Why ‘corrupt country’ denial backfired

What do two statements made almost 50 years apart have in common?

The answer is they both serve as painful reminders of the danger of negative language.

Amid the coverage of COP26 last week, you will probably have heard Boris Johnson deny the UK was a “corrupt country”.

It came during a COP26 press conference, where instead of discussing saving the planet, the Prime Minister struggled to move the focus away from the allegations of sleaze engulfing his government.

He told reporters: “I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country, nor do I believe that our institutions are corrupt.

“It is very important to say that.”

After days of fresh scrutiny about the behaviour of some of our politicians, triggered by the fallout from the Owen Paterson debacle, there is certainly a case the situation needed addressing.

But there is a much stronger argument it was more important not to use those words.

Firstly, to have to make such a denial on a global stage is humiliating and reputationally damaging.

But from a media training and message development and testing perspective, it is the language we tell our delegates to avoid in interviews.

Why?

Well, it makes journalists’ lives easy. It gives them a brilliant quote of the Prime Minister speculating whether the country he leads is ‘corrupt’.

It is gold dust, and the stories pretty much write themselves.

It is the type of language journalists love, and it is little surprise to see the ‘corrupt’ quote used in countless headlines and as the basis for many opinion pieces.

UK is not a corrupt country says Boris Johnson BBC News

Boris Johnson insists Britain ‘not remotely corrupt country’ amid ongoing sleaze row Independent

Boris Johnson: UK is ‘not remotely a corrupt country,’ says PM amid sleaze row Sky News

PM COPS OFF: Sleaze-scarred Boris Johnson abruptly ends press briefing after denying Britain’s a ‘corrupt country’ The Sun

Boris Johnson says the UK is not ‘remotely a corrupt country’. Is it? Guardian

 

And the result is that rather than quashing the criticism, it reinforces it and spreads it to a much wider audience.

Many people watching and reading the news may not have followed the sleaze allegations particularly closely. But now they are seeing their Prime Minister denying the country is corrupt.

The notion grows.

A report in The Times contained the thoughts of a focus group of people from the northwest of England who had voted Conservative in the last election, but who may vote for another party in the future.

One of them, Julia, 63, a private hospital administrator, said: “Why would he say that unless he thinks the rest of the world thinks we’re corrupt?”

And that is the issue in a nutshell. Instead of thinking the UK is not corrupt, people are instead wondering about the scale of the corruption.

 

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On our media training courses, occasionally, a delegate will introduce a negative. But most of the time, the negative language comes from them repeating what one of our current working journalist tutors has said.

They feel compelled to repeat the accusation to rebut it.

You will often hear them say something like: “This is very disappointing, isn’t it? Aren’t you disappointed?”

And the natural temptation is to say something like: “I wouldn’t say it’s disappointing…”

The problem with this is you just have. The journalist’s negative language can now be attributed to you.

Interestingly, Boris Johnson was answering a question at his Cop26 press conference that had not been asked.

He wasn’t asked whether the UK was a corrupt country. He was responding to a question about whether he had a message for voters concerned about the sleaze scandal.

And that’s what reminded me of something said half a century ago.

During the Watergate scandal in 1973, President Richard Nixon, said: “I am not a crook”.

He said: “The people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”

That infamous soundbite became etched into history. And President Nixon resigned nine months later.

Time will tell if our Prime Minister’s clumsy denial is just as damaging. But losing the lead in two opinion polls – together with another one showing 80 per cent think corruption is either "fairly or very present in British politics" – should start a few alarm bells ringing.

For others likely to face the media, remember not to reinforce the negative.

It will be remembered much longer than anything positive you have to say.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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