Both sides of the UK’s EU referendum campaign were criticised for presenting misleading information to the public. Alan Renwick, Matthew Flinders and Will Jennings write that the referendum highlighted the inability of the British political system to enforce standards of factual accuracy in how politicians campaign. They argue that while legal or regulatory changes could alter this picture to some extent, the real issue is a cultural one.
Will the EU referendum be remembered as a golden moment in British democratic history? Was it really an example of how to ‘do’ democracy in the Twenty-First Century? Or was it an example of fairy tales and falsehoods that tended to create more heat than light and a dysfunctional system that was unable to enforce truthfulness?
In its report published at the end of May 2016, the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee complained that ‘The public debate is being poorly served by inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims.’ It added, ‘Members of both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ camps are making such claims.’ But the standard of public debate did not improve, and the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, felt forced to state publicly that he was ‘angry about the way the British people are being misled’. Such claims resonate with a public letter signed by over 250 leading academics that suggested that the level of misinformation in the Referendum campaign was so great that the democratic legitimacy of the final vote might be questioned.
Now that the Referendum has happened and the storm has somewhat abated the question that demands urgent attention is how any future referendum might be conducted on the basis of a more rigorous – dare we suggest even fact-based – public discussion?
If the problem that the EU referendum exposed was the inability of the British political system to enforce even the most basic requirements in relation to publicly-funded information campaigns, there are at least four reforms that could be considered to prevent such situations arising in future. The first is a legal response in the form of new legislation that would state that, just as some lying in election campaigns is against the law, so too should lying in referendum campaigns be against the law. Campaigners who violate such provisions could then be subject to criminal sanctions. The risk is that this may create significant unintended consequences in the form of far-reaching concerns about freedom of speech and the transfer of powers from elected politicians to unelected judges.
Tighter press regulation would be a second option. The Independent Press Standards Organisation has upheld at least four complaints relating to inaccuracy that related to the Referendum. But its rulings typically take two or three months and there is a case for insisting that not only are rulings delivered more quickly but, where those complaints are upheld, retractions or corrections should have a prominence commensurate to that of the original article.
If statutory measures are deemed too draconian and press regulation too harsh then the official campaign organisations could be obliged to recognize their civic responsibilities, in the sense of promoting engaged and informed citizenship, in return for their civic rights, that come in the form of public funds, free mailings, broadcasts, etc. The mechanism in this case might be an enforceable code of conduct, which the Treasury Committee’s report (at paragraph 235) seemed to favour. Once again, the devil would be in the detail: who or what would be the arbiter of when the facts strayed from tenuous but legitimate into the terrain of deceit and political lying? Would they be able to act quickly enough to work effectively? How would penalties be decided and enforced?
A final option would be to alter the statutory role of the Electoral Commission to include a duty to enhance public understanding of the issues at stake in the referendum. The extensive materials the New Zealand Electoral Commission produced for that country’s 2011 Referendum on the voting system, for example, included detailed explanations of each option, statements of the criteria against which the options might be evaluated, and analyses of how the options perform against these criteria. In what was (it should be acknowledged) a much less intense or politicised campaign than the current one, journalists frequently relied heavily on the Commission’s guide as a basis for their reporting.
There is also a rather awkward question concerning the meaning and delivery of public service broadcasting in the UK, notably in relation to the BBC. If major broadcasters have a public service obligation, if they are maintaining high quality ‘fact-checkers’ and ‘myth busters’, then why are they required to maintain a degree of impartiality and balance between both sides of the debate when the expert analysis, on certain specifics, overwhelmingly favours one side of the argument over the other? Impartiality in this context risks simply facilitating the promotion of falsehoods, fig leaves, fantasy and fairy tales as fact.
The twist, sting or barb in the tale is, however, that institutional change is unlikely to prevent future storms without a complementary shift in the cultural foundations of British politics. This is a critical point that the EU Referendum brutally exposed. The operating culture of British politics appears increasingly infused with a form of attack politics in which negative campaigning, personal slurs and populist declarations are dominant. The paradox is that this form of politics risks achieving little more than fuelling anti-political sentiment and the emergence of ever-greater numbers of ‘disaffected democrats’.
In this context, there is a danger that any policing of the standards of claim and counter-claim in future referendums could simply be used to fuel a populist fire: that injunctions against certain claims could be turned around and presented as further evidence of the perfidy of ‘the establishment’. Fighting falsehoods therefore requires fundamental change in how we think about and structure our democracy. That is a challenge that we should all seek to address now the referendum is over. Failure to do so may do more than render future referendums unhealthy. If the degree of mendacity witnessed in this campaign were to become commonplace in our electoral politics as well, one of the crucial foundations of our democratic system would be badly damaged.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Note: This article originally appeared as part of the Referendum Analysis project. It gives the views of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Humberto Rodriguez (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
Shortened URL for this post: http://bit.ly/2au1OAx
Alan Renwick – University College London
Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit in the Department of Political Science at University College London.
Matthew Flinders – University of Sheffield
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director for the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield.
Will Jennings – University of Southampton
Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Southampton.
First, our legal and political tradition is adversarial, both sides get to put their own case and to question and criticise their opponents case and sum up at the end of the debate; the jury or electorate, as the case may be, then gets to decide. Whatever its imperfections the adversarial procedure is the greatest engine of truth ever devised.
Consequences do follow for those who make out the more outrageous claims. Paul Krugman has recently opined on the consequences for those bodies and persons who produced economic analyses which had no basis in economic science, but were fabricated motivated reasoning solely calculated to intimidate the electorate into voting a particular way.
http://goo.gl/vXkOTd and http://goo.gl/bcs3ST
He points out that where there is a political consensus amongst economists it’s important that they produce material based on conventional and recognised economic paradigms and don’t just produce propaganda in support of their political preferences. The consequence if they don’t is that they are not believed and economics becomes a branch of politics, and the status of economists as scientific experts is discredited.
At the avowedly political end, the example of the £434. 35p per household hit and the death spiral budget, discredited since the 1930s, were counterproductive. They were simply beyond credibility and consequently the persons involved were not believed and lost public trust on all sides.
Much touted as a lie was the suggestion that the UK sent £350 million a week to the EU and the money saved could be spent on the NHS. But this is merely an example of why the adversarial is the greatest engine of truth ever devised. It was bait. The opponents of the claim immediately jumped in to correct – No, the UK only sends £225 million per week to the EU – they produced facts to support this. No, £350 million is the correct figure to use said there opponents. This cycle repeated for weeks. The electorate were sure of one thing – the UK sends a huge amount of money to the EU each week.
This is the sort of representation to which ambiguity attaches, but is resolved decisively one way in the electorates mind as the result of both sides presenting their facts and their reasoning.
I’m aware that there have been calls in certain quarters for a Ministry of Truth to vet claims, and even for the BBC to be appointed to that role. In the UK we don’t need another Ministry of Truth, we already have one embodied in the common wisdom of the jury and electorate.
Imagine if we had had a Ministry of Truth, and no expert was honest enough as Paul Krugman has been, to abandon the consensus and cry ‘ But the King has no clothes!’
The thing is, this degree of mendacity has been seen in UK general elections – such as the two coalition parties abandoning their manifesto pledges under the pretext that they were in coalition – something I felt was akin to electoral fraud. It is absolutely time that campaigning is subject to some kind of truth regulator.
The £350m claim is a valuable case-study. To Leavers focusing on sovereignty, that full, gross figure was the relevant point: that was the amount surrendered to EU control. (And the EU chose to give a lot back.) To Remainers focusing on the economy the gross figure was political noise: the relevant measure was the net amount. The cross-speakers (Remainers focusing on diplomatic leverage / effective sovereignty, and Leavers wanting
. . to free non-exporting businesses from EU regulation) were largely unheard. A media consensus formed (am I right on this?) that Leave was dishonest in mentioning the £350m (gross) figure – and I think Leave then reacted by simplifying its message, and stated plainly (& falsely) that Brexit would make an extra £350m available for the NHS.
The snag with the adversarial model is that some points can’t be made. (Lawyers take care to omit points that can be “turned”.)
The snag with the jointly-enquire-&-decide model is – who decides the criteria for truth, relevance and scope.
For lawyers, the Court applies external structure. It pushes the parties to acknowledge aspects not genuinely in dispute – and provides those criteria.
In politics there is no external structure.
Can an internal structure (or process) be made to work?
Don’t Blame BREXIT for Any Economic and Financial Failure of the UK Economy, Blame the Blair Government for Their Mismanagement of the Nation’s Future and Where Debt Exploded and was Unprecedented in the History of the United Kingdom – https://worldinnovationfoundation.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/dont-blame-brexit-on-any-economic-and_17.html