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February 17, 2004

How to discredit a report (without having to read it)

Over the weekend I watched tapes of the brilliant BBC series ‘Yes, Minister’. Here’s a transcript of a piece (on ‘Yes Minister: The Complete Collection’ Disc 2, episode ‘The Greasy Pole’) where Sir Humphrey, the Permanent Secretary, explains to the Minister how to undermine and discredit an independent report whose conclusions don’t match up to the Ministry’s policies/practices. Hilarious and containing of invaluable advice:

Sir Humphrey: There is a well-established government procedure for suppressing… er, deciding not to publish reports.

Minister Hacker: Is there, really?

Sir Humphrey: Of course. You simply discredit them.

Minister Hacker: Good heavens! [Pause] How?

Sir Humphrey: Well, Stage One: you give your reasons in terms of the public interest. You hint at security considerations. You point out that the research could be used to put unwelcome pressure on the government because it could be misinterpreted.

Minister Hacker: Anything could be misinterpreted. The Sermon on the Mount could be misinterpreted!

Sir Humphrey: Indeed, it could well be argued that the Sermon on the Mount, had it been a government report, should certainly not have been published. A most irresponsible document. All that stuff about the meek inheriting the earth. Could do irreparable damage to the defense budget.

Minister Hacker: [Weak laughter] What else?

Sir Humphrey: You say it would be better to wait for a wider and more detailed study over a longer timescale.

Minister Hacker: Suppose there isn’t one?

Sir Humphrey: Better still, you commission one. Gives you even more time to play with. [Beams widely]

Minister Hacker: And all this is what you call Stage One?

Sir Humphrey: Yes. Now in Stage Two you go on to discredit the evidence that you’re not publishing.

Minister Hacker: Well, how, if you’re not publishing it?

Sir Humphrey: Oh really, Minister, it’s much easier if it’s not published, obviously. You do it by press leaks, of course, not directly. You say it leaves some important questions unanswered, that much of the evidence is inconclusive, that the figures are open to other interpretations, that certain findings are contradictory, and that some of the main conclusions have been questioned.

Minister Hacker: Suppose they haven’t?

Sir Humphrey: Then question them! Then they have.

Minister Hacker: But to make accusations of this sort – you’d have to go through it with a fine toothcomb.

Sir Humphrey: No, no, no. You can say all these things without reading it. There’s always some questions unanswered.

Minister Hacker: Such as?

Sir Humphrey: Well, the ones that weren’t asked. [Beams]

Minister Hacker: And that’s Stage Two?

Sir Humphrey: Yes. Now in Stage Three you undermine recommendations. “Not really a basis for long term decisions, not sufficient information to base a valid assessment, not really a need for a fundamental rethink of existing policy, broadly speaking it endorses current practice” – all that sort of thing.

Minister Hacker: And that always does the trick?

Sir Humphrey: Nearly always.

Minister Hacker: Suppose it doesn’t?

Sir Humphrey: Then you move on to Stage Four… Now, in Stage Four, you discredit the man who produced the report. Off the record, of course. You say that he is harboring a grudge against the government or that he’s a publicity-seeker or, better still, that he used to be a consultant to a multi-national company.

Minister Hacker: Supposing he wasn’t?

Sir Humphrey: Then he’s hoping to be. Everyone is hoping to be a consultant to a multi-national. Or he’s trying for a knighthood, or a Chair, or a Vice-Chancellorship. Really, Minister, there are endless possibilities.


Yes, indeed. I’m looking forward to translating this core set of ideas into praxis.

Posted by Narasimha Chari at 09:49 PM | Permalink

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