Judge’s ruling in Boris case raises the idea of jailing all politicians who lie – but would this quickly fill our prisons?

The headline on an article in the New York Times a few years ago asserted:  “All Politicians Lie. Some Lie More Than Others.”

The article was written by a political fact-checker who – not surprisingly – found Donald J. Trump’s record on truth and accuracy was “astonishingly poor”.

At that time – when Trump was campaigning to become the Republican presidential candidate – her team had checked more than 70 Trump statements and rated fully 75% of them as Mostly False, False or “Pants on Fire” (the last category covered claims that were both inaccurate and ridiculous).

Trump has told many more lies since then. According to the tally published in The Washington Post in November last year, he had told 6,420 lies in his presidency.  In the seven weeks leading up to the mid-term elections, his rate increased to 30 per day.

The question we are raising at Point of Order today is whether political lying should be a crime and, if so, what the penalty should be.  Why not a stretch in prison? 

Our thinking has been triggered by Boris Johnson, Britain’s rumpled former foreign secretary, being called to answer for the lie at the heart of his Brexit campaign.

An early front-runner to succeed  Theresa May as British prime minister when she steps down in early June, Johnson’s prospects may have been scuttled by a London judge who has ordered him to appear in court over allegations that he misled the public during the 2016 campaign for the UK to leave the European Union.

According to a summons by private prosecutor Marcus Ball, Johnson “repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of E.U. membership,” falsely claiming that the country was paying Brussels 350 million pounds a week.

Johnson has dismissed the allegation as a politically-motivated stunt, but District Judge Margot Coleman ruled yesterday that the case warranted a preliminary trial at the very least.

“The allegations which have been made are unproven accusations and I do not make any findings of fact,” Coleman said. But, “having considered all the relevant factors I am satisfied that this is a proper case to issue the summons as requested for the three offenses as drafted.”

The ruling will compel Johnson to answer charges that he purposely misled the public about the costs of Britain’s alliance with the EU to swing the Brexit vote in his favor.

The misconduct offences carry a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to the Guardian.

The London-based fact-checker, FullFact, notes that EU membership is considerably lower than 350 million pounds a week with rebates

One big political question is whether the summons will rally supporters around Johnson and boost his prospects of becoming PM or reinforce his image as a political liability.

But at Point of Order, we reckon a much bigger question is raises:  why not lock up all politicians for lying?

Most readers, we are sure, could nominate at least one candidate for incarceration  for a raft of credibility crimes – dissembling, falsifying, deceiving, misrepresenting, equivocating …

Yes, we know there are fiscal implications.  Much more money would have to be appropriated for the criminal justice system to have the culprits tried and jailed.

In the US, Trump would certainly be liable for a long stretch.

Lee McIntyre, the author of an article on The Conversation headed Lies, damn lies and post-truth, says Trump’s 6,420 lies are a lot but asks:  isn’t this a difference in degree and not a difference in kind with other politicians?

From my perspective as a philosopher who studies truth and belief, it doesn’t seem so. And even if most politicians lie, that doesn’t make all lying equal.

Yet the difference in Trump’s prevarication seems to be found not in the quantity or enormity of his lies, but in the way that Trump uses his lies in service to a proto-authoritarian political ideology.

Another article on The Conversation, this one written by political science professor Mack Clayton Shelley 11, is headed 3 reasons why people fall for politicians’ lies about statistics. 

Shelley examines why people make poor decisions about politics and why they are  so often distracted by lies, irrelevant alternatives and specious arguments.

Politicians use and abuse statistics and fabricate when it suits their purposes. Contemporary examples of either deliberate or inadvertent misuse of data are easy to find on all sides of the political divide, from the Trump administration’s claim that U.S. border officials detained “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists” last year at the Mexican border to US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s December tweet asserting that “66 percent of Medicare for All could have been funded already” with the money spent on the Pentagon’s accounting errors.

Shelley believes politicians can get away with lies so easily because the public is not trained to critically consume statistical information or to defend against other (dis)information that is deliberately designed to mislead.

Science writer Andrea Morris in Forbes, has written an article headed A Lie Detection Expert Talks About How To Figure Out When Politicians Lie.  She says:

“Politicians always lie.” This bromide has anchored itself to our political expectations over the past 60 years.

Morris examines what exactly is a lie and distinguishes between diplomatic lies and  unwise promises,

Richard Nixon, who resigned when faced with impeachment for his self-serving lies, is mentioned in her article.

“What brought down Richard Nixon was not that he was untrustworthy, but his untrustworthiness was not serving any national purpose. It was serving a personal, political purpose of his own.”

The Philosophical Salon has an article headed Why politicians are allowed to lie.

The Times has something similar, written by Daniel Finkelstein, head of research for John Major during his disastrous 1997 election campaign, headed Why do politicians lie?

And former Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton  featured in a Washington Post article in 2016 headed Why politicians lie.  

In one of her speeches revealed by Wikileaks, Hillary Clinton admitted that she sometimes takes “public” positions that are at odds with her “private” position. In other words, she sometimes lies to the public about her true views. Only the most naive observers find it surprising that politicians try to deceive people in this way, or believe that Hillary Clinton is an unusual exception.

This article looks at lying to facilitate deals and lying to exploit public ignorance and asks if political lying is always wrong.

It references Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan, who argues that deception is defensible if it prevents an ignorant or malevolent electorate from pushing through harmful and oppressive policies.

For example, if a bigoted electorate favors slavery or racial segregation, a candidate might be justified in pretending to support these positions himself, and then reneging on his campaign promises when he takes office. Similarly, if you believe that passing the Affordable Care Act was the only feasible way to improve the badly flawed health care system, you might agree with Jonathan Gruber’s view that Obama’s lies about it were justified. Telling a few whoppers might be a small price to pay for saving the lives and health of millions.

But political lying is generally wrong.  So, too, is , the exploitation of ignorance generally.

Perhaps the public good is served by  lies sometimes.  If this be so, let the defence lawyers put the circumstances to the jury when political liars are brought to trial.  The jury just might let them off or recommend a lighter sentence.

Oh – and while we are thinking about lock-em-up-for-lying laws , what about public servants who mislead their ministers into misleading the public?

There’s no reason for them to be immune.




2 thoughts on “Judge’s ruling in Boris case raises the idea of jailing all politicians who lie – but would this quickly fill our prisons?

  1. It would probably be a good way of keeping the buggers honest by throwing the odd pollie and Sir Humphrey in jail for a minimum of 5yrs. Heck in the16th- 17th and 18th Centuries the British Admiralty use to shoot the odd Admiral if he didn’t engage or refuse to give fight against the French, US, Dutch or Spanish Navies and look what happened to the respective Navies. One became the Greatest Navy the world until has even until the end of WW1 or WW2 depending on what book you read and for other lot well I’ll leave that up to you find out.


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