A non-denial denial is a statement that, at first hearing, seems to be a direct, clearcut and unambiguous denial of some alleged accusation, but after being parsed carefully turns out to not be a denial at all, and is thus not explicitly untruthful if the allegation is in fact correct. It is a case in which words that are literally true are used to convey a false impression; analysis of whether or when such behavior constitutes lying is a long-standing issue in ethics. British newspaper The Sunday Times has defined it as "an on-the-record statement, usually made by a politician, repudiating a journalist's story, but in such a way as to leave open the possibility that it is actually true".
Origin and history of the phrase
The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee "is credited with coining the phrase non-denial denial to characterize the evasive Oval Office answers to questions", according to a 1991 retrospective on Bradlee's career in The Times.
The phrase was popularized during the Watergate scandal by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their 1974 book All the President's Men, in reference to evasive statements and equivocal denials by then-Attorney General John N. Mitchell.
William Goldman's screenplay for the 1976 film adaptation put the phrase into the mouth of Ben Bradlee and used it to dramatic purpose. The Bradlee character looks at some White House releases and comments "All non-denial denials. We're dirty, guys, and they doubt we were ever virgins, but they don't say the story is inaccurate." Later, Bradlee worries about the accuracy of a story and asks the reporters "That didn't sound to me like a non-denial denial. Could you have been wrong?" But when other editors suggest that the paper needs to back down, Bradlee writes a note that says "We stand by our story," which he calls "My non-denial denial"; then he adds, "Fuck it, we'll stand by the boys."
A 1976 newspaper article called an Olympic official's statement on blood doping "a non-denial denial, a Watergate denial", while a 2003 assessment of Ron Ziegler's career dubbed him "the non-denial denier" and placed his tenure as White House Press Secretary in "the Alice-in-Wonderland era that spawned the form of official evasion that came to be known as the non-denial denial".
BBC Magazine cites a 1998 statement "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky", by U.S. President Bill Clinton, made during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as a "non-denial denial". Clinton did not deny that he was fellated; and under a certain legalistic definition, "sexual relations" does not include fellatio.
Another example, characterized by the BBC as a "non-denial denial", was provided by Tony Blair, who was interviewed in 1997, just before the general election, by the British newspaper Evening Standard. The question was: "Will Labour introduce tuition fees for higher education?" Blair's answer was: "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education." No plans does not mean no tuition fees. The Labour Party used the same ambiguous wording in its manifesto for the election in 2001, writing: "We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them." The increase of university fees up to £3000 was voted for before the next election in 2005, but implemented in 2006. Therefore, the British government explained that the manifesto in 2001 was only valid for the period up to the election in 2005.
Boris Johnson became the UK's prime minister in 2019. In November 2004, tabloids revealed that for four years he had been having an affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt, which resulted in two abortions, one paid for by Johnson. Johnson, who was then married with four children, labelled the stories as an "inverted pyramid of piffle"; however, the allegations were subsequently found to be true, and he was sacked from his roles as Conservative party vice-chairman and shadow arts minister. The use of the phrase "inverted pyramid of piffle" can be considered an example of a non-denial denial in that it does not categorically deny that an affair took place, though it does use language that seeks to undermine and reduce confidence in the truth of the story.
Investigative journalists Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada used the phrase in their 2006 book Game of Shadows to characterize an ambiguous response by retired major league baseball star Mark McGwire during a congressional hearing on steroids in baseball:
McGwire turned evasive. He had nothing to say about anything. Pressed about whether he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he responded over and over again, "I'm not here to talk about the past." The refrain became so pathetic and predictable that McGwire was mocked by some of the politicians, while the audience chuckled each time he uttered his non-denial denial.
Bruce Edward Ivins
Statements made in 2008 by the US biodefence researcher Bruce Edward Ivins have been characterised by the FBI as "non-denial denials". Ivins was the chief suspect in the investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks on US media outlets and senators. In 2008, he was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he allegedly made the following statements.
- "I can tell you I don't have it in my heart to kill anybody"
- "I do not have any recollection of ever have doing anything like that. As a matter of fact, I don't have no clue how to, how to make a bio-weapon and I don't want to know."
- "I can tell you, I am not a killer at heart"
- "If I found out I was involved in some way, and, and ..."
- "I don't think of myself as a vicious, a, a nasty evil person."
- "I don't like to hurt people, accidentally, in, in any way. And [several named scientists] wouldn't do that. And I, in my right mind wouldn't do it [laughs] ... But it's still, but I still feel responsibility because it [the anthrax] wasn't locked up at the time ..."
The FBI construed these remarks as suggesting that Ivins, who suffered from long-term mental health problems, had been the perpetrator of the attacks. However, he died of an apparent suicide before charges were brought against him.
- Anthony Weiner sexting scandals
- Evasion (ethics)
- Non-apology apology
- Past exonerative
- Shermanesque statement
- Sound bite
- Spin (public relations)
- Harris, Robert (1996), "Denials can't hide undeniable truth." The Sunday Times of London, September 15, 1996.
- "Editor Bradlee bows out to a living obituary; Benjamin Bradlee". The Times, June 22, 1991
- Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (1974). All the President's Men. Simon and Schuster. SBN 671-21781-X, chapter 5, p. 92.
- Anderson, Dave (1976), "The Blood Scandal", The New York Times, August 1, 1976, p. 139
- Purdum, Todd S. (2003), "The Nondenial Denier", The New York Times, February 16, 2003, p. WK5
- "When is a denial not a denial?". BBC News. April 19, 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-17.
- "Boris Johnson sacked by Tories over private life". Guardian Newspaper. November 14, 2004. Retrieved 2020-05-18.
- Mark Fainaru-Wada, Lance Williams (2006). Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports. Gotham. ISBN 978-1-59240-199-4., p. 254
- FBI Summary Report pp. 70–71.
- FBI .pdf file #847551 pp. 47
- Shane, Scott; Lichtblau, Eric (August 2, 2008). "Man Suspected in Anthrax Attacks Said to Commit Suicide". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-01.
|Look up non-denial denial in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Definition of lie, American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, 2000