Free and fair debate is crucial to any type of effective democracy. Lies corrupt the very essence of this ideal and I think we should be considering how to use the law to combat lies in public life.
What is a lie? It is a statement, presented as fact, that is unsupported by evidence.
An un-truth is not a lie if the person communicating it believes it to be true and has evidence which in fact, turns out to be wrong. Plato wrote about this in Theaetetus (360BCE) and it is known to philosophers as the Tripartite Theory of Knowledge.
Could the law be used to punish liers? Or is the scale of the problem just too vast?
I don't think we should be punitive about off the cuff remarks, which, due to the sloppy nature of our spoken language, can cause misrepresentation. But perhaps we should be more demanding of prepared statements made by individuals in positions of authority and by organisations.
It may also be useful to split the issue into three areas:
- Politicians and public servants
- The Media
- The Internet
It seems to me logical that we should be stringent about the truth of statements prepared by politicians and public servants. This would include prepared statements made in the House of Commons or to the media and simple verbal statements of fact (Did you do that? Yes or No.)We should also be careful about the power of the media to corrupt debate with falsehoods. This does not mean that they will necessarily have to reveal their anonymous sources, who may have a secret truth that it is in the public interest to reveal, but it does mean that they may have to qualify their statements with "According to several sources..."etc.
The Internet is perhaps the thorniest problem because individuals can so easily publish whatever they want and some of the written content may be very conversational in tone. It is also an international media and it may be unclear where an author resides and, therefore, which jurisdiction appertains. However, British organisations and authority figures could easily be held to account for their online communication.
Interestingly, the ease with which the Internet's wide range of sources can be searched is perhaps one of its saving graces, as evidence can be gathered quickly, using a search engine, that proves or disproves suspect statements. And news media organisations, publishing on the Internet, who are threatened by legal proceedings against their dishonest statements, will become more trusted sources of information than"Joe Blogs".
How would such a system work?
Perhaps it requires an "Authority" like the Advertising Standards Agency, who could take note of complaints, decide if a case is to be answered, demand a public apology and a re-statement of the culprits position and, if necessary, prepare a case for the civil courts. I'd hope that few cases were brought, but the deterrent would be strong.