The Cock-up and the Cover-up

Have you noticed how a Cover-Up is always worse than a Cock-Up?

Paul’s post from late last week, along with the comments below it, note that Sir Ian Blair has come in for most criticism because of the misinformation surrounding the De Menezes shooting, rather than the shooting itself.

This prompts some more thoughts about the nature of political debate: Have you noticed how a Cover-Up is always worse than a Cock-Up?

In US politics, Lewis “Scooter” Libby was convicted of perjury, after he gave incorrect evidence to those investigating the Plame affair. No-one was actually charged over the original leak. Likewise, the impeachment proceedings initiated against President Clinton were in regard to perjury, rather than the actual sex-acts apparently committed in the Oval Office.

Back on this side of the puddle, I think much of the distrust and cynicism propagated by the Tony Blair government was as the result of cover-ups, not cock-ups. The prolonged display of semanticrobatics we witnessed in 2003-04 (from the likes of Blair, Straw and Hoon) provoked an incredulity in the press, and irritated the public. I can’t shake the feeling that, had Tony said “George has pencilled in a war for March, and I’ve offered to help,” or indeed simply offered a prompt admission of dossier failings, he may have been able to actually draw that line under the Iraq decisions, and serve a full third term of office.

I think the tendency to ‘cover-up’ is borne, in part, from the doctrine of Ministerial Accountability, whereby the elected politician may have to take the blame for failings in their own department (Phillip Hensher is lucid on this point, when he says that the questions, “Whose fault was it?” and, “Whose responsibility is it?” have recently become horribly confused). Since Ministers are keen to avoid an unfair pruning of their political career, they avoid admission of the cock-up, in favour of a cover-up. One can well understand their logic, but it is short-sighted logic nonetheless.

I recall that William Whitelaw offered to resign over the Fagan incident (where an Irish man breached Special Branch security, and broke into the Queen’s bedroom). What is interesting, is that this offer actually improved his credibility. He was seen to have done the decent thing, and was therefore protected by Margaret Thatcher. Whitelaw’s cabinet colleague Lord Carrington also won sympathy when he actually resigned after Argentina invaded the Falklands. The explanation here, is that the public understands that cock-ups sometimes happen. We are therefore quite forgiving. Should one occur on a Minister’s (or Chief Constable’s) watch, that does not necessarily call into question their ideology… and perhaps not even their competence. Moreover, an offered or actual resignation requires courage.

By contrast, a cover-up is an act of cowardice, because it is born of a reluctance to shoulder responsibility. A cover-up requires duplicity in spades, and it is usually inspired by an insulting underestimation of the public’s intelligence (this last point, we do not forgive). By publicly displaying all these qualities for the public to digest and the press to dissect, the coverer in question ultimately causes an erosion of their own political capital.

More cock-ups, please!

Update

I notice today that the Home Office have made another cock-up worse by covering it up. Will they never learn?

Over in America, media and blog scrutiny has made politicians so paranoid that they cover-up almost as a reflex, even when no cock-up has been made.

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