Today, a court decided that a private prosecution against Boris Johnson should go to trial.
The charge is misconduct in public office. The prosecution case is that Mr Johnson “repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership, expressly stating, endorsing or inferring that the cost of EU membership was £350 million per week.”
Mr Johnson is innocent until proven guilty of any crime, and what counts as misconduct in public office is one of the issues the lawyers are arguing about. It will be for a court to decide what the offence means, and for a jury to decide whether Mr Johnson is guilty.
What we do know is that Mr Johnson and others did misrepresent how much money the UK sends to the EU. Full Fact factchecked claims about the EU membership fee repeatedly during the referendum campaign. The UK Statistics Authority also made clear in May 2016 that £19 billion, or £350 million a week, is “not an amount of money that the UK pays to the EU each year”. When Mr Johnson repeated that in the Telegraph in September 2017, the Authority described it as “a clear misuse of official statistics”.
Whatever happens in court, it is offensive when senior public figures mislead the rest of us, and people are angry about it.
The Committee for Standards in Public Life used to do a regular survey of public attitudes. In 2008 it found that “the gap between what people think politicians should do and what they think they do in practice is at its largest in relation to telling the truth”.
76% of us said that it’s extremely important for MPs to tell the truth, but only 26% trusted all or most MPs to tell the truth.
We expect more of our politicians, and some politicians don’t seem too fussed about it.
Honesty is one of the seven principles of public life: “Holders of public office should be truthful.”
In theory, we have lots of ways of upholding those principles without prosecuting people. In practice, they are not doing what they should or being given the respect they need –
- The Committee on Standards in Public Life has largely avoided talking about honesty despite the evidence of their own surveys
- The UK Statistics Authority’s important interventions on the referendum were ignored by too many campaigners
- The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards could investigate factual dishonesty as breaches of the House of Commons Code of Conduct, but as far as we know hasn’t
- The Ministerial Code of conduct for government ministers only works when the Prime Minister is prepared to enforce it
At Full Fact we know from our experience factchecking that some politicians do go the extra mile to get their facts right or to correct the record when they make mistakes. We are not, yet, a country where politicians just make things up and get away with it all the time. The best politicians realise that politics is important and deserves to be done honestly and well.
Full Fact wants to see greater accountability for public figures who mislead—but there are good reasons to be worried about the precedent set by criminal law getting involved in keeping politicians honest. It would be bad for democracy if politicians decided it was safer to avoid discussing facts at all, or if we started to see battles of private prosecutions where the side with the deepest pockets can silence its opponents.
If the court does decide that Mr Johnson has committed misconduct in public office it will need to define very carefully what it means and recognise the risks to free speech of that kind of decision.
The better option is for people in public life to accept their responsibility to solve the problem of dishonesty in public life.
They should be willing to call out their own sides - not just their opponents - when they get things wrong and fail to correct the record. It's up to all of us as voters to make that happen.
Whatever the outcome of the proceedings, we’ll continue to advocate for higher standards and call out those who don't uphold them. Donate today to support better public debate.
PS – Full Fact, like many other expert organisations, was contacted by the organiser of the private prosecution before it began when he was looking for expert witnesses.
Of course it is our duty to assist a court in whatever way the legal process calls for but we don’t believe it would be appropriate for us to be part of private discussions with any party in the case.
If the court needs evidence from Full Fact we will give it independently.