The Big Idea: Should We Have a “Truth Law”? | Books

fFor months the British government has been circulating the idea of ​​unilaterally breaking the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of the withdrawal agreement with the European Union. That would undermine the Good Friday Agreement, reinvigorate the prospect of sectarian violence and tarnish Britain’s international standing. Such action requires weighty justification and Ministers have one, with the Attorney General arguing that “Northern Ireland’s economy lags behind the rest of the UK“.

Except it isn’t. Statistics show that Northern Ireland outperforms every part of the UK except London.

Time and again in recent years, politicians have based the arguments for historical change on lies. These ranged from the infamous ‘Brexit bus’ promising the NHS £350million a week, to the government calling the recent rail strikes ‘selfish’ because, as Boris Johnson told an interviewer: ‘Engine drivers are paid £59,000 and some £70,000.” (The average wage for a striker is under £36,000.) Politicians constantly deceive on matters of national importance. I know this firsthand — I was part of the legal team that proved Johnson’s 2019 adjournment of Parliament was unlawful.

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Truth is the most important moral value of democracy. We develop our direction as a society in public discourse. Power and wealth are an advantage: the more people you can reach (by enjoying easy access to the media, or even controlling parts of it), the more likely you are to convince others of your point of view. The rich and powerful may be able to reach more people, but if their arguments need to be based on reality, at least we can hold them accountable. The truth is a great leveler.

The problem is that our public discourse is increasingly decoupled from reality. Pollster Ipsos Mori regularly polls what the British public thinks about the facts behind commonly discussed issues. In a memorable study she found that, as one headline put it, ‘the British public is wrong about almost everything’. Concerns included benefit fraud: Respondents estimated that around £24 out of every £100 of benefits was claimed fraudulently, while the actual figure was 70p. When asked about immigration, people estimated that 31% of the population was born outside the UK, when the actual figure was 13%.

MPs have played a prominent role in getting us to this point. They make and vote laws, help set the political agenda, and influence national conversations. Of course, politicians have always had a tendentious relationship to the truth. From the Zinoviev letter to the Profumo affair, history is littered with scandals resulting from the exposure of lies. Profumo resigned for once misleading Parliament. Today’s ministers regularly do this with impunity.

Commentators often portray Johnson as uniquely mendacious, but he is merely the youngest prime minister to embrace lying for political gain. David Cameron won two elections by misleading the country about the causes of the financial crash and the economic impact of austerity measures. Theresa May built her early government career on dubious anti-immigration rhetoric, particularly the lie that an immigrant was allowed to stay in the country because he had a pet cat.

Democracy cannot function properly in this environment and an existential problem calls for a radical solution. Therefore, MPs (and colleagues in the House of Lords) should be formally required to tell the truth: in the debate room, on TV, in print and on social media. The publication of a statement that intentionally or negligently misrepresents information should be treated as abuse of office (a criminal offence). In other words: we need a law of truth.

Ensuring the offense covers both “intentional” and “negligent” misrepresentation will preclude flimsy defenses such as Johnson’s claim that he thought the Downing Street parties were “work gatherings”. With researchers and officials at their disposal, parliamentarians have no excuse for misrepresenting the facts. Nonetheless, I suggest that if they correct the record and apologize in Parliament within seven days, they should not be prosecuted.

As radical as it may seem, we already have all the tools to implement this within the framework of current law. “Publish” has a clear legal meaning (essentially “make public”). Tests for intent or negligence are often used in civil and criminal law. Determining whether someone has “misrepresented information” (that is, has not told the truth) is often the core task of the courts. The penalty for misconduct can range up to life imprisonment. While some may find this quite satisfying, I suggest limiting it to a fine in this class of cases. The courts should also have the power to refer an offender to the Standards Committee for further parliamentary sanctions.

I suppose there will be two main objections to this idea. First, it can have a chilling effect on parliamentarians’ freedom of expression. But parliamentarians are not ordinary citizens. They hold a special position of trust and power, which they accept voluntarily and for which they are richly rewarded. It is true that they should be subject to stricter rules. Many professions restrict the freedom of opinion of their members in the public interest. As a lawyer, I am subject to the “rules of truth” which, if violated, could end my career (and possibly lead to prosecution for contempt of court). Politicians’ words carry more weight than lawyers’, so it’s fair to subject them to stricter standards.

Second, any truth law would violate “parliamentary privilege.” This guarantees that MPs will not be prosecuted for anything they say in Parliament. This rule was designed to discourage monarchs from pursuing their political opponents. It was never intended as a license to lie. We now have an independent law enforcement agency and independent courts: it is time we addressed the challenges to democracy today, not those that were last relevant centuries ago.

My proposal will not eradicate lying from public life. But it’s an important first step. Imagine for a moment if we could really trust our elected officials. That shouldn’t be a utopia – and rightly we have the means to make it a reality.

Overruled: Confronting Our Vanishing Democracy in 8 Cases by Sam Fowles is published by Oneworld.

Continue reading

The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Making of a New Moral Barbarism by Peter Oborne (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain by Fintan O’Toole (Apollo, £9.99)

Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate Our Minds by Susie Alegre (Atlantic, £20)

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