Who is the Ministry of Truth? I used to think the answer to that was simple: it is Unity (whoever the fuck that is). It turns out however that there are two Ministry of Truths. The other Ministry of Truth has been running this advert on Messagespace for the past few days. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with Unity (I’m guessing here, but somehow I suspect that if this was one of Unity’s projects, he’d mention it on his own blog). It’s a good job I didn’t start this rant last night though because at that point I hadn’t realised that there were two MoTs and was set on saying very rude things about him.
What’s my beef? MoT2’s big idea, which we are apparently to learn more about this Thursday on BBC2, is to introduce a law that would make it a criminal offence for MPs to lie. His Misrepresentation of the People Act, would make the following illegal for an elected representative to do:
1. Publish a statement, promise or forecast which he knows to be misleading, false or deceptive in a material particular, or
2. Dishonestly conceal any material facts whether in connection with a statement, promise or forecast published by him, or
3. Recklessly publish (dishonestly or otherwise) a statement, promise or forecast which is misleading, false or deceptive in a material manner.
What’s wrong with demanding that MPs don’t lie you might ask? Well, nothing per say. But there are several strong reasons for having Parliamentary privilege. It allows John Hemming to wage his crusade against CAFCASS for example. It protects elected officials against the worst abuses of people such as Alisher Usmanov or Robert Maxwell, rich men who use their chequebooks to preserve their reputations. It stops Parliament from collapsing into a heap of claim and counterclaims, with MPs suing each other for every utterance.
Sound unlikely? Well, consider what has happened in local government over the past decade with the introduction of the Standards Board. Take Colleen Gill for example, hauled up for doing little more than stand up for the interests of one of her constituents. Or Steve Hitchens, subject to a three and a half year investigation in which he was cleared, but which cost Islington Council Â£1m and arguably cost him his council seat on the “no smoke without fire” principle. Or even the Ken Livingstone experience, who was to be suspended for calling a journalist a concentration camp guard.
What do all of these cases have to do with a law about lying politicians? Everything, because while the act of lying was not in question in each of these questions, their propriety very much as an issue. What we’ve seen since the Standards Board was introduced has been the infantilisation of local politics, with councillors filing complaints against their political rivals on a whim purely for political advantage. That fact that so many of them amount to so little is irrelevant as the intention is to cause instability and spread innuendo. The “Misrepresentation of the People Act” would almost certainly have the same effect. It would be simply too tempting to haul a Government Minister up through the courts. Subsequently, it would be all too tempting for Government Ministers to spend even more of their energies in not answering questions, something which is already a daily reality in Parliament.
Beside the enrichment of lawyers, it is hard to see how this law could ever result in an actual conviction. Remember the experience of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act. Naive souls such as Paul Staines though that it would be possible for PC Plod to rummage through a few Downing Street computers, hassle Ruth Turner a bit and trump up charges against Lord Levy and Tony Blair. But even where we have what looks like extremely strong circumstantial evidence, the law simply ain’t that simple. For as long as we uphold the principle of innocent before proven guilty it is extremely difficult to get a conviction on what amounts to a conspiracy between two individuals who will both go to prison if they testify, and then it is just one person’s word against another’s. You need hard evidence and such evidence is rarely in abundance.
Consider therefore, the Misrepresentation of the Peoples Act’s get out clauses:
It shall be a defence for any person charged with an offence under section 2 of this Act to show that at the time of the offence he –
1. did not know, or could not have been reasonably expected to know that his act or conduct would create an impression that was false or misleading, or
2. had no part in causing or permitting the publication of the statement or any part thereof, or
3. could not reasonably be expected to have known that the statement to which the charge relates was inaccurate or misleading, or
4. took all due care to ensure the accuracy of the statement, or
5. acted in the interest of National Security.
Now, how on Earth would you secure a conviction with all those escape clauses. Once again, you’ll need the sort of orgy of evidence that only the most careless of people would ever leave; signed and dated statements along the lines of “today I’m going to lie to Parliament! The foools! Bwah-hah-hah-hah!!!”
As with the Honours case, the police would be bound to investigate. But this is ultimately unenforceable law. And all unenforceable law does is leave a trail of innuendo and suspicion. It won’t clean up politics; merely confirm in people’s eyes that it is unreformable.
None of this is to say that Ministers who are found to mislead the House should not be sacked. But the real issue isn’t ultimately about lying; its about taking responsibility for actions. One of the worst things about this Bill is that while you could theoretically get a conviction out of Gordon Brown for claiming that the opinion polls had nothing to do with his decision to call of the election this weekend, you wouldn’t have a hope in hell of convicting Tony Blair for invading Iraq on a false prospectus. Why? Because while Brown’s actions were a fairly glaring gaffe, Blair’s capacity for self-delusion was limitless. Under this law, the self-deluded are morally superior to the most profane merchant of white lies. The better you are at lying, the more upstanding you become. It is ultimately about putting the Eleventh Commandment on a statutory footing.
And if I really wanted to be pedantic, I would point out that the Bill only refers to “representatives”. It would therefore remain perfectly legal to lie in the House of Lords. This is a serious point because you would instantly see Governments use that chamber to put out difficult statements. This would certainly undermine the primacy of the Commons.
But it is the sheer hypocrisy that really bugs me. We may indeed have laws against fraud and other forms of lying in the marketplace, but when the media lie – defamation laws notwithstanding (and they want to weaken those – as do I for the record) – there is no law to imprison journalists or prevent them from continuing their chosen profession. Indeed, from what I’ve seen of MoT’s programme we are to be greeted with a highly partial version of the Truth on Thursday. If the “Beginners Guide” is any indication, any opponent of the Bill will be presented corpsing to camera in a comedic fashion and having their every statement countered, while the supporters of the Bill are given generous air time. Indeed, just by looking at the previews, it seems that the film maker has a bit of a problem with the “truth” himself. His proposed legislation is not an Act and it is misleading to imply that it has already been made law in this way. Lord Falconer has not been the Lord Chancellor for some months now; stating he is seems like a “recklessly dishonest” statement to me. Why are these lies acceptable?
Ultimately, you can’t legislate on the hearts and minds of people. If you want to clean up politics, then sort out the dominance of people like Ashcroft, introduce PR and radically decentralise. These are all long touted solutions, but they don’t get documentaries on BBC2 because they don’t lend themselves quite so simply to irreverent wacky film-making that can play fast and loose with the facts. Pretending that MPs’ jobs and responsibilities are no different from the average market trader is simply pernicious. I have no doubt that they will be successful at getting lots of people to sign up to this dreadful idea; fortunately this is one of those few areas where MPs’ self-interest and national interest coincide.