Governed by the ill wind of deception

This weekend it was revealed that a report commissioned by a government department into the noise made by wind turbines and the effect on those who live near them had been quietly doctored……And what of the other reports into noise, effects on wildlife and so on? Were they streamlined, too?.

There are, it seems, two categories of lying in public life. There is the personal, self-serving lie, designed to advance a career, cover up a scandal, to make some extra cash from a sloppily structured expenses system.

Then there is the institutionalised lie – a wilful distortion or suppression of any evidence which is likely to make the aims of the institution more difficult to achieve. This second species of untruth tends to be a joint enterprise, involving politicians, civil servants, business interests and specialists.. By its nature it will tend to have, beyond any sensible comparison, a greater effect on the lives of citizens than any private lie could.

Here is the mystery. It is personal lying – MPs fibbing about their houses and expenses, to take an obvious example – which causes political upheaval, a tsunami of scolding from the massed ranks of media moralists and infuriated contempt among members of the public. Stories of institutionalised deception, on the other hand, tend to be greeted with a resigned shrug and quickly forgotten.

This weekend it was revealed that a report commissioned by a government department into the noise made by wind turbines and the effect on those who live near them had been quietly doctored. In 2006, the acoustics firm Hayes Mackenzie was commissioned to measure noise on three wind farms.

Its findings were most inconvenient. The noise made by the turbines was significantly higher than those foreseen in the Government’s 1996 guidelines. The 43 decibel level permitted by law was too high and had the potential of keeping people awake at night. The “absolute noise criterion” for night time should be revised downwards to 38 decibels and, where there was evidence of aerodynamic modulation, the limit should be 33 decibels.

It was not what the Government wanted to hear. The proposed reduction in permitted noise was awkwardly large, decibels being measured on a logarithmic scale. Whitehall’s solution was simple: it suppressed that part of the report. Noise evidence used in planning applications across the country and affecting the lives of thousands of people is based on a dodgy dossier.

Naturally, there was a cover-up. A request by the Den Brook Judicial Review Group to see early drafts of the report under the Freedom of Information Act was rejected by officials on the grounds the information was not in the public interest. Only when the Department of Energy and Climate Change was forced by the information commissioner’s office to release the documents was the truth revealed.

If this kind of organised fraudulence is part of the system, how can we be expected to believe any research-based report that has been through the busy, grubby hands of civil servants and politicians? Two years previously, Hayes Mackenzie had produced another report which denied that aerodynamic modulation was sufficient to wake those living near turbines. Was that an untampered view?

And what of the other reports into noise, effects on wildlife and so on? Were they streamlined, too?

The Government might well believe that a few thousand lives rendered uncomfortable or even miserable is a small price for us (that is, for them) to pay for the energy produced. It would be small gesture towards honesty if it had the courage to say so rather than massaging the facts.

Terence Blacker       The Independent
16 December 2009