A political spat broke out this week between Home Secretary, Teresa May and Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, of the sort that traditionally crop up between members of opposing political parties. In her party conference speech, May cited a case of a Bolivian man who successfully appealed against his planned deportation, apparently, on the grounds that he owned a cat in the UK, as evidence of the negative effects of the Human Rights Act. Clarke quickly took issue with this account, as did the solicitor who represented the individual in question.
There are problems with May’s interpretation of events, and they are twofold. Firstly, the cat was never central to the man’s right to stay in the UK, and, secondly, neither was the Human Rights Act. The decision to allow the man to stay in the UK was based on the Home Office’s own policy, not on any wider human rights legislation.
Now I could expend many paragraphs here explaining why the Human Rights Act is actually on balance a jolly good thing, and how if it does force judges to act in a slightly counter-intuitive way in some cases then that’s sort of the point. But you are intelligent people and you have access to the whole interweb and plenty of people have spent many valuable words discussing that very point on other cul-de-sacs off of the modern Information Superhighway. You have Google – you know what to do if you want to read about that.
I’m more interested, today, in the political rhetoric that leads to these sorts of Westminster playground scraps. Politicians from all over the spectrum have form in this area. Back in 1992 Labour produced a Party Election Broadcast designed to attack the Tories record on the NHS, by comparing the treatment of two patients with ear disorders in NHS and private care. It quickly came out that the broadcast had been based on the case of a specific child, and what became known as the War of Jennifer’s Ear broke out. The child’s grandfather was a Tory supporter and provided information about the case to the Conservative Party, who used it to suggest the Labour had distorted the facts of the case of political gain. Then Robin Cook and Virginia Bottomley (Gosh, was she really 20 years ago? Now I feel old) hit each other with big sticks for a bit until it was time to go home for tea. Or something to that effect.
In 2002, the case of the elderly Rose Addis became another massive political storm in a tiny wee espresso cup, when allegations were made, initially by her family, and later by Conservative MPs, about her treatment in an NHS hospital. That particular spat ended up with statements being issued by politicians, and by family members, and staff of the hospital involved. Mrs Addis was accused of being unco-operative with staff. The hospital were accused of providing inadequate care. It all got very “He said..” “She said…” and it remains all but impossible to sort the facts from the narrative ten years on.
And here’s the problem. Politicians know, as do advertisers, public relations experts and creative writing teachers, that people like stories. We respond to narrative, to characters, to goodies and baddies, much more intensely than we respond to data and graphs and detailed factual information.
So a politician trying to make a point wants to tell us a story, not deliver a lecture. And to a degree, that’s ok. Part of the politician’s job is to persuade us that they are right about what the problems are and that their solutions to those problems are the best available. And, like their readers and viewers, media outlets like a story too. They like a narrrative and a character, because they know that will interest their audience much more than a data table. But anecdote isn’t evidence, and individual stories are open to interpretation. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s suspicious immigrant is another’s desperate asylum seeker.
Even those closest to an individual, especially those closest to an individual, will have their own views on a situation. So Jennifer’s grandfather clearly didn’t believe that her treatment reflected badly on the then Tory government. Other members of her family, including those who initially wrote to MP Robin Cook about the case, apparently did. Once something becomes a story, the storyteller decides how to tell it. They decide who the hero is. They decide who should be the villain. Stories aren’t based on facts. They’re based on narrative and character, and those are all created in the telling.
So telling stories is a great way to engage people, to inspire and to persuade. But it’s not a great way to make public policy. Facts are too easily distorted, accidentally mislaid or purposefully obscured. Evidence, not narrative, should be at the centre of policy making, and evidence means data, information from a wide range of sources, carefully analysed and interpreted, not one example which may or may not be typical, and may or may not be accurately told.
Happily, one of the joys of the modern Information Superhighway (how many times do you think I have to use that phrase to bring it back into regular parlance?) is that a lot of that data is out there and we can access it. The downside of that is that we can fall into information overload and end up with lots of data but no knowledge. So it’s cheering to know that there are some lovely interweb bunnies out there doing some of the sifting for us. I’m particularly fond of the following:
Channel 4’s factcheck blog: http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/
NHS Behind the Headlines: http://www.nhs.uk/news/Pages/NewsIndex.aspx
Michael Blastland’s Go Figure column (BBC): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14748007
And so ends today’s thinking. If you like, you can of course subscribe either by email or via Networked Blogs. There are lovely links just over there to your right to help you. And you can comment too, just down there, using your clever typing fingers. Jolly good.