Politicians Hate Giving Straight Answers (but you can’t always blame them)

Few things that politicians do are more frustrating than their tendency to avoid answering questions properly. They could and should do better at this but the fault is not entirely theirs.

The usual reasons for this come down to one of two things: they’re afraid that giving an answer in either direction will be disagreeable to a certain group of voters and hedge that giving no clear answer will avoid offending either. Or, they simply don’t want to commit themselves in advance but don’t want to admit as such. Both reasons are lamentable and sometimes counterproductive.

Avoiding answering a question so as to not put anyone off is bad for democracy. It’s a deliberate act of concealment aimed at confusing the electorate into voting for something (people or policies) about which they have not been fully informed. Moreover, whilst the idea that this will improve a politician’s chances of winning votes may hold a certain logic in the short term – no policy may be better than one with which you disagree – it ignores the risk that you and all your colleagues appear as standing for nothing or, worse, trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

That politicians obfuscate and that this is bad will not be news. However, I don’t think we can lay the blame entirely at their feet.

Last week David Cameron was asked if he would stand for a third term. He said no and his answer was instantly headline news, discussed and debated at length on every media platform. It still is. Why did he say it? What was he trying to achieve? Was this a good tactic or a bad strategy? How dare he presume he’ll be in such a position?

The interviewer, the BBC’s James Landale, said that he is often prepped for an interview with subtle hints from press officers such as: “If you ask this particular question, you might just get an interesting answer…”. But in this case, he said, he was not. He just thought it was an interesting question so asked it.

Perhaps Mr Cameron had been desperate for somone to ask him this question and been carefully crafting his answer for weeks. Or perhaps someone just asked him a straight question and he gave a straight answer. No doubt the same can be said for many other headlines generated by the utterances of politicians.

Politicians deliberately wriggle their way out of questions all the time. It is to their shame and our misfortune. But, when every word they utter is poured over in such critical detail and endlessly analysed, it is perhaps not entirely their fault.

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4 thoughts on “Politicians Hate Giving Straight Answers (but you can’t always blame them)

  1. Sadly you are right but there is another reason and I experienced this on a number of occasions in my role as communications director for a borough council. Legally you’re not allowed to answer a question honestly this of course leads to either a blatant lie or a non-answer. So why not just come clean and say you’re legally allowed to answer? Well often times that leads down a rabbit hole that you’re not allowed to answer either! Hence a non answer is often the result! Admittedly your reasons are usually why we can’t get a straight answer!

  2. In my local government experience there were a number of reasons. Where council staff were involved for example we wanted to reduce staffing costs by reorganising the officer structure, our plans would have saved hundreds of thousands of £ a year but we couldn’t deliver as the redundancy costs made it unviable but we couldn’t talk about these issues. Other issues in planning for example where contracts were being negotiated or appeals were being lodged. I believe in open and transparent government but we were gagged so often it became very difficult at times to explain our actions or non action to the electorate.

    1. Thanks for that Simon. Interesting to get that perspective. I suppose my two points on that would be…

      1) I can see those being sensitive issues but why would they be *legally* bound not to answer them? And, if there were, could they not, for example, say “I can’t answer that for legal reasons” rather than obfuscate and dance around a question?

      2) I don’t think that would cover any of the instances I was thinking about e.g. Cameron/Miliband refusing to say who they would/wouldn’t do a coalition with, Conservatives refusing to say whether they would or would not cut child benefit, potential Labour leadership candidates refusing to answer whether they are or are not considering running. Those are just politicians not wanting to concede any points, admit to there being any downsides to their positions or be portrayed in a certain way by the media.

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