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Forcing politicians to tell the truth

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Background Edit

Before I start it is important to realise that the vast majority of decisions taken by those in politics is largely well meant. Sure, there are many policies that are self-serving, but that is only to be expected. After all not many people could say that at work they work exclusively for their employer, for instance avoiding work, arriving 5 minutes late. The difference is responsibility. In an office job (normally) people’s lives do not depend on your work, and when they do you tend to be making a positive difference rather than a negative one (you may work for a charity, every person helped is a bonus rather than every person not helped a failure). Politicians do not have this luxury, even the lower ranking politicians make decisions regularly that will affect the everyday lives of other people. To make this more complicated most politicians have very little power or control at all even in their own departments. Remember politicians rarely personally implement their own initiatives, or even work out the fine detail. Politics is a very complex and difficult job.

There are further problems and barriers that need to be overcome. By its very nature those who go into politics (and certainly those who rise to the top) are ambitious, opinionated and often ruthless. Each person has their own agenda to pursue and may need to get other people to go along with it. This leads to a lot of back scratching, ideally in a good system none of these decisions would have negative impacts, this unfortunately is not the case. It is rare to find a policy with no negative consequences.

Almost every decision requires the interested party to make concessions to other people and groups to thwart opposition and build support, in a good government this should balance out nicely with a positive net result. The major motivator is power, in a democracy this comes from the electorate. This means that a lot of the concessions involve simply passing around hot potatoes (or getting someone out of a fix).

The Problem Edit

Whilst all of the above is unavoidable and even necessary, there are a number of requirements without which this system does not work: . Trust in politicians/political parties/groups . A set of accurate results on which the electorate can judge performance

In western countries it is fair to say that these systems work fairly well with the natural checks and balances provided by those with opposing viewpoints. Is this really enough?

At present as far as I am aware there are no ENFORCED laws in either the US or the UK that require political statements and statistics to be accurate or truthful. More importantly anytime criminal investigations are conducted into politicians they are heavily influenced by the party politics themselves. If you take the cash for honors inquiry in the UK or the Clinton impeachment in the US both have been severely affected by the politics of the situation. In the UK the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) has said it would need more evidence than normal to prosecute, equivalent to saying that they are (to some extent at least) above ordinary law and order. In the US many would argue that the reason for the prosecution was rather flippant and motivated by political rather than judicial or moral reasons, certainly no-one would argue that it was not heavily politicized.

It should be noted that most western civilizations have similar laws in effect to control most other political and social publications. Slander and libels law affect all types of media as well as the general population. The problem is that these laws require a complaint of personal injury or damage. This tends to limit prosecutions to the media as rarely is someone damaged directly or significantly by a government statistic or ramblings on lavatory walls. Misleading information from the government or political organizations damages us all however, effectively defrauding us of our right to make an informed decision.


Proposals Edit

In essence all that I am proposing is that there are laws that enable a member of the public (or group) to prosecute individuals and organizations for publishing misleading or untrue information.

In the UK there already is a body, which effectively does just this in relation to advertising the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority).

This is a perfect model for what I propose. It currently works like this:

A member of the public complains about a piece of advertising that is either offensive or misleading (NB different from untrue as the statement can be 100% true but misleading).

Depending on the number and severity of the complaint(s), the complaint is investigated.

The ASA releases a ruling saying that the advertising is either not in breach or in breach.

If the advertising is found to be in breach the company/individual concerned is asked to change or remove the advertising with the possible addition of a penalty depending on the severity. A simple change to the definition of advertising and a budget injection and this process should do the job admirably.


If this is to work it must be apolitical and independent, in that all inquiries must be assessed only on the impact and severity of the breach rather than who or what it contains. Secondly it must be applied to all political and government/civil service entities and publications. That is to say it should include everyone from the head of state down to the service workers like teachers and dustbin men. Obviously the lower down the chain the less likely the claim will be considered, and indeed the penalties involved would likely be smaller too. This may not always be the case for instance a teacher that tells pupils falsehoods could be considered very serious.

Another important consideration is that the Political ASA (lets call it Political Standards Authority) would have to be able to punish the individuals concerned not just the group. For example in the case of an under-secretary that produces misleading figures, the person responsible for knowingly letting those figures should be punished. This should be the elected official controlling the secretary but not always, the political rough and tumble in the upper echelons of a civil service is often just as bad as it is between the elected officials, so it may be that a senior under-secretary or even the under-secretary them self.

I would guess that most of the time and appropriate penalty would be a public apology and admission of the truth; the political embarrassment would most of the time be fairly huge.


The Effects Edit

It would for obvious reasons enforce democracy. In theory if the checks and balances in place currently work then nobody should have anything to fear. This is however blatantly not the case even in the truest of democracies and the most open of governments. Almost universally most government figures are widely perceived as, at best an approximation, at worse completely falsified. A democracy cannot be considered truly democratic unless the electorate is in possession of accurate facts; this is why freedom of the press is so important.

Additionally it would have additional benefits:

More power to elected officials: More pressure would be put on un-elected officials to keep officials properly informed.

Less "spin": As misleading the public would now be punishable and the consequences "un-spinable".

More public trust in officials and politicians.


Potential Problems Edit

The most obvious of course is that of opposition. It would take a brave man indeed to voluntarily put himself under so much scrutiny. One could conceive that this would be battled by almost everyone affected, which would the whole government structure. It would be easy to get support outside the government structure however, especially with business. Business in general craves openness as it enables them to make informed decisions about their money.

Another potentially powerful support base could come from political investors and fund raisers. The quantities of cash needed for a successful campaign is mind blowing, especially in the US where presidential campaigns can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Most of the money comes from independent donors (normally individuals, corporates and charities). Every one of those would like to know that the reasons they are donating are not based on fiction.

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