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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 April 2007, 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK
When is a denial not a denial?
David Miliband and Tony Blair
David Miliband said no to succeeding his leader. Sort of

The Magazine answers...

David Miliband's statement about the Labour leadership race has been interpreted by some as a firm denial and by others as falling a little short. So just what constitutes a denial?

In politics, it has often been noted, there is a marked aversion to the words "yes" and "no".

Politicians didn't get where they are today by blurting out answers to questions that later cause them to be backed rat-like into a corner.

But they often have the need for strategic reasons to make it seem like they are not going to do something, or that a particular allegation is untrue, without actually going as far as saying so.

A denial is not a denial when it's a non-denial denial - a form of words that suggests a strong denial while imbued with ambiguity

Here they often make use of a technique that allows them to rubbish something while using a form of words that, on closer examination, is sufficiently ambiguous to support a number of interpretations.

David Miliband told the BBC "I'm not wavering... I am not a candidate."

But what he did not say was: "I point blank will not be standing for the Labour leadership, whatever the circumstances."

Instead he used what, in the US, is called a non-denial denial - a term commonly attributed to the Watergate-era Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.

Bill Clinton: "I did not have sexual relations"
David Beckham: "I have become accustomed to reading... ludicrous stories"
Tony Blair: "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees"

A classic example was Tony Blair's statement that "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education" as a response to a question on whether Labour planned fees.

The answer was accurate. The plans were not drawn up until after the election.

Perhaps the most famous non-denial denial was that issued by Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. The saxophone-playing leader of the free world said: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

And under a detailed legal definition of sexual relations, if not in the spirit of the allegations against him, he had not.

Ludicrous or untrue?

Later, clarifying another of his statements, Clinton said: "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If 'is' means 'is and never has been' that's one thing - if it means 'there is none', that was a completely true statement."

Another example came from the spokesman of erstwhile England footballer David Beckham.

After newspapers alleged he had had an affair with assistant Rebecca Loos, Beckham released a statement saying: "During the past few months I have become accustomed to reading more and more ludicrous stories about my private life."

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton used a classic non-denial denial

At least three broadsheets ran headlines suggesting Beckham had denied the affair in the statement.

After politics, sport is the natural habitat of the non-denial denial.

Managers are always playing down links to particular players by using clouds of ambiguity like "we have had no contact with him" or "these newspapers are full of rubbish".

But in the world of politics there are always some who are prepared to make a categoric denial.

"I will never stand again for the leadership of the Conservative Party," Michael Howard told the BBC News website in November 2002. One year later he became leader of the Conservative Party, although he was of course chosen unopposed.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock said of Miliband this week, he was "absolutely, definitely, beyond peradventure, 22-carat certain that David never was going to run and certainly isn't going to run".

In the US this would be known as a Sherman pledge - a cast-iron denial.

A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

William Tecumseh Sherman famously said of the possibility of being the Republican nominee for president: "If nominated, I will not accept... If elected, I will not serve."

A similar form of words has since been used by Lyndon Johnson, and more recently by Dick Cheney, but perhaps most pithily by former presidential candidate Mo Udall who said: "If nominated, I shall run to Mexico. If elected, I shall fight extradition."

But politicians mostly like to leave themselves some "wriggle room".

Al Gore recently said: "I'm not planning to be a candidate again, ever. I have no intention of being a candidate."

But he added: "I haven't made a Shermanesque statement because it just seems odd to do so."

Political pundit Prof Tony King says: "They don't deny things because they almost always want to leave open the opportunity to change their minds... That strikes me as very sensible. I don't believe it has ever seriously backfired."

And as long as it remains a sin to change your mind, the non-denial denial will live on.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The sad thing is, people are using these 'non-denials' in everyday life now. We are so used to seeing them in the papers and coming from the mouths of various politicians and others that we know to look through them to the vague shred of truth that may or may not be there. One day there will be a genuinely honest politician and the nation will go into shock.
Heather, Wolverhampton

"If asked, do not answer. If quoted, do not admit." Alternatively, always answer the question you wish you had been asked. Everyone has some special gift, and this is the one talent we can rely on our politicians to exercise. A lie by any other name...
G. Connolly, West Chester, PA, USA


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