“Liar, Liar” released in 1997, starring Jim Carey, tells the story of Fletcher Reede, a fast-talking attorney and habitual liar. The simplistic and central message of the film is the importance of honesty. Fletcher’s dishonesty ruins his relationships, particularly with his son, Max. On Max’s birthday he makes a wish that his father would not be able to lie for a single day. This wish comes true, causing chaos in Fletcher’s personal and professional life, but ultimately leading him to realise the value of truth.

This edition of Snouts in the Trough focuses on how the importance of always telling the truth is seen as an outdated value by many in public life. The ability to lie allows people in power to exploit those protective systems that are in place for financial or political gain. Some may argue this has always been the case, although there is some evidence that not only have standards in public life deteriorated, but the public’s expectations of their public figures have similarly fallen.

Even as recently as 2015 there was a huge furore when the Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, admitted that he lied over claims that Nicola Sturgeon wanted David Cameron to remain in Downing Street. At the time he accepted that a demotion from the Cabinet would have been justified had he still been a member and he forfeited the severance payment which those who lose cabinet seats are paid, 

Fast forward to today. Baroness Michelle Mone, in her first major broadcast interview since the PPE scandal emerged, insisted that ‘lying to the media is not a crime’. She was finally forced to admit that she did not tell the truth about her links to PPE firm Medpro and that she and her husband Doug Barrowman made 30% profits from the contracts, with her husband making over £60 million from the deal.

Then there is Boris Johnson. His ability to lie is an art form. There are too many examples to include in an article of this length. We know that about five thousand WhatsApp messages on Johnson’s phone from January to June 2020 were unavailable to the Covid Inquiry. We are also aware that in June this year, the former prime minister was found by a committee set up by the entire House of Commons not only to have deliberately misled every one of its MPs over Partygate, but also of “being complicit in a campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee.” Yet there are still a vocal minority in the Tory party who would welcome him back as leader with open arms.

For those on the left of the Labour party Keir Starmer’s cynical use of the ten pledges to win the leadership election is one of the hardest to accept. It is unlikely that he would have become leader without persuading some of the left in the party that he would follow Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda for social justice. Not only has he abandoned most of these pledges, he has also launched a full-scale attack on Jeremy Corbyn and anyone in the Labour Party who supports radical change. At the same time a link to the web page detailing them has quietly been removed. Even in opposition the implications of the betrayal of these pledges are particularly noticeable. The promise to promote peace and human rights with no more illegal wars has a particular irony with Starmer’s overt support for Israel’s carnage in Palestine. He even stated at one point that Israel had the right to withhold power and water from Palestinians living in the area.

So is telling the truth an outdated concept? If we are forced to accept that everyone lies this would not only undermine the foundation of our justice system but also the cornerstone of democracy.

There are still protections in place. Lying in court has severe consequences and The Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act of 1871 makes it possible for politicians to be found guilty of perjury if they lie under Parliamentary oath. The 1983 Representation of the People Act allows politicians to be punished for making false statements about a political candidate. It is also true that election campaigns are subject to tight scrutiny.

Nevertheless, outside of elections and parliamentary oaths, politicians are pretty much free to bend the truth as they please. The MP’s Code of Conduct contains just a single sentence under the heading of ‘honesty’ and that refers to the declaration of conflicts of interest. The House of Lords Code of Conduct has only seven words: ‘Holders of public office should be truthful’. What is more, on the rare occasions an MP is found to be in breach of these codes, the consequences are so half-hearted that they can hardly be classed as punishments. Misbehaving politicians can be asked ‘to apologise to the House’ (not the public) or be suspended from parliament for a short time, although they may still be paid their full salary while suspended.

Current checks on politicians’ behaviour leave a lot to be desired. It is not surprising that Westminster is swimming in lies when the rules governing honest conduct are so weak and patchy.

The public still rate honesty and integrity as key qualities in their leaders but also seem to accept that many do not follow this moral code. As a result they revert to their own standards of assessing credibility which, in turn, may be influenced by the media.

The importance of independent investigative journalists and pressure groups such as ‘The Good Law Project is paramount. We must believe that holding power to account will act as a brake on the more extreme forms of abuse. It may not achieve the moral transformation that Fletcher Reade achieved in the film ‘Liar, Liar’, but it should be a warning to those breaching this moral code that there can be consequences. We can also play our own part by continuing to question and expose those who are gaining either financially or politically from lying. As Mark Twain, wrote: ‘If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.’

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