The Right Honourable Liar Carmichael and the problem of Fake News
Before the 2015 General Election, a Scotland Office official leaked a story claiming that Nicola Sturgeon had told the French Ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, that she favoured the Conservatives to win. An enquiry was launched into the leak. Alistair Carmichael MP told that enquiry that he had not known of the leak until it appeared in the press. The election happened, and the Right Honourable Liar Carmichael was duly elected as member for Orkney and Shetland.
I can call him Liar Carmichael, because Lord Matthews and Lady Paton, presiding in the Electoral Court in Edinburgh, judged that he had told a lie (paragraph 44 of Lady Paton’s judgement). He told a lie, because, as he freely admitted after the had been elected, he had ordered the leak himself. And yet the court judged that his election should stand: that it is acceptable for a politician to lie in order to be elected.
During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, senior politicians of the Conservative party and of UKIP toured the country in a bus emblazoned with the slogan “we send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead”. Those associated with this claim, who explicitly endorsed it, include the Right Honourable Boris Johnson PC MP, the Right Honourable Doctor Liam Fox MP, the Right Honourable Priti Patel MP, and the Right Honourable Andrea Leadsom MP.
On the day after the referendum vote, those who had ridden on that bus hastily rejected the claim. It wasn’t a promise, said the Right Honourable Chris Grayling MP, it was an ‘aspiration’. But Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings later admitted that they would not have won had they not lied.
Let’s be clear about this: there is a problem with fake news. But fake news does not just happen. It is created: and it is created by bad political actors. People who engage in politics in bad faith, who choose to lie to achieve political ends which they could not achieve honestly.
Alistair Carmichael’s election in the famously upright constituency of Orkney and Shetland was secured by a lie. The vote to take the UK out of the EU was secured by a lie. But there are no consequences for the liars: no penalties. Alistair Carmichael keeps his seat and his salary. And while the UK is dragged out of the EU, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling all sit at the cabinet table.
None of these people has been banned from public office; none, in fact, has even chosen to resign it. None has been fined. None has been imprisoned. Indeed, in an extraordinary inversion of common sense, indeed, each of these people, who have chosen to use mendacity to secure factional political ends where honesty would not have served, are entitled to be known as ‘the Right Honourable’. This is irony forged from the finest ores.
A democracy cannot survive under these circumstances. In a country in which it is acceptable to lie to gain office or to influence great decisions of state, the popular vote is meaningless, since it is impossible for the voters to trust their representatives.
So, as the House of Commons enquires into fake news, I commend to you the words of Matthew 7:5: first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.