The Sketch: They're not lying, just telling the opposite of the truth

Simon Carr

The Independent

Published: 14 December 2005


"Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories; that I'm lying, that officials are lying, that Condoleezza Rice is lying..." Our Foreign Secretary smiled urbanely at the committee (it smiled back, I fear).

He was referring to the reports of "extraordinary rendition"; that terror suspects have been flown from one country to another. This is against the law, when the Americans believe there is "substantial grounds for risk" that the suspects will be tortured during the subsequent interrogation.

The idea that our politicians routinely lie is preposterous, I agree. We found out over the Iraq war and its build-up that politicians simply don't lie. It's rather shocking to see it written down like that, is it not? Of course, how they manage to tell us the opposite of the truth is a miracle of linguistics.

But first, some vulgar abuse. The chairman, Mike Gapes gave the first half hour of the session to a fatuous excursion into the EU budget negotiations (as if they'd be told what our tactics are, in the middle of the battle). Stupid then, as well as sycophantic.

Eric Illsley opened up on extraordinary rendition. He wanted an assurance that HMG is not involved "in any type of rendition" and is not assisting the US in any form of rendition for the purposes of torture". His question took the form of three questions. It is always a mistake to ask a politician of Jack Straw's calibre three questions. Every word needs its own page of footnotes. So the Foreign Secretary was able to say: "Yes, I can definitely give you that assurance." Any question that allows an answer of such clarity is the wrong question. When Mr Straw is rattled, a stream of peculiarly Stravian drivel pours out of his mouth like ectoplasm. Yesterday, nearly everything he said was intelligible and this must count against the committee.

He was able to say that torture was illegal in this country and that if anyone were involved they'd be committing a criminal offence, but that the idea that British officials (though not officers, note) were involved in torture was simply "nonsense". There is no room for the page of footnotes that explains the use of the word "nonsense".

Kim Sengupta's reports from Iraq have made gruelling reading; the flayed corpses, the mass graves, the American director of death squads. The allegations from anti-torture groups have the power to rock the foundations of many of our beliefs. Our leaders insulate themselves and us from these realities by layers of thick, twisted language. "The answer I gave could not have been more comprehensive," Mr Straw said. And in some sense he was right. But that's not to suggest it meant what it seemed to imply.