Brexit, lies and doctored videotape
Political campaigns have always had a casual relationship with the truth. The 2019 general election was no different. But given the changing landscape, caused in part by the rise of social media, did political parties cross a line this time around? Sebastian Whale reports on a campaign to forget.
“Our next question is from Katrina Harradine,” said Nick Robinson, the compere of the final head-to-head leaders’ debate of the general election, broadcast on the BBC. “In the era of fake news,” began the audience member, “What punishment do you think is appropriate for elected politicians who lie during political campaigns?”.
The question was loaded with subtext; the 2019 election campaign had been plagued by half-truths, misinformation and accusations of lying. These have been unwelcome affiliates of general elections for time immemorial, and yet somehow, they seemed more brazen, more pernicious, more cynical this time around.
Robinson went to Boris Johnson first. “Well, they should be made to go on their knees down through the Chamber of the House of Commons, scourging themselves with copies of their offending documents which claim to prove one thing and actually prove something quite different,” replied the prime minister, not altogether seriously.
Jeremy Corbyn followed: “It’s important when people go into an election campaign, they put forward a policy of what they’re going to do, they put forward a policy of how they’re going to pay for it and if they don’t deliver, then there is a democratic process to deal with that in the future.”
How do you know when a politician is lying? Their lips are moving, or so goes the old cliché about our elected representatives. The perception of MPs as a rag-tag group who tell porkies on a perpetual basis is a lazy, easy cop-out. But there is a growing flippancy around pushing the boundaries of truth, while simultaneously discrediting the views of those we regard as experts.
In a post-referendum world, facts can seem secondary to emotions. The Scottish and EU referendums were about more than cold hard statistics; they were about the intangible, the possible and the imperceptible. They created clear dividing lines around which politics has coalesced, making allies of former enemies and garnering a mutual suspicion of those on the other side.
Responsibility fell on politicians to act in accordance with the magnitude of the events. Instead, each side was susceptible to making spurious claims around emergency budgets and funding for the health service as part of a ‘say anything to get across the line’ mentality. Will Moy, the chief executive of Full Fact, an independent fact-checking charity, says: “The 2016 referendum gave voters on both sides every reason to think that politicians generally lie to them.”
Interventions from independent bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Bank of England were now called into question. IFS director Paul Johnson recalls: “Part of the issue for us was the economics in each case was absolutely simple, straightforward, obvious; Scotland will be economically worse off for a period if they become independent, that’s just true. Brexit is and will be bad for the economy, that’s just true. I can see perfectly good reasons for voting for Scottish independence or Brexit, they’re just not economic reasons.”
He adds: “It’s inevitable in a referendum, if you’re on one side, you have to pretend everything is good and if you’re on the other side you have to pretend everything is bad. It made it difficult because it appeared that we weren’t being independent.”
Into that vortex falls conspiracy theories, deep mistrust of those outside of your worldview and a general apathy towards politics. Moy says: “We are seeing a broad and blind cynicism about what politicians do and in other places, a blind faith on politicians you agree with. Blind faith and blind cynicism are both dangers to democracy.” In that scenario, there are no long-term winners, only short-sighted opportunists who seek to gain advantage.
Adam Macqueen, a journalist at Private Eye, is the author of The Lies of the Land, a book that considers the recent history of political dishonesty. He charts how lying has been received over time; from an age of deference where the public accepted what those in charge told them; to an era of scepticism beginning with the Suez crisis through to the New Labour age of spin; to the modern-day, where voters automatically disbelieve anything that comes outside of their own bubbles. “I'd argue that's just as dangerous, when you've got instinctive politicians like Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Dominic Cummings who are quite happy to exploit that automatic disbelief and whip people up by creating conspiracy theories that support their particular narrative,” Macqueen says.
Just off the Mall, the broad stretch of road that feeds up to Buckingham Palace like a red carpet, is Full Fact HQ. The team of 25 has nearly doubled in size since January 2018, regularly publishing articles breaking down claims by political parties or MPs. Its board of trustees include James Harding, the former BBC director of news and editor of Tortoise, Labour peer Jan Royall and Professor Anand Menon from the think tank The UK in a Changing Europe.
Full Fact, which was launched in January 2010, has collaborated with Facebook and Google, the latter of whom are supporting its work to develop AI in the area of fact-checking. Full Fact now uses software that recognises when MPs are repeating fact-checked statements and will soon consider claims that have previously not been reviewed. “MPs should get used to the idea that scrutiny is going to become more and more ubiquitous,” says Will Moy, who has led the organisation since its inception.
Many media outlets now have in-house fact-checking departments that serve to scrutinise claims made by politicians. In an incendiary move, the Tories rebranded a Twitter page under its auspices to imitate one of these services. On the night of the first head-to-head leaders’ debate, broadcast on ITV, the ‘CCHQPress’ profile was altered to ‘factcheckUK’, with the tagline ‘Fact checking Labour from CCHQ’. Defending the move, foreign secretary Dominic Raab argued that “no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust”. The Tories were warned about their behaviour by Twitter. “If you're doing something that even Twitter, who notoriously have difficulty spotting actual Nazis, think is unethical, you really need to take a long hard look at yourself,” says Adam Macqueen.
Over the past decade, the rise of the internet has corresponded with the diminishing influence of mainstream media outlets. “There isn’t that shared source of reality that there used to be,” says Moy. This has had profound consequences, he continues, for organisations including the NHS. Parents have turned to Full Fact when trying to conclude whether it is safe to vaccinate their children, amid myriad of conflicting information being spread online. “Those are the stakes our work is playing for in terms of real people’s lives,” says Moy. The question of what trusted public information looks like is one that MPs “are really going to have to grapple with in the future”, he adds.
Full Fact carried out more than 110 fact checks during the 2019 election campaign, which saw “new kinds of deceptive campaigning tactics that we’ve never seen before and never expected to see in this country”, says Moy. He cites a video by the Conservative party, released on their social media channels, of Sir Keir Starmer doing an interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in which the footage is doctored. “It’s the first time we’ve seen a serious political party manipulating media in order to give a distorted impression during a campaign. That step of actually doctoring evidence is a really important line to have crossed,” argues Moy. The Tories were later ordered to remove a video that used edited versions of the BBC’s political broadcasts. The Financial Times also called on the Labour party to take down a video over a similar charge.
The diminishing influence of traditional media presents opportunities to circumvent usual channels. Politicians can now go wholesale with their message to voters online. Despite repeated calls, electoral law has not been updated to keep pace with contemporary campaigning. Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, says: “You don’t get the transparency about who’s doing this and who’s paying for it. That means that when you see these things, you’re in a difficult position to decide whether or not to take account of them.”
The 2019 campaign illustrated how fast fake news can spread. A bogus tweet claiming that Jeremy Corbyn had condemned police for “murdering” Usman Khan in the aftermath of the London Bridge attack was shared across social media platforms before the Labour leader had even given his official response to the atrocity.
In both the sharing and receiving of information, people have proved to be less scrupulous on social media. There is a willingness to believe in falsehoods because it suits an ideological narrative. A sense of “well, it could be true” is allowed to prevail over caution. One Tory MP shared a screenshot of a false story claiming that a picture of a boy lying on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary was set up, with the caption “IS. THIS. TRUE???”. The tweet received more than 400 retweets and 700 favourites before being deleted.
This lack of due diligence was also found among journalists. Channel 4 produced a video with subtitles claiming that Boris Johnson had referred to “people of colour” in reference to immigration, when in fact he had said “talent”. The most damaging example came when senior journalists tweeted that Matt Hancock’s special adviser had been punched by left-wing activists while on a visit to a hospital. When video footage emerged proving otherwise, Twitter users rightly were incandescent. The incident, which fed into pre-existing narratives about leading political journalists, was reported by the political editors of the BBC and ITV on Twitter, who had been tipped off by Conservative sources.
Time constraints and the decline of specialised correspondents means parties can also land their message before the requisite scrutiny of their claims have taken place. Political journalists are expected to report and comment on stories ranging from foreign affairs to healthcare at break-neck speed. “There is no way anyone can live up to the expectations of a modern political editor and be seriously informed about all of those topics,” says Will Moy. Both major parties were guilty of seeking to exploit this during the campaign. First, the Tories claimed that Labour’s spending plans would cost £1.2trn over the course of the next parliament. Conversely, John McDonnell produced research that he argued proved families could save £6,700 a year under a Labour government. For both arguments, Full Fact produced rebuttals. Paul Johnson from the IFS turned down requests for interviews on the claims because they were “too absurd”. “I’m not sure that actually not engaging with it helps, but equally nor does going on national media telling people they’re talking nonsense. But when you get to a point of that degree of absurdity, it’s really hard to know,” he says.
These are many more examples of questionable assertions to consider. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, argued that under Labour there would be 52 more murders and 146 more sexual assaults or rapes a year, based on a study by the Conservative research department that was widely debunked by fact-checkers. Boris Johnson continued to claim Labour would disband the secret services, despite no pledge existing in their manifesto. The Conservatives vowed to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 and have 50,000 more nurses by 2024/25 without accounting fully for how they would be paid for. Labour, as with previous elections, warned about Tory plans to sell off the National Health Service, and the Liberal Democrats came into hot water for producing election leaflets designed like local newspapers (something the party has done for many elections. The campaign materials also often included misleading bar charts). A senior press officer was suspended by the Lib Dems for allegedly forging an email. On the lower end of the spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn was caught out after saying he watched the Queen’s Speech on Christmas morning, even though the annual address is broadcast at 3pm.
A study by the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising found at least 31 campaigns from across the party spectrum were indecent, dishonest or untruthful. Of those, 11 were produced by the Lib Dems, ten by the Conservatives, six by the Brexit party and four from Labour.
Then there are the contradictions. Leaked government papers suggested that checks would be needed on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that implementing them by the end of 2020 would be a “major” challenge, despite Johnson’s claims to the contrary. Tánaiste Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, took the rare decision to intervene during the UK’s general election by insisting it was made “very clear” there would be checks on goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. The Tories led their campaign on a commitment to “Get Brexit done” even though trade talks about the future relationship with the EU have yet to begin.
Edwards, from the Electoral Commission, argues it is not new for political parties to try and make their opponents “look terrible”. “The law doesn’t say that parties have to tell the truth when they’re campaigning,” she says. When asked if the law should be changed, Edwards replied: “If any government is going to propose that it’s going to have to do some very careful evidence-gathering around how that might work, what the benefits and costs are… if you limit campaigning you need to be really careful about the impact of that.”
The IFS gave strong responses to the manifestos produced by political parties. Paul Johnson maintains that politicians are not being upfront with the public on major decisions surrounding how to fund public services, the future of social care, the costs of ageing and addressing the UK’s productivity crisis. Asked for his message to MPs, Johnson says: “Just be as honest and transparent as you can about these things. The more that you pretend everything is fine or pretend that you’re making everyone better off all of the time or pretend that you can have Swedish levels of public services with American levels of tax, you’re going to destroy not just your own credibility but the credibility of the whole system.”
Political opportunism has existed for as long as experts care to remember. In 2010 the Tories branded Labour’s plans for a national care service a “death tax”; in 2017, Labour repaid the favour by describing Theresa May’s reforms to social care as a “dementia tax”. “It’s an astonishing lack of political leadership and courage,” says Johnson of the impasse in finding a solution. Most recently Sajid Javid argued that the rise in homelessness in 2010 was caused by the previous Labour government. The horse-trading has amounted to nothing – the social care crisis persists, and homelessness remains a blight on society. Johnson argues the Tories have become “rather blasé” about the impact of their cuts to public services and should be “more alert to the potential negative consequences” of the levels of funding they are proposing.
Boris Johnson has been accused of sailing close to the wind on truth. He was fired from his job at The Times for fabricating a quote and became notorious on Fleet Street for his colourful, truth-stretching articles as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. He was sacked from Michael Howard’s frontbench in 2004 for lying about an affair. He was most closely associated with Vote Leave’s claim about the weekly cost of EU membership.
In August, No10's denial of plans to prorogue parliament was not borne out by reality. On closer reading, officials had denied that such a move would take place "in order to stop MPs debating Brexit", which they maintained was not the purpose of prorogation (to mixed reaction). The new administration begins with a degree of friction with the media, particularly the BBC, with threats circulating on decriminalising non-payment of the license fee and an alleged boycott of Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. Journalists are likely to be much more sceptical after senior Tory sources made the incorrect claim about Matt Hancock’s aide being attacked by left-wing activists.
Will Moy argues it is in the interest of all governments “to be seen to be trustworthy and to earn trust”. "All of us who believe in democracy recognise that democracy depends on trust too," he says. "It is worth remembering that politics in this country largely works on the basis of self-restraint. Relatively few people have an awful lot of power. If they choose to abuse it, then other institutions will have to consider how they respond to that.”
Moy is keen to highlight that most MPs do not lie, are keen to address the issue and take action when they are found to have got their information wrong. Full Fact would like politicians to consider introducing a mechanism for backbenchers to correct the record in such an event, as is the case for ministers. “We get a remarkable amount of credit by correcting our mistakes openly. It’s a surprisingly effective way of building trust, because it shows you’re actively interested in being honest,” he says.
The current system for keeping in check political deceit is not up to scratch. All stakeholders will have to up their game to combat voter apathy and cynicism. While the responsibility is diffuse, politicians can take a step in the right direction by taking leadership in pursuit of more honest debate.
“Politics is always going to be a dirty game, it’s always going to be aggressive, it’s always going to have people pushing the limits,” concludes Moy. “It always needs people pushing back and sometimes they have to be the people on your side.”