April 12, 2007
There’s one man who must take the lie-detector test
Matthew Parris: My Week
Politicians have come up with a great idea. They now plan to subject us in Britain to US-style lie-detector tests. If we telephone to apply for a welfare benefit, our voices may be monitored by a machine for signs of the stress that lying induces. A red fib-alarm light will flash — and our file will be marked “possible liar”, and set aside for special investigation.
Oh, fantastic. Which think-tank or focus group recommended this way to the voters’ hearts? If the lie-detector experiment is judged a success, think of where the technique might be extended. Tax returns, VAT inspections, parking appeals, hosepipe violations, Customs checks at airports (“Sorry Madam — your voice shook. Please go through the Red Channel”) . . . the possibilities are endless.
You know where it should end. So why not start there? Why not subject Cabinet ministers to lie-detection tests? If they’re prepared to make voters undergo them, and they’re confident of their accuracy, how can they object if Panorama or Question Time ask them to do the same? The technique will be easy to apply because the circumstances where politicians habitually lie — in broadcast interviews and on the floor of the House — are well-suited to the discreet installation of these machines: inside the dispatch box, for instance, or next to the guest’s microphone on the BBC Today programme studio desk.
Ministers have assured us that the lie-detection devices will not make the final decision on claimants’ applications; they will simply refer suspicious claims for further scrutiny. This is generous of them. Let us be generous in return. When the lie-alert buzzer sounds on the radio, TV or beside the Speaker’s chair, let us allow that this will not automatically mean they’re lying. It will simply invite us to think twice about the speaker’s honesty, and make some independent checks.
There are those, of course, who say the technology is unproven. At Prime Minister's Questions it will face the ultimate challenge. The most consummate confidence trickster on the planet v the most accurate fib-sensor American research can devise. If at noon on Wednesday the buzzer does not sound when Tony Blair speaks, then the whole technology can be scrapped as useless.