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How politicians are licenced to lie

Posted on August 03, 2012 by

After we wrote this morning’s piece on party membership figures, we thought it might be interesting to look into what we’d initially intended as a throwaway last-line joke. Disturbingly, what we found out was that even in a society so tightly regulated that you can be fined thousands of pounds for using the word “summer” in the wrong place or threatened with imprisonment for making rude comments on Twitter, it’s apparently completely legal for our politicians to tell us outright lies.

We’re not talking about matters of opinion or interpretation or spin here. We mean that as far as we can establish, our politicians can openly lie to us about empirical, measurable facts, and there isn’t a thing we can do about it.

The thing that sparked our inquiry was Scottish Labour’s assertion on its Twitter page that it’s “Scotland’s largest political party”.

Now, as far as we can make out, that statement isn’t true in any meaningful sense whatsoever. In so far as it’s possible to establish, Scottish Labour has thousands fewer members than the SNP, collected 300,000 fewer votes in the last Scottish election, has fewer MSPs and fewer councillors than the SNP, and generates much less money. But that’s not really the point.

One reader suggested to us that the basis for the party’s claim is that it has more elected representatives than any other if you include Westminster MPs as well as Holyrood ones. While it’s stretching grammar to its breaking point to suggest that that constitutes being the “largest political party” in any sense that an average person would interpret the term, we can see how there’s just about a semantic defence.

But the point is that even if there wasn’t, there isn’t anything we could do about it.

Scottish Labour could claim to have a million members on its website if it wanted. It could claim that voting Labour would make your penis or bust size grow three inches. It could claim that Johann Lamont had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Olympic 110m hurdles gold medal and Man Of The Match in last night’s Dundee United game. It could even claim that she was the actual “leader” of all Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs (although that one would admittedly be pushing the bounds of credibility a bit). And so far as we can gather, nobody could stop them.

The Advertising Standards Authority has recently had its powers extended to cover a wide range of online activity, but notes that (our emphasis) “Journalistic and editorial content and material related to causes and ideas – except those that are direct solicitations of donations for fund-raising – are excluded from the remit”.

It provides a list of other regulators which might be able to help people objecting to an untrue statement, of which the most promising (indeed, the only possibility) seemed to be Ofcom. That organisation’s website, in addition to looking oddly like you’ve accidentally clicked on the Tesco homepage, is very evasive about what it’s empowered to police, so we had to ring up and ask directly. A nice chap called James confirmed he couldn’t help us, as “the internet isn’t regulated”, and said the only thing he could think of was to contact the Parliamentary Ombusdman.

We duly looked the PO up, and after some digging arrived at a page which informed us that “The Ombudsman is unable to look at complaints about political parties. This page contains the links to all political parties that are represented in the House of Commons and the House of Lords”, suggesting we raise our concerns with them, which is a bit like asking the police to investigate when the police beat you up.

(We note in passing that “Scottish Labour” is not listed on said page, which would of course annihilate the sole conceivable justification for the claim on its Twitter page.)

In short, then, a political party can say absolutely anything it likes – no matter how demonstrably, definitively untrue it might be – and neither ordinary citizens nor rival parties have no means of recourse whatsoever, unless the specific statement in question is part of a direct solicitation for money.

They alone are exempt from the laws on advertising and trading standards that any other cash-soliciting organisation in the country is subject to. They alone have a licence to lie to the public, for their own vast profit, and get away with it, while they make laws that mean a desperate mother who tries to keep her family together by fudging a benefit claim for a few miserable pounds risks vicious sanctions and prosecution, and someone who picks up a bottle of water from the debris of a riot-damaged shop goes down for six months.

It’s a real puzzler why we don’t respect them more.

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    24 to “How politicians are licenced to lie”

    1. Donald says:

      Fantastic article Stu, excellently researched and written. It is yet more evidence of how rotten and corrupt this Union has become.
       

    2. YesYesYes says:

      Scottish Labour lies also crop up in the most unexpected contexts and the most desperate circumstances. For example, a few days ago, in The Scotsman, Brian Wilson spread more bad news about the impact of independence on Scotland’s putative representation at the Olympics:
       
      http://www.scotsman.com/news/brian-wilson-snp-convert-to-olympic-supporters-1-2442676
       
      In the piece, Wilson quotes Sir Craig Reedie, the Scottish chairman of the British Olympic Committee who, “pointed out that – with the possible exception of curling – it was unlikely that any Scottish team would qualify for Olympic finals, thereby displacing about half the Scottish Olympians”.
       
      In other words, the present representation of Scottish Olympians in ‘Team GB’, i.e. 54, would be reduced to a mere 27, or thereabouts, if Scotland becomes independent. If that doesn’t seal the deal for the No campaign nothing else will.
       
      But wait a minute. Before we accept this conclusion, shouldn’t we have a look at how Scotland’s representation at the London Olympics compares to some other European countries of broadly similar size? Here are the results, and they make for very interesting reading. For ease of calculation, countries’ populations have been rounded up or down to the nearest 100,000 and the results give the number of athletes per 100,000 of population. The figure in brackets at the end provides the number of athletes per 100,000 of population and the countries are ‘ranked’ on this basis.
       
      Croatia          pop: 4.4m – athletes: 112 (2.5)
      Denmark      pop: 5.5m – athletes: 120 (2.2)
      Lithuania       pop: 3.3m – athletes: 66 (2.0)
      Ireland           pop: 4.5m – athletes: 65 (1.4)
      Switzerland  pop: 5.3m – athletes: 107 (1.4)
      Norway          pop: 4.9m – athletes: 66 (1.3)
      Finland          pop: 5.3m – athletes: 60 (1.1)
      Scotland         pop: 5.3m – athletes: 54 (1.0)
      Slovakia          pop: 5.4m – athletes: 46 (0.9)
      Georgia         pop: 4.2m – athletes: 35 (0.8)
       
      From this it can be seen how poorly Scotland, as part of the UK, compares to other similar sized nations in Europe. But if Scotland becomes independent Brian Wilson is suggesting something else. For, according to Brian Wilson, with independence, not only would Scotland have the lowest number of athletes of any country in Europe, it’s much worse than that. With independence, Scotland would, proportionately, have a lower representation than some of the poorest countries in the world in sub-Saharan Africa. This should be a central plank of the No campaign in 2014. Or do I mean that Brian Wilson is a central plank of the No campaign.

    3. Restlessnative1320 says:

      Its because of blogs such as this and the wonderful RTC that I will never buy another 
      “newspaper”in my life.The lies and misinformation fed to us by the mainstream press etc seems to have reached new levels. 

    4. YesYesYes says:

      Minor correction, Switzerland’s population is 7.7m not 5.3m.

    5. wulie says:

      who has most of the gold medals thus far. !!!!!!!!! Team GB would be looking pretty poorly without the Scots.

    6. TYRAN says:

      – “Scotland’s largest political party, led by Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar.”
      How much rubbish can one fit in a tiny sentence? They are not a political party, so not led by anyone, and they are not the largest either even if they were a political party in Scotland.

      New Zealand at 4.4 million have 184 athletes. Weaker apart. 

    7. YesYesYes says:

      @TYRAN,
       
      Quite. I only confined my own comparison to Europe to limit the wriggle-room of any Scottish Labour apologists who might try to defend the absurdities of Wilson’s ‘argument’.
       
      But with New Zealand, that’s 4.2 athletes per 100,000 of their population, more than four times Scotland’s representation as part of ‘Team GB’. But according to Brian Wilson, New Zealand’s representation at the London Olympics would be more than eight times what Scotland’s would be if we were independent.
       
      At some point, maybe even Brian Wilson might be moved to ask the question: what advantages do independent nation-states like New Zealand have that an independent Scotland wouldn’t, that would allow New Zealand to have a representation at the Olympics that, proportionately, would be more than eight times greater than Scotland’s if we were independent?  

    8. Juteman says:

      Surely it’s been obvioud for years?
      Socislist psrty? Labour? 

    9. H Scott says:

      ‘At some point, maybe even Brian Wilson might be moved to ask the question: what advantages do independent nation-states like New Zealand have that an independent Scotland wouldn’t, that would allow New Zealand to have a representation at the Olympics that, proportionately, would be more than eight times greater than Scotland’s if we were independent? ‘

      Well they don’t have Brian Wilson for a start. 

    10. Juteman says:

      Bloody phone! 

    11. YesYesYes says:

      One way of answering that question – as objectively as possible – is that, in time, we might expect an independent Scotland to increase rather than decrease its number of athletes at Olympics.
       
      Let’s not be greedy here, so let’s say, for the sake of argument, that an independent Scotland would increase its number of Olympic athletes up to the average of the table given in the previous post, i.e. to 1.5 athletes per 100,000 population.
       
      What that means, is that, contrary to Brian Wilson’s apocalyptic prediction, an independent Scotland would increase its number of Olympic athletes to some 81, three times higher than the 27 that Brian Wilson predicts.

    12. Juteman says:

      Information only.
       Now in the house on the pooter.
      I don’t know if it applies to every phone, but i can’t edit posts on my new phone.
      Galaxy S3. 
      Big fingers. 😉

    13. Holebender says:

      To be fair to Brian Wilson (God knows why!) I think his argument is that fewer Scots will win medals as part of winning teams (e.g. cycling, rowing, etc.) not that fewer Scots will be able to compete at international events like the Limpics. He may or may not be correct (e.g. the gold and silver winning teams in the canoeing event yesterday each had a Scot on board so maybe those two could form a winning team in future) but I think the stronger counter-argument is that more sportsmen and women from Scotland will be able to take part as a result of not being squeezed out of the squad by rivals from England, Wales, or Norn Ireland. Taking part has to be at least as important as winning, and the very fact of taking part in international competition must help improve the overall standard of our sporty folks, ne c’est pas?

    14. McHaggis says:

      Doug Gillon says the same thing in The Herald today…

      The major point they miss is that who is to say an independent Scotland would not produce more and finer athletes than we do under the banner of team GB?

      We could develop better facilities, an independent Scotland might pump more cash per head into sport, we might even produce better athletes purely on the criteria that they’d rather run, jump or swim for Scotland rather than GB.

      Its all unionist wishful thinking and nonsense… Just wait until alex salmond attempts even the tiniest politicisation of the Commonwealth Games. Our union friends will be ‘dismayed and angry’ and The Scotsman will get another bunch of Salmond Accused headlines.

    15. Stuart M says:

      The other thing about the Olympic competitors comparison – in UK terms, it’s simply an ugly exercise in “bread and circuses”. I can’t find the links for it, but I recall reading years back, that the UK’s remarkable cycling success in Beijing 2008 was simply the result of a cynical “bang for the buck” exercise, following the country’s disastrous showing at Atlanta 1996 (1 gold medal for the supposed 4th-richest country in the world). Where would we get the biggest gold medals payback for the least investment in sport? the civil servants wondered. Turned out it was in cycling, so millions got plowed into it – at a sporting level.
      Of course, has that boom in cycling sporting success translated into massive public investment in real cycling facilities in the country? Not velodromes – actual things most of us would use: cycle lanes, city bike schemes? Of course not. 
      Given the choice between not having a single gold medallist in cycling or even a handful of decent bike lanes, I know what I would choose.

    16. Don McC says:

       “Scotland’s largest political party, led by Johann Lamont and Anas Sarwar.”

      Eh, should that read “Johann Lamont worked from the back by Anas Sarwar” or “acting as a front for Anas Sarwar”?
         

    17. Theuniondivvie says:

      Good piece, putting the boot in with a winkle picker always a joy to behold.
       
      On the ‘O’ word, a stat that the Olympian triumphalists have also been trumpeting is that London is the first city to host three modern games, implying this should be celebrated from Land’s End to J.O’G. They ignore the fact that the only other country to host the modern Olympics, the USA, managed to do it in three separate cities. Even recent European hosts Germany & Spain managed to spread it about a bit.
       
      Say what you like about the Septics, they at least have some conception of the meaning of a union.

    18. YesYesYes says:

      @Holebender,
       
      I take your point, though I think you are being more than fair to Brian Wilson here.
       
      It’s that phrase that Wilson uses, citing Craig Reedie: “thereby displacing about half the Scottish Olympians”, that concerned me. I’d always taken the term “Olympians” to be a reference to all those athletes who participated in the Olympics not just to those who won medals or negotiated the heats of events successfully to make the finals of their events. For if it means the latter, doesn’t this contravene the sporting spirit of the Olympics? And what does that make all those athletes who compete but don’t win anything or make finals: pseudo-Olympians, failed Olympians or non-Olympians?
       
      If your interpretation here is correct, though, then It’s bad enough that Brian Wilson suggests this meaning of the term “Olympian” but that the chairman of the British Olympic Committee should suggest it, is outrageous.
       
      I wholeheartedly agree with your other points. In fact, on the broader topic, it seems that the Olympic swimming events have now finished. And after one week of swimming events, the British have won one silver medal and two bronze medals. If this is the best that the British can do at their home Olympics, surely it’s not unrealistic to suggest that an independent Scotland could equal that or even better it at some future Olympics?
       
      Having said that, I don’t know anything about swimming but I’d be surprised if there weren’t some Scottish swimmers in the British team and I’d be equally surprised to discover that, given the British team’s performance, the performance of Scottish swimmers’ at the Olympics was significantly inferior to the average for the British team. 

    19. Holebender says:

      Indeed tud. It always strikes me how many different parts of the US TV shows are set in. It’s not just New York and L.A., they have shows set in just about every major city in every state. How many British TV shows are set outside London? The few I can think of are the exception which proves the rule.
       
      Even when a show is “made” somewhere else (e.g. Dr. Who made in Wales) it still seems to be set in London more often than not.
       
      And, hey, it isn’t even true that London is the only place to host the Limpics three times! I was just looking on wikipedia, and they list Athens as hosts in 1896, 1906, and 2004… OK, 1906 appears to be something called the intercalated games, whatever that was. Ho hum.

      yyy, I believe Scotland is quite strong at swimming but lacks facilities (as usual). Things like relay teams would be another example of what Wilson seems to be on about.

    20. Domhnall Dods says:

      i went through this process when the english national party ran openly racist,anti scottish election posters.everyone agreed there was nothing they could do to help, though they agreed if it had been racism towards black or asian people they would definitely have found a way to deal with it.

       

    21. Domhnall Dods says:

      ps juteman i just edited my post on a galaxy s3. user error methinks. maybe install a different keyboard such as swiftkey?

    22. Appleby says:

      You can’t edit a post after someone else posts, I believe.

    23. Bobby Mckail says:

       Great article.

    24. carjamtic says:

      Why would they want to delay ?

      ‘With limited opportunities in society, rationing is achieved through higher entry requirements to both the labour and housing markets. The extent to which people can meet those requirements is still a matter of where they were born in the social hierarchy, rather than when they were born.

      Indeed, wealth is generally transferred from older to younger generations via inheritance, rather than withheld: the problem is that this reinforces inequalities within cohorts, as richer people benefit more from transfers of family wealth.

      People’s access to health care, education and housing are determined by policy and the economy, not their date of birth, and the hype about generational conflict only serves to mask the real inequalities in society’



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