling voters falsehoods about his opponents. So I am wondering where electors go to find a remedy to deal with politicians that told falsehoods about themselves?

Now that would be a busy court.

Here’s the orginal post in full.

——————————————————————

The world used to be such a simple place. Fact was fact. Fiction, fiction. But now we have faction, docudrama, drama-documentary, reality TV and U571. No, that’s not a satellite TV channel it was a film about rugged and courageous US submariners capturing an Enigma coding machine from a stricken U-boat in World War II. Not a good film and rubbish history.

Why do I mention it? Well, it’s because I’m beginning to feel slightly old-fashioned in believing truthfulness is an important attribute of a healthy public life. It does not feel to me that this is a belief widely shared by important parts of our civil society. Indeed a new government felt the need to set up a new quango, the Office of Budget Responsibility, because it believed (probably rightly) that few believe politicians to be truthful and that what they say can be trusted.

Being on the inside of the deficit reduction story and talking with colleagues from organisations affected by it I am constantly struck by their anger about the portrayal of public servants and public service in the media. We’re wasteful, lazy and incompetent. Our organisations are bloated, mis-managed or have lost their way. Terms and conditions are gold-plated, feather-bedded or simply an outrage.

The excellent We Love Local Government has already talked about Channel 4’s ‘exposure’ of local government waste on Tuesday night. I can only echo their comments and add that this was pretty lame stuff.

Many papers had screaming headlines yesterday about more wasting of public money by the Audit Commission. Beneath the headlines it seems it spent some money training its staff, put them up at hotels when they had to stay away from home and even paid for grass to be cut at one of its offices.

What I was interested to notice however was the reference in many of these Audit Commission stories to ‘staff junkets at the races’. Now I thought I recalled from an earlier round of this story that these ‘junkets’ were in fact the use of meeting rooms on non-race days for technical training of local councils’.

Not being a highly trained investigative reporter from one of these papers I had a quick look at the earlier story again via google. I discovered a letter still on the Commission’s website that explains what the racecourse spending was all about. Guess what? Yes, my recollection was just about spot on.

So the reuse of that phrase in today’s stories clearly means one of a small number of possibilities.

1) The Audit Commission’s denial has been proven by further research to be itself a lie.

2) The authors’ of today’s pieces had missed the denial somehow.

3) The authors’ of today’s pieces had seen the denial and didn’t care.

Or more simply. The Commission is a liar or the reporters are not very good at their job or the reporters are uninterested in being truthful.

It seems to many of us in public service that too much of the debate about the work we do and the people we are is dominated by the same principle adopted by many of us when abroad. IF WE REPEAT SOMETHING OFTEN ENOUGH AND LOUD ENOUGH IT IS BOUND TO STICK.

But simply repeating something does not make it true. Despite my constant repetition of the refrain, ‘I am tall, dark and handsome,’ I remain resolutely something else.

I suppose you could be charitable and put this lack of connectedness to accuracy down to cock-up rather than conspiracy. But I was intrigued by something an old friend who has made a big success of life in the private sector said to me the other day when we were talking about how the public sector’s reputation is in the bin.

He said that he thought all the language and the stories betrayed a simple truth. Politicians, he said, dislike public servants for the same reason that he dislikes his first wife. She knows too much about him. And that makes him profoundly uneasy. Public servants know where public spending ‘bodies’ are buried. But unlike his ex-wife public servants are too honourable (or cowed) to do any exhumation.

He and I compared our list of the top five wastes of public money during our careers. The lists were near identical but that was not the most revealing thing. Each of them had been driven by politicians on a point of principle rather than evidence. And each cost a tiny bit more than mowing a lawn.

But most of the people we serve don’t have the hands-on knowledge my friend has. So we’re stuck with an increasingly rancid reputation fostered for reasons that do not seem entirely straightforward. And a lot of our fellow citizens believe what they read, hear and see. In a truthful society why wouldn’t they?

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About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
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9 Responses to In which I ruminate on fact and fiction …

  1. ericonabike says:

    IF WE REPEAT SOMETHING OFTEN ENOUGH AND LOUD ENOUGH IT IS BOUND TO STICK. How true. I imagine it won’t be long before ‘days at the races’ becomes part of the Audit Commission’s entry on Wikipedia.

  2. DexterP says:

    Well said! And you can bet your bottom dollar that the answer to your question is 3.

    What I find most disconcerting is this: if I was a Daily Star reader, then I’d expect a lot of my ‘news’ to be piffle. To be blunt. But if I chose to read the Daily Telegraph, I’d consider myself to be intelligent, with a thirst for the truth, and would expect my journalists of choice to be trying their level best to give me that. If I found out that the Daily Telegraph wilfully peddles untruths – and they clearly are in this case – I’d feel pretty insulted. Or maybe I’m being completely naive.

    I have noticed, though, an increase in the use of the phrase ‘If true…’ in news coverage. I know we now have 24/7 news, with the need to report things as they happen, but this seems a fairly depressing trend.

  3. Dominic says:

    So public servants are completely blameless, wonderful, halo-ringed innocents?
    It’s all the media and the politicians’ fault?
    Give it a rest. You earn respect and credibility and civil servants have no more right than either the media or elected officials. You’re just as grubby.
    You’re part of the powerbase that tells everyone else what to do. Now that foundation is being shaken, you’re screaming ‘foul’. Time to join the real world occupied by the minority of people in the UK who don’t work for the public sector.
    Stop whinging and live with it.

    • Dear Dominic,

      Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment. I wouldn’t ever claim public servants were, ‘completely blameless, wonderful hao-ringed innocents’ although I can think of some that I have met who were and are. My point is that there is plenty of important stuff to talk about that should be taken seriously. But this is best done truthfully otherwise we are going to get nowhere fast. I hope to continue to be a taxpayer and I used a range of public services too. All I’m asking for is that reporting is as truthful as it can be. I’d make exactly the same point about coverage of the private sector. Family members of mine struggle to keep their businesses going get just as grumpy about all the reporting of board room excess. They would just like to get a decent tradiing year.

      Best wishes and thanks again for the comment,
      RPS

  4. Dominic says:

    RPS
    But a key difference between the public and the private sector is that the latter doesn’t go round telling everyone what a ‘special case’ they are and when things get tough that ‘it’s so unfair!’ As a huge generalisation, private sector staff know there are no ‘jobs for life’, no guaranteed pensions, in fact, they’ve learned to take nothing for granted. Why does the public sector have a chip on its shoulder and expect to be treated differently? Nobody owes you anything.

    Look after yourself. Employers won’t (public or private) – and why should they? Employment law is heavily stacked in the favour of the individual, as it should be, but don’t expect to have your cake and eat it too.

    Don’t care about what the media says. What incentive do they have to tell the ‘truth’, whatever that is? You have your perception of the truth. They have theirs, I have mine. Who’s right? Who’s wrong. Who cares?

    All the best.

    Dominic

    • Not Yet Redundant Public Servant (not blog author) says:

      Wow, that’s quite a bitter taste you have there! Just curious but are all doctors, nurses, police, fire, soldiers also in need of a cold, harsh reality shower?

      You’re right, bankers and chief executives have it hard, what with their guaranteed bonuses and chauffeur-driven cars and I have never seen any private sector employees take the michael and laze around, make more money than their job justifies, treat customers with disdain etc.

      The problem you have is the same as the media, you think the minority of top level pisstakers represent “the public sector” – well, in which case, I assume you are the same as a banker and therefore all your comments are invalid because you’re sat on millions that you made whilst destroying the world economy and plunging us into recession!

      No? That wasn’t you? Well, don’t be so lazy and stereotype the public sector!

    • Dear Dominic, thanks for the follow up comment and the good wishes. Best wishes, RPS

  5. brightandsmiley says:

    I can’t remember the first time as a child I heard the phrase “life isn’t fair”. But I’m fed up of hearing the word ‘fairness’ as a justification for the current mess being heaped on our heads.
    Only people, individuals can make life fair for others, regardless of who you are or what you job you do. However fairness needs integrity and that’s too much like hard work when you can scapegoat instead. And the end result is that we ALL lose out.

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