More to lying than telling fibs

Peter beresford writes that sometimes the telling of lies is
necessary – to help the poor and powerless.

Is lying the new rock and roll? The imprisonment of Jeffrey
Archer and Jonathan Aitken before him appears to argue against
this. But as with Robert Maxwell, perhaps the lesson really is
dishonesty is OK – unless you get caught. After all, Private
pursued Archer for more than 30 years. It was Private
too, which first broke the story of the Bristol paediatric
heart surgery catastrophe – another tale of dissimulation, deceit
and cover-up, as well as incompetence.

Sleaze and dirty tricks have figured disproportionately in UK
political life since the mid-1990s. Commentators ridicule our
politicians for saying one thing in opposition, and another in
office, about privatisation, arms sales, asylum seekers, crime and
workfare. They are not convinced by ministers’ protestations that
it is circumstances, not they, that have changed. The sense that
truth is now excess baggage seems to be one of the reasons
underpinning the public alienation from politics highlighted by
recent research.

A measure of the importance of an idea is the number of words
used to describe it. There have never been so many words for lying
– blagging, bending, massaging, being economical with and glossing
over the truth. What is “spin” if not lying and telling things in
the most self-serving way?

On the other hand, it’s all very well for Keats to write “Beauty
is truth, truth beauty – that’s all ye know on earth, and all ye
need to know”. But a crisis-ridden politician or policy maker
required to reconcile “not in my backyarders”, determined user
group, trade union and budget, knows there’s a bit more to it than

If lying is not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing
but the truth, there are also greatly increasing pressures to lie
in health and social care. Insurers’ advice, the compensation
culture and commercial considerations all push in this direction.
Yet we have heard the same story over and over again in recent
cases of people wronged in accidents and public care. “If they’d
just admitted it and said sorry. It wasn’t the money we

When service users are asked what they want from social care
workers, one of the key concerns, emerging in study after study, is
for honesty and openness. It is the relationship with the worker
that is central and people want one based on trust, equality and

That does not mean lying does not come into it. One social work
trainee once said to me that his approach was based on a “ducking
and diving” model of practice. He meant operating as skilfully and
sometimes unconventionally as was necessary to maximise the small
space he had in his agency to support service users.

Every social care worker knows that this sometimes means telling
lies to allow service users to access the benefits and services
they should have. Here the issue is doing this in a way that is not
demeaning or patronising, rather than keeping to the letter of the
law. Maybe that is the bottom line for us all; to tell truth to the
powerful and, wherever helpful, tell lies for the powerless.

Yvonne Roberts in on holiday.

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