By Professor Jonathan Grant
‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ as Lord Acton famously said in 1887. Perhaps today we can paraphrase this to ‘lies corrupt and absolute lies corrupt absolutely’.
In the EU referendum, the US presidential elections and now the early skirmishes of the UK general election, it seems that the winner is the side that can mislead the most effectively.
For example, in the EU referendum, the official Vote Leave campaign launched a battle bus on the 11 May 2016 that had painted down its side ‘We send the EU £350m a week, let’s fund our NHS instead’. This was a central plank of the Leavers argument. For example, Labour MP Gisela Stuart, who co-chaired the Vote Leave campaign, said on the BBC flagship Today programme, ‘Every week we send £350 million to Brussels. I’d rather that we control how to spend that money, and if I had that control I would spend it on the NHS.’ But the £350 million was a lie. As many impartial commentators noted it ignored the £5 billion rebate the UK receives from the EU, making the weekly figure closer to £250 million. As Full Fact, an independent fact checking charity, pointed out at the time, it also ignores a further £4 billion of EU spending, mostly on payments to farmers and poorer regions in the UK. The figure was so misleading that the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority said the figure undermined trust in official statistics, whilst the respected and independent think tank, the Institute for Fiscal studies described the figure as ‘absurd’.
This is not a partisan point – through ‘Project Fear’ the remain campaign were as guilty of misleading and lying to voters. Take the Treasury’s claims that ‘families would be £4,300 worse off’ if the UK left the EU. As Full Fact summarised, ‘at best that’s a red hearing‘. The estimate is derived from economic models based on assumptions that the UK would reach an agreement similar to that between Canada and the EU.
People have used various phrases to describe this phenomenon – post-truth politics, truth decay, post-fact democracy – as well as explanations for it such as declining standards in public life, the advent of social media, echo chambers, etc. Little, however, has been written on what to do about it. One approach would be through existing regulation. For example, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media, including social media. They aim to take action against ‘misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements’. You would have thought, then, that they would have taken action against the infamous ‘Breaking Point’ advert released by Nigel Farage, then leader of UKIP. The advert was released on a billboard to usual party fanfare on the morning of Thursday 16 June and also appeared in major national newspapers such as the Telegraph, Daily Star and Daily Express. It appeared to show a queue of immigrants stretching into the distance. But it very quickly became clear that this was not a queue of economic migrants entering the UK, but one of non-EU refugees crossing the Croatian-Slovenia border.
At face value it would seem that Farage and UKIP should have been prosecuted for a ‘misleading, harmful or offensive’ advert. But ridiculously that is not the case. As the ASA’s own website notes: ‘political ads in non-broadcast media (i.e., posters, newspapers etc.) whose principal function is to influence voters in local, regional, national or international elections or referendums are exempt from the Advertising Code’. The ASA seems somewhat frustrated by this state of affairs as it goes on to explain in some detail why, noting that in 2003 the Electoral Commission conducted a consultation on the regulation of electoral advertising. They concluded that the ASA should not be responsible for regulating election advertising but, as the ASA caustically notes, ‘the Commission did not establish a separate Code – and this remains the case today’.
If you go to the Electoral Commission website they pass the buck to the police: ‘We frequently receive complaints about political advertising … these are not within the scope of the complaints policy … we have very few powers to deal with the content of material published by candidates and parties, or their general conduct. … If you feel that the content of the material may constitute a criminal offence, you should contact the police.’
In other words, it is legal and permissible for politicians to lie.
This is not to argue that facts should not be contested – indeed the essence of political dialogue is to debate facts to ensure the most favorable outcomes are achieved. Additionally, as I have argued elsewhere, there are legitimate differences in what different people take the ‘truth’ to be, and post-truth politics is actually a multiple-truths politics. Those ‘truths’ may or may not be anchored in evidence or formal expertise, but how they are perceived makes all the difference.
But there is a fundamental difference between contesting legitimate points of view and the wilful misleading of public opinion. If the ASA can prosecute companies for misleading customers, it – or the Electoral Commission – should be able to regulate misleading political advertising. This may be a small administrative step, but a necessary one to protect our democracy from being corrupted by a culture of lies. Sadly, I suspect the coming general election will be won by the party that is most effective at lying.