September 22, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
In “All the Presidents Men”, a wonderful movie about the Watergate scandal, the Editor of the Washington Post, played by Jason Robards, explains to his journalists the difference between a ‘denial’, and a ‘non-denial denial’. The former is issued by the subject of a story when it isn’t true, and the latter is issued by the subject of a story when there is some truth, but they know the newspaper doesn’t (yet) have the evidence.
I was reminded of this by Damian McBride’s wonderful article about the current allegations involving David Cameron, the Piers Gaveston Society, and a dead pig, explaining what happens when the person you work for is accused of having done something. He describes the phone calls he would have with a Gordon Brown, who McBride worked for, when he had to tell him about a story about him. He would tell Brown what it was, and then ask the question “so what’s the truth?”, because any spin doctor needs to know exactly what he or she is working with and how much damage could come of it.
Sometimes, Brown would absolutely go off on one, in which case McBride would sigh with relief. In those situations, you can, particularly if the revelations are in a book, issue a denial saying something like “This disgusting story is a complete and utter fabrication, and casts huge doubt on the credibility of all the other allegations in this book.” That denial would be devastating for the author (Lord Ashcroft) and the newspaper (Daily Mail) who had serialised the book, deterring other newspapers from repeating not just the pig story but other revelations from the book.
Sometimes, though, there would be a pause, and a “well..” And McBride would know he would have his work cut out. In that case his approach would be to say that he would not dignify the story with a comment. You may recognise this line, because it is the one that Downing Street has been using. Yes, Downing Street used a classic ‘non-denial denial’.
It MAY be because commenting on the pig story would mean they had to comment on what could actually prove a far more damaging revelation regarding Cameron knowing about Ashcroft’s non-Dom status.
Or, McBride wonders, it is because the conversation that the Downing Street spin doctor had to have with David Cameron was not as straightforward as he or she would have liked and an out-and-out denial would create a bigger problem if the alleged photographic evidence of the pig incident emerges.
So instead they had to make do with issuing a non-denial denial, let everyone had their fun (about whether Ashcroft is telling porkies for example), and get on with governing.