Non-denial denial is a term for a particular kind of equivocation; specifically, an apparent denial that, though it appeared clearcut and unambiguous when heard, on examination turns out to be ambiguous and not a denial at all. The phrase is particularly associated with politics and means in effect "something made to sound like a denial without actually being one."
Since the word "lie" means "something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression," a non-denial denial is a lie, even if the words are literally true. It is, of course, almost impossible to prove that such a statement is a lie unless the issuer of the statement later acknowledges an intent to deceive.
The phrase was popularized during the Watergate era by Woodward and Bernstein in their book All the President's Men, in reference to evasive statements by then-Attorney-General John Mitchell.
Real world examples
One of the most famous non-denial denials was given by then senior British Conservative politician, Michael Heseltine, who, when asked if he would ever challenge Margaret Thatcher for the party leadership, said he could "not conceive" of a situation where he would do so. When he later did challenge Thatcher, his explanation for his apparent change of mind was that a situation had arisen that he previously had not conceived of occurring.
A second famous example occurred during the scandal over Monica Lewinsky that engulfed then President of the United States Bill Clinton, when Clinton issued an apparently unambiguous denial that he had had sex with her, stating "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." It later transpired that the truth or otherwise of the statement hinged on Clinton's definition of "sexual relations," he claiming to having defined sex to himself as an act that involved genital contact. By Clinton's definition, the act that did occur between them, fellatio or oral sex, did not qualify as "hav[ing] sex." Viewers, however, unaware of Clinton's extremely narrow definition of having sex, took his denial to mean that no sex act, whether genital contact or oral-genital contact, took place.
Another famous case occurred in the Republic of Ireland when in June 1989 former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey said that coalition governments went against "every fibre of my being," a phrase listeners presumed indicated he would never lead his party into a coalition with another party. When weeks later he led his party, Fianna FÃ¡il, into its first ever coalition government, a spokesman denied that Haughey had lied, stating that "Charlie never said he would never lead his party into a coalition, just that he was uncomfortable with the idea in theory. Listen to what he actually said, not what you think he was implying."
A similar usage of language to non-denial denial occurs in religion, where something is said which seems to mean one thing but actually means another. In Roman Catholicism, for example, non-infallible statements are sometimes constructed to give the impression of infallibility. This phenomenon is sometimes called Non-infallible infallibility. In the early 21st century, for example, a statement by Pope John Paul II on how the Church could not allow women priests, was conveyed to some media outlets as the "definitive" papal statement on the issue and infallible. Eventually, when challenged, it was admitted that the statement was not infallible at all, its "infallibility" being a construct of language to give the Pope's statement a higher status than its actual wording warranted. The Anglican Communion has been accused by its critics of using such linguistic dexterity and "studied ambiguity" on the issue of homosexual clergy.
As a PR tool
Non-denial denials and their variants are seen as examples of public relations and political spin, namely the conveying of an ambiguous message in an apparently unambiguous manner that contains enough "get out clauses" to enable the person using the language to apparently break their word if necessary with the explanation that the listener had misunderstood the words and read into them a certainty that, when closely examined, proved not to be there in reality. As a result, the person being communicated to, not the person doing the communicating, is blamed for any divergence between what the words appeared to mean and subsequent acts.
This article is adapted from a Wikipedia article of the same name