Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Making political dishonesty illegal

Gracchi has already blasted the "Ministry of Truth" film calling for a lying by politicians to their electorate to be made illegal. He points out that one man's lie is almost always another's truth. That truth itself is an uncertain commodity in politics. Unity, at the original Ministry of Truth, argues that the programme is based upon a flawed conception of the British constitution.

When I first saw the film a couple of weeks ago I was endlessly frustrated by the programme's failure to consider the unintended consequences of such a law. The massive problems the proposed law would create seem pretty obvious but the film didn't address them at all. Here are two big ones:

1) What is a lie?

Incautious statements, mistakes, exagerrations as a result of differing priorities and values sets and simple disagreements with a heavy majority have all been termed lies over the years. These are not the outright lies that the programme clearly aimed to prohibit but disentangling straight "he said this when he absolutely knows that it is untrue" lies from statements which are more difference of opinion than lie would be an essentially arbitrary process in many cases. The massive grey area that surrounds lying would make for messy, unpredictable and possibly arbitrary legal sanction.

2) Giving the courts a veto over candidates for office

This law would mean that the courts would rule on whether a politician had lied or not and, on the basis of that ruling, whether they can stand for office. That would mean that rule by the people would be replaced by rule by the legal oligarchy. Ordinary voters would only be allowed to choose within the confines of honest and trustworthy politicians not condemned by the courts. We would be using lawyers instead of theologians but otherwise our system would bear a marked semblance to Iran's.

The legal process isn't perfect. It can be abused by those with better lawyers or the sympathies of an unrepresentative legal community (very capable of swaying juries if this is a matter for jury trial). The courts have already, in my opinion, gone too far in assuming a power to fight democratic decisions. No body so free from democratic accountability should be given such broad powers to decide who is fit for office.


dizzy said...

quick question Matt, have you read the proposed act or just watched the documentary?

Matthew Sinclair said...

Watched the documentary. Why?

Matthew Sinclair said...

Okay, I've just read the act and wouldn't change a word of what I've written above.

dizzy said...

Because the bill compared to the polemic of the documentary is quite different - at least I think it is. As a number of defences available and also creates an offence of making firvilious false allegations.

I'm not saying I would vote/endorse it per se, but at the same time I don't think that it is quite a simple as the documnetary makes it seem.

dizzy said...

Fair enough.

dizzy said...

Personally I think we should just have fixed term limits of two years for Parliament and fixed term limits for MPs. That suits my deep conservative attitude to change much better. Having an election every two years - a slate one even for local authorities too - would stop the guits breaking things too quickly. Won;t ever happen though.

edmund said...

i agreen entirely with the post - depressing it needs pointing out really.

Thing the Iran analogy is very aptm, one can already see the beginnings of such attitudes in Belgium as well.