It's not good enough to just shrug when politicians like Boris Johnson are caught lying
It will never be possible to eradicate lying from public life but a more vigorous media and more critical voters would be a start
The frontrunner to become the next prime minister of the UK is the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson is also a favourite of US President Donald Trump and the darling of Conservative party members. But he is now the target of an extraordinary private prosecution for misconduct in public office, based on allegations that he lied during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign. Marcus Ball, a member of the public who launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for legal costs, has accused Mr Johnson of abusing public trust and lodged a summons for him to appear before Westminster magistrates on Thursday.
One alleged lie was written on the side of his “Vote Leave” campaign bus. He claimed the UK sent £350 million a week to the European Union. Underneath were the words: “Let’s fund our NHS instead”. The possibility of £350 million extra a week for the National Health Service was described as "misleading" and a 'clear misuse of official statistics" by the UK Statistics Authority, and condemned as a lie by commentators and political opponents.
Mr Johnson has previous form in this area. He was fired by a newspaper for making up a quote and fired by a previous Conservative party leader, Michael Howard, for lying about his private life.
The most interesting thing about the court case is simply that it is happening at all. Reaction to it – like so much else in Britain right now – divides the country. Some politicians are expressing anger that lying might be criminalised. Others find it outrageous that politicians should meddle in a legal matter that is for England’s independent judiciary to decide. The judge clearly believes Mr Johnson at least has a case to answer and most British people trust the legal system more than they do politicians.
Whatever the court decides, the Johnson case reminds us that lying has been normalised in politics, and not just in Britain. As the BBC’s former chief correspondent in the US, I spent a year of my life reporting on one particular lie, from then president Bill Clinton, about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Mr Clinton was later impeached and nearly ejected from the White House.
Recently, the Washington Post has produced a lie-count for Mr Trump. The newspaper calculated that by April this year, Mr Trump had told 10,111 lies in 828 days in office, averaging about 12 lies a day.
And yet as we enter the 2020 presidential election campaign, about 40 per cent of American voters support Mr Trump while a sizeable chunk of the British Conservative party backs Mr Johnson to be our next prime minister.
Personally I think Mr Johnson was a terrible foreign secretary, a poor London mayor and is unfit to be prime minister but I am uncomfortable with him being prosecuted for lying. It smacks of a political stunt and might even set a precedent for criminalising political differences.
In the US in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s presidency was blighted by politically inspired prosecutions in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Democrats in Congress passed a law – the Boland Amendment – to stop the Reagan administration aiding right-wing “Contra” guerrillas in Nicaragua. But Reagan officials hatched a sneaky plot to continue the aid and were prosecuted as law-breakers. The scandal tied Washington in knots for months but in the end it fizzled out, after procedural difficulties over essentially politically inspired legal action.
Obviously facts, truth and acting lawfully in public life remain important. In Britain’s heated Brexit debate, some politicians and activists distorted the truth and spent campaign money in ways that look less than honest. One politician stood in front of a poster showing a crowd of refugees as if they were all heading to Britain. They weren’t. Some politicians claimed Turkey was about to join the European Union. It wasn’t. More recently in the US, a video of House speaker Nancy Pelosi was doctored to make it look as if she was slurring her speech and perhaps drunk. She was completely sober.
Disinformation and lies are far from new in politics, even if the problem seems particularly acute now. Back in the 1990s, the British Committee on Standards in Public Life reported that politicians should abide by seven principles of conduct – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. In practice, such principles are often disregarded and yet those who break these principles – as it would appear Mr Johnson might have done – somehow thrive and are even promoted.
Rather than a criminal trial, there should be a constant public audit of politicians to hold them to account. In reality, we have precisely that. It’s called the free press. Journalists need to step up to the challenge and be more vigorous in exposing lies, and not shy away from the word “lie” when it is appropriate.
Voters should be more responsible too. It’s not good enough just to shrug as if it doesn’t matter when a politician is caught out as a liar. It will never be possible to eradicate lying from public life, but a more vigorous media and more critical voters would be a start.
And I am reminded of the old adage – fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We have been fooled often enough. But lying politicians should not end up in court. They should be forced to search for alternative employment.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter
Updated: June 3, 2019 05:25 PM