“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” The ninth commandment underpins all our relationships and is a tool for living well in community and society. Just as the Quaker Testimony to Truth is a sine qua non for the other Testimonies of peace, equality and simplicity, the injunction against false witness as abuse of community cannot be separated from the abuses of spirituality, person, family and property prohibited by the rest of the Decalogue.
False witness takes many forms. It may manifest in the lies which some utilise in order to gain pecuniary or personal advantage. It is often found in gossip as a type of entertainment which nonetheless takes away another's character or reputation. It may take the form of being careless with fact in order to appear to be 'in the know'. But perhaps it is seen in its most damaging form when it is exercised by the powerful and influential with an intent to divide. Misrepresentation, lack of balance or context and a readiness to play on fears for the purpose of inculcating prejudice are ugly instruments which should not be found in the toolbox of a democratic government.
We have become all too familiar with the selective and distorted use of statistics which the Department for Work and Pensions uses to build popular feeling against people who receive welfare benefits. The responsible Minister, Iain Duncan Smith, has been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for inaccurate claims about the number of people supposedly returning to work as a direct result of the benefit cap, for figures on immigration which Sir Michael Scholar, head of UKSA, described as “ highly vulnerable to misinterpretation” and for issuing misleading statements about the number of families where “ no one has ever worked”.
Now the Press Office of the DWP has put it beyond doubt that it is infected with the same lack of discernment and care for the integrity of government communications. Last week, its Twitter account published an 'infographic' entitled 'Most obscure benefit fraud excuses' which, along with further instances, it apparently released to the Daily Mail. The five which appeared on Twitter are worth quoting in full:
“ Man wrongly clicked 'No I'm not working' box on form as he had an 'out-of-body' experience.”
”Woman claimed income support after wedding to 'pay for the wedding buffet'”.
“Defendant said his poodle ate mail so he hadn't realised he was cashing in housing benefit”.
“Security guard at night club claiming JSA said he 'thought he was allowed to work at night'”.
”A doctor who stole £100,000 in benefits claimed his Spanish Villa was needed as a 'base for fellow MI5 agents'”.
If these are true, then they illustrate Blake's dictum that “a truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent”. It is difficult to see how revealing these examples of delusion, dishonesty and possibly of mickey-taking could comply with the code of conduct issued by the Cabinet Office. The section on Politicians and the Press Office requires staff to “establish their impartiality and neutrality with the news media, and ensure that they deal with all news media even-handedly." We can therefore presumably look forward to @dwppressoffice supplying the Guardian with information taking a rise out of the Department's apparent malice and evident stupidity in the application of cruel and ludicrous benefit sanctions. They might even, in the interests of impartiality, consider publicising the fact that benefit fraud stands at less than one per cent. Press Officers are also instructed to “Speak on the record as a departmental spokesperson wherever possible, and avoid unattributed quotes” and to “remain objective and impartial, especially when dealing with politically controversial issues.”
Differences of opinion and their free expression are at the centre of democracy. But untruths and misrepresentation destroy trust in the very possibility of democratic governance. False witness is a form of violence against us all.
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