Fox’s friendship, newspaper revamps and getting lost in Westfield

Watching the drama engulfing Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, I am reminded of my late father. He had little patience with theatre - or TV drama - and would say: "If everybody told the truth from the start, there wouldn't be any play." Fox may not have lied about the role of his friend Adam Werritty but he has been slow to reveal the whole truth. He may have been technically correct to tell MPs, in a written answer last month, that Werritty "has . . . not travelled with me on any official overseas visits". But he must have suspected that sooner or later it would emerge that Werritty happened to turn up on 18 of the 48 occasions Fox has travelled abroad since he took office. Why not tell the full story from the start? Again, why say that officials were present at a meeting in Dubai when they weren't?

Perhaps Fox, a passionate believer in free markets and small states, believes the rules on ministerial conduct are footling, bureaucratic restrictions on his freedom to associate with wealth-creating capitalists. If he does, why not say so? Alternatively, if, as he and his allies maintain, he has done nothing wrong, why not disclose everything from the beginning?

The answer is that politicians regard truth, partial truth and outright falsehood as morally neutral categories. They are to be deployed according to the needs of the moment. This is embedded in their DNA, as party association and collective responsibility require them to make the best possible case for a particular policy or course of action even when they know it is flawed, or disagree with it. They must hold the line, stretching the facts as necessary. Doing the same when their own conduct comes under scrutiny is second nature.

Politics, like theatre, could not exist if everybody always told the truth. The play must go on and Fox is just behaving as a true pro.

Matchy matchy

Many of us are struggling to understand what exactly Fox is alleged to have done wrong. Sexual affairs or fiddling expenses are easy to explain, but matters involving business dealings, close male friends and foreigners present mass-circulation newspapers with a challenge. The Mail on Sunday had the answer: "17 years apart - but they dress like twins" was its headline over pictures of Fox and Werritty together. One showed Werritty, as best man, dressed identically to Fox at the latter's wedding. Both are smiling or, as "a behavioural and body language expert" put it, displaying "the same facial expression". In another picture, the two men wore brown jackets of different shades. A third showed them both in suits and ties. No, this doesn't tell you anything about Fox and Werritty. But it tells you a lot about journalism.

Load of pants

When I was New Statesman editor, we got in one of those smarty-pants designers who said we needed "zones" so that columns would be in one place and features in another, rather than jumbled together. Now the Independent, assisted by another smarty-pants, comes up with a rather downmarket redesign (features headlines in big black capitals, for example) in which the Viewspaper, a separate section devoted to comment, is dumped. Instead, columns and features are sprinkled through a single section that also includes news, sport, arts, etc. "None of your favourite components have been discarded - they are still there," writes the new editor, Chris Blackhurst, in a take-it-or-leave-it tone. However, the Independent, like all papers, maintains a separate ghetto for "world news". Newspapers didn't have such a thing 50 years ago. TV and radio still don't, and we'd think it most peculiar if they did.

Poor substitute

One of Labour's most outstanding achievements in office was to reduce child poverty during an economic boom. This sounds nonsensical, but isn't. Poverty is defined relatively; children living in families that receive below 60 per cent of median income count as poor. As the median nearly always rises during a boom, more children automatically become poor unless employers increase their parents' wages or ministers increase their benefits.
The Tories are about to pull off the opposite trick. In recessions, the median falls and so, unless poor families' wages and benefits are hit harder than average, child poverty automatically falls. In 2009-2010, that was exactly what happened, with 300,000 children coming out of poverty. But that was before the Tories got to work. Now, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports, we can expect the same number (though not necessarily the same children) to go back into poverty over the next two years, despite the likelihood that median incomes will remain, at best, stagnant. You couldn't have a clearer illustration of the difference between Tory and Labour governments.

Stratford ramblings

I once wondered why supermarkets didn't develop some device affixed to trolleys that allowed shoppers to locate a particular product instantly. Then I realised that they want people to wander around aimlessly, making impulse buys. The same principle operates at the giant new Westfield centre in Stratford, east London. "Store locators" exist but they aren't very user-friendly. They give street numbers, but these are not shown on the shops themselves. Disoriented shoppers are more likely to wander at random into stores, buying things they don't want or need. And that is the whole point.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B