There are, it seems, two categories of lying in public life. There is the personal, self-serving lie, designed to advance a career, cover up a scandal, to make some extra cash from a sloppily structured expenses system.
Then there is the institutionalised lie – a wilful distortion or suppression of any evidence which is likely to make the aims of the institution more difficult to achieve. This second species of untruth tends to be a joint enterprise, involving politicians, civil servants, business interests and specialists. By its nature it will tend to have, beyond any sensible comparison, a greater effect on the lives of citizens than any private lie could.
Here is the mystery. It is personal lying – MPs fibbing about their houses and expenses, to take an obvious example – which causes political upheaval, a tsunami of scolding from the massed ranks of media moralists and infuriated contempt among members of the public. Stories of institutionalised deception, on the other hand, tend to be greeted with a resigned shrug and quickly forgotten.
This weekend it was revealed that a report commissioned by a government department into the noise made by wind turbines and the effect on those who live near them had been quietly doctored. In 2006, the acoustics firm Hayes Mackenzie was commissioned to measure noise on three wind farms.
Its findings were most inconvenient. The noise made by the turbines was significantly higher than those foreseen in the Government’s 1996 guidelines. The 43 decibel level permitted by law was too high and had the potential of keeping people awake at night. The “absolute noise criterion” for night time should be revised downwards to 38 decibels and, where there was evidence of aerodynamic modulation, the limit should be 33 decibels.
It was not what the Government wanted to hear. The proposed reduction in permitted noise was awkwardly large, decibels being measured on a logarithmic scale. Whitehall’s solution was simple: it suppressed that part of the report. Noise evidence used in planning applications across the country and affecting the lives of thousands of people is based on a dodgy dossier.
Naturally, there was a cover-up. A request by the Den Brook Judicial Review Group to see early drafts of the report under the Freedom of Information Act was rejected by officials on the grounds the information was not in the public interest. Only when the Department of Energy and Climate Change was forced by the information commissioner’s office to release the documents was the truth revealed.
If this kind of organised fraudulence is part of the system, how can we be expected to believe any research-based report that has been through the busy, grubby hands of civil servants and politicians? Two years previously, Hayes Mackenzie had produced another report which denied that aerodynamic modulation was sufficient to wake those living near turbines. Was that an untampered view?
And what of the other reports into noise, effects on wildlife and so on? Were they streamlined, too?
The Government might well believe that a few thousand lives rendered uncomfortable or even miserable is a small price for us (that is, for them) to pay for the energy produced. It would be small gesture towards honesty if it had the courage to say so rather than massaging the facts.
All fantastic PR and no knickers, Jeanette
There is nothing new in a public figure acting as a kind of therapeutic archetype to needy members of the public. The fantasy that a famous person shares the attitudes, personality or problems of lesser folk is an essential part of the celebrity business.
No actor, broadcaster or model has played this role quite as adeptly as the author Jeanette Winterson who has just complained that tabloid headlines containing the words “lesbian” and “gay” are deploying negative stereotypes. Personally, she added, she has had enough of being described as “lesbian author”. It is a fair point although no one, it has to be said, is less in danger of being misunderstood. In addition to her many interviews and autobiographical columns, an impressive website – currently featuring the author in a Santa Claus hat – offers a masterclass in the art of self-presentation.
The world of Jeanette, or at least the public version of it, touches on life in the countryside, on the terrible two years she has had since the break-up of her last relationship, on her forthcoming work, on the joy of sex, on the type of therapy she has had, on her latest love affair and how it is all going terribly well (“And she loves me too. Wow.”)
This illusion of intimacy plays so brilliantly to Winterson’s fans that she can now get away with more or less anything.
In a recent interview, she tells the story of how she was once stopped by the police while driving, and pulled over. As she got out of the car, her tight skirt ripped revealing that she was wearing no knickers. Had this story been recounted by, say, Esther Rantzen or Edwina Currie, there would have been sneers from Camden to the Cotswolds. With Jeanette, even a no-knickers incident becomes sexy, amusing – almost classy, in fact.
Royal Mail management fails to deliver
It is open season on the Royal Mail once more. The sneaky practice of postmen failing to deliver a parcel, preferring to push a note through the letter box claiming that no one was at home, has been exposed in a survey by Consumer Focus.
If my recent experience is representative, the villains behind this peculiarly lazy practice tend not to be the regular posties but are companies called in by the Royal Mail to help with the Christmas rush.
The white van man I caught driving away from the house having failed to deliver a parcel through the simple expedient of not knocking on the door was a replacement for the usual service.
What bad management this reveals. Months of good service by hard-working postmen are undone in a matter of moments by a spivvy part-timer.
Wednesday, 16 December 2009