Wednesday, February 06, 2013

What's the point of telling the truth?

Long ago, when Chris Huhne was just a young reporter on the Liverpool Echo, I was doorstepping a magistrates clerk 500 miles away for a comment about why someone who had paid a £100 fine and forgot to add 20p was being threatened with jail.

The clerk, a surly retired barrister, had written to the lady to tell her this, which is why it was a story.

Except that the clerk insisted he had not, an insistence delivered with a sneer and a curt: “if there’s nothing else, good day to you.”

When I showed him a letter, he told me “the system” must have dispatched it in error. It was signed by his assistant as a pp. He thanked me for my time and, again, insisted that was the end of it.

When I showed him a more forceful follow-up letter, this time signed by him, he asked me why such a small matter was of interest.

I told him he'd answered his own question and asked why he had sent such a second letter if the first was merely an admin error.

He insisted he hadn't. It wasn't his signature. I showed him a copy of the covering letter he signs every time the court listings go out to newspapers like mine. The signatures matched. He said he must have signed it "without looking properly – I deal with a lot of correspondence”.

So, how could he explain the third, distinctly more aggressive, letter?

He didn’t look at this one, and merely told me told me I was a pipsqueak and that he knew my chairman.

It made a better quote than "we apologise" or "we have launched an investigation".

But the 10-minute exchange in the doorway of his office told me more about the importance of pertinent questioning, empirical evidence and the easy way someone of advancing years and in a position of authority can so easily disregard the truth as an unnecessary annoyance when faced with something so irrelevant as a legitimate question.

Like Mr Huhne, who ironically was my age and also cutting his teeth on local newspapers at the time, he clearly missed the point(s).