Ministry of Truth? Why is this lying liar lying to us?

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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 £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.

10 thoughts on “Ministry of Truth? Why is this lying liar lying to us?

  1. Interesting piece, but I would appreciate more clarity on one point. You say: “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…”

    This appears to suggest that you consider John Hemming to have lied in his campaign (you say “against CAFCASS”, but actually it is wider than that – he has been campaigning against the entire adoption system and other elements of social services and child protection).

    If so, could you give examples of where you believe he has lied?

  2. I’m not suggesting he’s lied whatsoever. My point is that if he did not have Parliamentary Privilege, he would have to be looking over his shoulder every 30 seconds as the people he was criticising would go through everything he has said and written with a fine tooth comb. And in the course of making these allegations, there is indeed a danger he may make mistakes or tell untruths. Parliamentarians shouldn’t be subjected to a legal minefield every time they do, or most of them won’t risk it.

    If you want a system that can get to a greater truth, you have to allow a little leeway. The Misrepresentation of the People Act Bill doesn’t allow for that; it is a license to enrich lawyers at the expense of the truth.

  3. Thanks for your reply. There are some who would argue – and I am one of them – that Parliamentary Privilege is such a powerful tool that it is vital that it is not abused, let alone used as “leeway” to allow an MP to lie.

    If an MP is not confident that what he is saying is the truth – especially when what he is saying is designed to destroy an individual’s reputation – then she or she should not say it. If such lies are deemed necessary to pursue some “greater truth”, then I would suggest that the very validity of that “truth” is brought into question.

    I think it is absolutely right that if an MP is criticising individuals in extreme terms that they should be prepared to have what they have said examined in close detail. Making an honest mistake is, of course, one thing, but if it can be shown that an MP has deliberately set out to deceive members and lie to the House they should be subject to disciplinary proceedings. I believe the facility exists already for an MP to be suspended for abuse of privilege. The problem is that the Commissioner for Standards seems to be more interested in whether MPs have acted out of financial self-interest than whether or not they have deceived Parliament, perhaps in pursuit of a personal agenda. The consequences of boths acts can be extremely serious, both for democracy and for the maligned individuals concerned, and should be treated equally seriously.

    An MP who abuses Parliamentary privilege by lying to the House is an absolute disgrace who has let down everyone who has voted for him. He undermines the very credibility of Parliament and should be treated accordingly by the Commons authorities and, if he has one, by his party. Truth is not a hat, to be put on or off at will.

  4. I’m open to the idea of Parliamentary privilege being open to scrutiny in that way, but not on it being on a legal footing. There needs to be a cultural shift in the attitude of Parliamentarians, but that won’t be achieved by passing a law (indeed, looking at my Standards Board example, it rather suggests it would make things worse).

    You clearly have a very narrow, pedantic definition of the word ‘truth’. Presumably you are one of those people currently denouncing Al Gore as a liar due to the recent court case ruling that there are nine ‘inaccuracies’ in An Inconvenient Truth (despite also ruling that it was ‘broadly accurate’). It is very comforting to be able to tell yourself that if someone asserts that X, Y and Z are true, and X can be shown not to be so, that Y and Z must also be false, but it is delusional.

  5. I think it is perverse that you argue so viciously against something that ordinary honest people would expect from public servants. Regardless of the fact that every new law in this country seems designed to line lawyers pockets with gold, this proposed legislation is, by all decent standards, common sense. Which is why it will probably fail.
    As was stated by virtually all interviewees in the BBC program, democracy is built on trust. Most people in the UK don’t trust the politicians, therefore democracy itself is at stake.
    Public “servants” really need to be reminded of the definition of the word servant and change their behaviour accordingly.
    Currently, it seems to the public that most, if not all MP’s interests are, in this order:
    1. Themselves (pay, career etc)
    2. Their party (what the whips demand)
    3. The country
    4. Their constituents
    Until this reality is reversed, and power is divested to the people to make positive changes in the interests of society, the reputation of MPs will remain on a par with estate agents, lawyers and other xxx (insert appropriate adjective).

  6. Estate agents and lawyers are both regulated professions and it is illegal for them to lie. Yet as you say, they are unloved and untrusted by the public. I could say the same about stockbrokers and market traders, neither of whom are regarded by the public in high esteem.

    The issue is not whether it is right or wrong to lie, but how you can deal with lies in an effective manner. The Misrepresentation of the People Act would not do this.

  7. Estate agents and lawyers jobs require them to part with as much of their clients as money as they can legally get away with. Money should not be politicians’ motivation – their job is to improve the status quo – not perpetuate it or make it worse.
    Unfortunately, MPs seem to regard the quantity of new laws as a metric of their success. Never mind the quality or whether the laws are enforceable – just carry on churning them out ad nauseum until you have the situation where ordinary people are breaking the law on a daily basis. Which results in a complete lack of respect for the law, particularly by young people but increasingly by the older generation who see MPs as control freaks just wanting to stop things people have enjoyed doing for years without restrictions. And the MPs wonder why they’re despised? Or do they just not care?

  8. You have a very cynical view about politicians which I fear bears only a tagential relationship to reality. Nothing I say of course will convince you otherwise.

    In short, you are precisely the target audience for that dreadful film.

  9. Cynical??? You need to read some of your own blog to remind yourself about the politicians you are now claiming to defend.

    Oh and just for the record, is it Liberal Democrat policy to come across as patronising and boorish to people who will never come round to their way of thinking?

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