Saturday 15 October 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, and "Inferences"

"Dunno. Wasn't There.": The Prime Minister's ordeal by press conference over his allegation that Standard & Poors had warned economists that a credit downgrade was more likely under Labour has hopefully cured him of relying too heavily on the "inferences" of businessmen-spies.

THE PRIME MINISTER can count himself very lucky that the House of Representatives stands adjourned and the Speaker is abroad. Were they not, it is difficult to see how John Key could have escaped the scrutiny of the Privileges Committee. Had the timing been just a little different, he could easily have found himself in the same position as Winston Peters in 2008: diverted from the election campaign to answer charges of misleading Parliament.

But, then, Mr Key has always been lucky – as lucky as his principal opponent, Phil Goff, has been unlucky. Even so, the adjournment (and imminent proroguing) of the House, and Dr Lockwood Smith’s absence have not protected him from several days of acute political embarrassment.

His claim to the House that a change of government would increase the likelihood of a credit downgrading by Standard & Poor’s has been exposed as, at best, a false conclusion – drawn from an unjustified inference.

We know this because a spokesperson from Standard & Poor’s has taken the highly unusual step of publicly contradicting a prime-minister.

Melbourne-based Kyran Curry, who was present at the S&P-sponsored meeting of economists where the discussion of New Zealand’s credit-rating took place, stated unequivocally: “I would never have touched on individual parties. It is something we just don’t do. We don’t rate political parties; we rate Governments.”

In the face of such a public slap-down, Mr Key had no choice but to concede that his understanding of Standard & Poor’s position was based entirely on information received from an anonymous source who had been present at the meeting. Fierce questioning from a highly sceptical Press Gallery then forced the Prime Minister to release his “evidence” – an e-mail in which his (still anonymous) informant declared:

“There was a key one-liner that I thought you could well use. S&P said that there was a 1/3 chance that NZ would get downgraded and a 2/3 chance it would not, and the inference was clear that it would be the other way round if Labour were in power.”

That word “inference” should have caused Mr Key’s political radar warning system to light up like a tilted pin-ball machine. Prime Ministers do not rely on inferences – no matter how “clear”. They rely on facts.

Nor should they allow their parliamentary opponents to assume that they were present at a meeting which, in reality, they did not attend. Unless, of course, they enjoy repeating, over and over again, to a roomful of stony-faced journalists: “I wasn’t there.” “I wasn’t at the meeting.”

And, never – under any circumstances – should they twitch back the curtain of Prime Ministerial omniscience to reveal the tacky truth that he or she is the receptacle for an endless stream of petty gossip and partisan innuendo.

How long does Mr Key think it will take a clever journalist to track down the full list of economists present at the Standard & Poor’s meeting? When, by his own admission, one of the names on that list is a prime-ministerial spy, how long does he think it will take before a shrewd process of elimination identifies the guilty party?

The bank economists representing the ANZ and the BNZ have already been forced to deny any part in the leaking of their colleagues’ private deliberations to the Prime Minister. Others are bound to follow. And none of them will be happy.

Contemporary economics reminds me of nothing so much as the huckster’s shill. And, like any confidence trick, it only works while people keep believing what they’re told. Just as in Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, where the smooth running of the Emerald City depends on no one discovering what lies hidden behind the curtain, faith in the Government’s economic management depends upon people believing their leader is guided by more than anonymous spies peddling “one liners” and “inferences”.

Mr Key’s remarkable luck may have preserved him from the Privileges Committee, but in the Court of Public Opinion he stands convicted.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 14 October 2011.


Dave Kennedy said...

When does deliberate misinformation become lies?

Anonymous said...

Either that or it was a blatant, bare-faced lie and the "email" a total fabrication.

The phrasing "..I thought you could well use" and "the inference was clear" are just a little too perfectly greasy and aimed at possible later scrutiny: "as you see the emailer encouraged me your honour, and I'm a busy man. And he said inference, guv, not implication. No one's blaming S&P, it's all his fault".

He'll never be found, but a whipping boy just might be hired.

As for a "clever journalist" in NZ in 2011 with the balls to prove that St John's a liar - are you 'avin a larf?

Gem said...

Chris – I heard you this morning on Kerre Woodham’s show. Judith Collins is a disgrace. You did a fantastic job undermining her fatuous comments.

By retrospectively attributing his comments to an anonymous source, John Key is admitting that he lied by omission in Parliament when he made his comments about Standard & Poor’s without saying, “According to my anonymous source…” Of course, Key didn’t make this attribution in the first instance, because he knows that depending on an anonymous source whose existence can’t be proved isn’t conducive to making a credible argument.

As you mentioned, another problem with anonymous sources is proving that they exist. Key spoke authoritatively about a meeting that he didn’t attend and went on to conjure up a mysterious source in a clumsy attempt to cover his original dishonesty. We could all invoke a shadowy informant to strengthen our arguments. However, generally, this practice isn’t looked upon kindly. Students are repeatedly reminded to avoid claiming others’ ideas as their own and to substantiate assertions with traceable references. Regarding the justice system, in many countries, the use of anonymous jailhouse snitches is frowned upon and is believed to be one of several key factors that result in injustices. We see unsubstantiated claims and the invocation of supposedly helpful but ultimately untraceable sources in other sectors as dishonest and cowardly. So, why should we tolerate this conduct in politics? It isn’t enough to say that the nature of politics is by definition shady and corrupt. This “boys will be boys” attitude allows unethical practices to continue. We must have higher expectations of politicians. If their conduct is unscrupulous, we ought to hold them to account, rather than excusing them in terms of our low expectations of their behaviour, thus lowering our expectations and their conduct even further.

If we want New Zealand to be a democracy, we have to expect Prime Ministers and other MPs, whatever their ideology, to make assertions and advance arguments with reference to traceable, reputable sources. During Woodham’s programme, Collins mentioned that left wing MPs often make unverifiable comments. I’m sure they do. However, if that is the best Collins can offer (it doesn’t matter if we do it because they do it too), she is in an embarrassingly weak position. It’s akin to saying that it’s OK to murder someone because many murders have occurred.

People interpret information and create arguments through their own ideological lens. Imagine a reputable research group, comprised of members with a range of political beliefs, releases the results of research about a particular issue. Naturally, a Labour MP would interpret the research paper in a way that advances Labour’s political goals, just as a National MP would construe the data in a way that furthers National’s political aspirations. Differences of interpretation and opinion lead to healthy debate, which is essential for democracy. It doesn’t matter that different people understand the same information differently. This is normal. What does matter is when there is no accessible, reputable information to understand; when political arguments are no longer made with reference to data that other politicians and the public can access and about which a diversity of viewpoints can be formed.

Key has misled Parliament and the public. No amount of playground arguments, such as Collins uses, changes that. Key must apologise. He should start taking his job seriously.

I would like to make one further comment about your debate: your likening of the Rena captain to someone who works as a petrol station attendant was unfortunate. If everyone who works in a low paid job resigned, our society would quickly descend into chaos. Perhaps you could have chosen your words more carefully and highlighted the captain’s evident failings without denigrating other people in our society who work hard, long hours in roles that often go unacknowledged.

Victor said...

In the midst of the furore over our Johno’s elusive emailing friend, we seem to be losing sight of what the guy from S&P told the New Zealand Herald,in connection with this matter.

Commenting on our chance of upping our status, Kyran Curry told Audrey Young that this would come from “stronger export performance and an improvement in public savings”.

This, he said, involved "getting back to what New Zealand was actually doing not three years ago".

Now my memory is not as good as it used to be, but I distinctly remember Helen Clark and Michael Cullen leaving office not three years ago.

Don Franks said...

Undoubtedly deliberate deceit, but more significant issues face us at this moment.


Oh, see the fleet foot therapists who come with faces drear
From Invercargil to North cape with all their latest gear
They come to inject and massage, too late with all that shite
For young Ritchie McCaw goes out to play at Eden park tonight!

Out from beneath the stand he stepped, unsmiling and unshaved
to face the wretched Wallabies so craven and depraved
With never a tear in his black jersey, but his foot not right
As young Ritchie McCaw goes out to play at Eden park tonight!

When he last steps upon that field his shining ball in hand
Around him march in grim array a stalwart earnest band.
with no Dan Carter in the side things don't bode too bright
still young Ritchie McCaw goes out to play at Eden park tonight!

On one small steel connecting pin the hopes of kiwis ride
as Ritchie's foot still hobbles on, its niggling bolt inside
oil slicks and earthquakes we'll forget, we know that she'll be right
if young Ritchie McCaw can just come through at Eden park tonight!

Chris Trotter said...

To: Gem.

You're absolutely right about my comparison with the service-station attendant. I knew as soon as I said it that it was wrong, wrong, wrong.

I stand, justifiably, rebuked.

To: Don.

As ever, New Zealand's foremost working-class bard produces the goods - and in cadences Banjo Patterson would be proud of!

keep 'em coming, Comrade.