Tag Archives: standards-board

Ministry of Truth: “our film was a load of old toss”

I suppose honesty is a virtue:

I’m getting into exactly the kind of debate that would fill an LSE lecture hall and keep the public watching Rebecca Loos make a pig ejaculate.

The path we chose was the academic’s polar opposite without the farmyard.

So there you have it. The limits of the Ministry of Truth’s ambitions was to make a programme with the news values of the basest example of reality TV anyone could think of, in the name of populism. And even then the best slot they could get was 11pm on BBC2. Wonderful.

The Ministry of Truth: worse than I imagined

I’ve just spent the morning watching the BBC’s Ministry of Truth programme. Surprisingly, it is even more loathesome, and unexpectedly sinister, than I imagined it would be.

First of all, let’s take the name. As well as being half-inched from Unity’s blog, it is taken from Orwell’s 1984. “Minitrue” of course is anything but and is the main purveyor of newspeak.

Oddly the documentary namechecks Derrida, banging on about the dreadfulness of postmodernism and its influence on modern politics but doesn’t discuss Orwell and indeed indulges is a bit of truth manufacturing of its own.

The programme manufactures a reality in which politicians are all vacillating, gutless clones who don’t, quote, “have the balls” to introduce Symons’ Bill and a public which is universally and uncritically behind the Bill. The programme has a chorus of Vox Populi, a group of talking heads which includes a builder, a bridge player, a transvestite, a musician (Captain Sensible, whose claim to be a musician is a bit of a fib itself), a taxi driver, and so on. All their quotes sound heavily scripted, suggesting that Symons couldn’t trust them to say the right thing unaided.

Meanwhile we have the ‘basics’ of democracy spelt out to us by a bunch of schoolkids (subtext: out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom; how could you disagree with the gorgeous telegenic kiddie-winks?). When Adam Price fails to secure a ten minute rule bill slot, it is suggested that this is a sinister plot by the main party whips. When he tables his Bill, it is greeted with cutaways of “ordinary” people clapping him in encouragement. The politicians disagreeing with the Bill are all shown corpsing, having the veracity of their claims instantly rebutted and walking out of the interviews. All the ‘experts’ and politicians agreeing with the Bill are allowed to make their points uninhindered and without any rebuttal from the other side. Orwell’s Minitrue would have struggled to produce a more one-sided piece of propaganda. This is more fundamentaqlly misleading than the BBC making programmes about climate change or including “nodding” cutaways, not to mention the fact that license fee payers’ money has been used to launch a full blown campaign; how come it was allowed to be put on air at all?

Regarding those aforementioned ‘basics’ they are based on a wholly false prospectus:

We, the people, are sovereign.

We grant this sovereignty to our elected representatives in Parliament.

Whilst representing our sovereignty, our elected representatives have fundamental obligations to be honest, transparent and accountable to us.

We are entitled to formal, legal, independent courses of action for a breach of these fundamental obligations.

As Unity and Dan Leighton point out, under our present constitution the people are NOT sovereign. Personally however, I’m prepared to give Symons a bit of leeway here as I certainly believe they should be. It is the second paragraph that is more problematic because we don’t grant our sovereignty to our elected representatives in Parliament, and nor should we. Parliament, including its unelected members, is sovereign. If we were to have popular sovereignty, we would invest it in a written constitution. This is confusing sovereignty for mandate.

What that means is that the subsequent two paragraph don’t follow. The only people that elected representatives, under this argument, should be accountable to are the people who elected them. I didn’t elect my MP in the last election, therefore I didn’t grant him any sovereignty. Therefore he has no obligation to be honest or transparent to me. What happens to my sovereignty under Symons’ model is a complete mystery. Given his black and white view of reality, perhaps I simply made the “wrong” decision? Bizarrely, he even highlights the fact that 40% of the public don’t vote while not recognising that under his own argument those people have no moral right to expect Parliament to be open and accountable to them: in fact he uses the fact that they don’t vote to justify the need for his law!

Even worse, his own Bill actually contradicts this set of principles, because having established that the people are sovereign and that sovereignty is invested in Parliament, in his law he asserts that a judge should be able to usurp that sovereignty. That’s utterly perverse.

Symons goes through the objections to the Bill one by one and explains how they are fallacious. In doing so he shines a light on what is really wrong with our democracy. His argument boils down to the fact that his law is needed because self-regulation doesn’t work, and that self-regulation doesn’t work because the executive has a stranglehold over Parliament and is thus in effect judge and jury in all complaints about itself.

Now I ask you: if the problem is that we have a weak Parliament and an over-weaning executive, how is the solution a law that further divests Parliament of power? Surely the solution is to give Parliament more power, particularly if you are asserting that it is the purveyor of popular sovereignty?

Interestingly, there is now cross-party agreement that Parliament should indeed be more powerful, even if we don’t all agree on the measures. I would assert for example that the only meaningful way to get a stronger Parliament is to have proportional representation. Yet Symons doesn’t explore this possible solution to his problem at all. The clear implication of the programme is that he merely assumes that is the obvious outcome of any political system and is not worth bothering with.

The bizarrest part of the film is when he notes approvingly of the police investigation on honours as an example of the system working, despite the fact that no charges have been brought forward and yet no-one seriously believes that there is no link between people making loans to political parties and receiving peerages. In short, this law hasn’t actually achieved anything except, perhaps, to make people even more cynical about politics.

Indeed, the two questions he does not ask at all in the programme are “How would this Bill work in practice?” and “What, if any, would the unintended consequences be?” – possibly the two most important questions any legislator must answer before passing a law. I explored both of these points in more detail earlier in the week so I won’t repeat them now. But I would ask any supporter of this idea to look at what’s happened to local government since similar legislation has been introduced and tell me that it has been a positive development.

If you want a more honest politics, fight for an electoral system that offers real choice between both parties AND candidates and one that will lead to a Parliament which reflects the votes cast. Honesty is about a whole lot more than people telling lies: don’t believe the liars who tell you otherwise.

Ministries at War!

My post yesterday about the other Ministry of Truth has provoked a response from the original Ministry of Truth. Pleasingly, it would appear that Unity and myself broadly agree both on this documentary in particular and the BBC’s Why Democracy? season in general.

Meanwhile, it appears that Michael Howard has withdrawn his consent to appear in the film. The First Post (which appears to have turned into a Metro-style gossip and boobs scandal rag since I last looked at it) has the details, along with this disgraceful article which sums up exactly what is wrong with this dreadful proposed bill.

Two points which emerge from this First Post article. Firstly, it emerges that the documentary makers have found a sponsor for the Bill, so Unity’s description of it being a fake bill is sadly mistaken. Secondly, one of the people they did find to support it was Neil Hamilton, and individual whose dishonesty has been demonstrated time and again, at least once in court. What does that tell you?

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

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.