Richard North, 30/05/2019  

Not a few have expressed reservations about the private prosecution of Boris "turd-giver" Johnson on three counts of misconduct in a public office, after allegations that he lied about how much Britain gives to the EU.

This is the infamous £350 million a week claim on the side of the big red bus and while there can be little dispute that Johnson was lying through his teeth, the concern is that the courts are not the place to do politics.

Moreover, the motivation of "campaigner" Marcus Ball, who is behind the action, appears to be very far from pure. Already, he has been outed as an anti-Brexit campaigner. This allows the turd-giver to claim victim status and the action to be dismissed.

Nor is there any certainty that this case will ever be tried. The case rests on the assertion that Johnson, while actively campaigning for Vote Leave during the Brexit referendum campaign, retained his role as a public official having been Mayor of London up to 9 May 2016.

In his defence, Johnson appears to be denying that he was acting in any official capacity and was simply taking on the role of political campaigner – the inference being, of course, that the lies of mere campaigners are beyond the reach of the courts. And, in pursuit of that argument, Johnson's legal team are intimating that they could challenge the decision to allow the prosecution to go ahead through the medium of judicial review.

Should the case go to trial, it will have to be heard in the Crown Court in front of a jury, since misconduct in a public office is potentially a very serious crime, carrying a maximum sentence of life. Thus, sub judice rules will apply which could either close down speculative reporting on the case, or give Johnson an escape route on the technicality that pre-hearing publicity has prejudiced his right to a fair trial.

All this notwithstanding, one can sympathise with the broader irritation at the proliferation of political lying and the failure of traditional controls to limit their spread. In better days, the politician telling an overt lie would be picked up by the media and taken apart by rival politicians, when a sense of shame on the part of the progenitor would act as a corrective and the lie would be recognised for what it was.

But what is lacking from contemporary politics is any sense of shame. As Peter Oborne wrote in his 2005 book, The Rise of Political Lying, Britain now lives in a post-truth political environment. Public statements are no longer fact-based, but operational. Realities and political narratives are constructed to serve a purpose, dismantled and the show moves on.

When it was published 14 years ago, Oborne asserted in his book that this rise in political lying was new. All governments, he said, have contained liars, and most politicians deceive each other from time to time. But in recent years mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British system.

Given this "post-truth political environment", when it came to the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, it was inevitable that lies would form a major part of the discourse, especially when one of the most prominent campaigners on the "leave" side was (and is) a practised and fluent liar.

It says something of Johnson that I can write about him in such terms without the slightest fear of being sued. But this is the man who started off his journalistic career with The Times by fabricating quotes. And, although this behaviour got him fired, he simply moved over to the Telegraph, where his talent for mendacity was put to good use as the paper's Brussels correspondent.

After a long career marked by lies, plagiarism, petty theft, episodic thuggery and spectacular political incompetence, one would have thought that no self-respecting organisation would have anything to do with him. And that proved to be the case, as he joined the Vote Leave campaign to take on the role as its most prominent spokesman.

But in a domain where lies had become common currency, what offended most was the sheer brazen effrontery of a lie that was not peripheral to the campaign but a central part of it, emblazoned on the side of the "battle bus". And, despite the number and authority of the rebuttals, the campaign kept using the lie, impervious to any correction.

For all that, though, it is not as if the other side could claim the moral high ground. They, after all, supported an organisation which was built on a foundation of lies to the extent that its history could sustain our lengthy book with the title The Great Deception and which, only this week has one of its most senior officials perpetuate the lie that it was a "strong, pan-European democracy", with "a genuine mandate from the people".

Since lies have now become embedded in the very fabric of our politics, it hardly seems appropriate that the liar Johnson should be singled out for special treatment. After all, the originator of the "£350 million" lie was not him but Dominic Cummings where his performance in front of the Treasury Committee had him seeking to argue black was white.

What this demonstrated was not so much the Oborne thesis that the rise of political lying is a new phenomenon but that there is no longer any restraint on the use of the lie in politics. Not only has it become a normal and common tool, the progenitor of the lie is the one who prospers. Hence we see the turd-giver as the front runner in the Tory leadership contest.

But it is only a newspaper that itself is home to frequent and egregious lies that could cast its liar-in-chief as the "victim of a plot" when attempts are made to bring his lies to book. Whatever the motivation of the prime mover, the indisputable fact is that Johnson perpetrated and endorsed the lie at the centre of the leave campaign.

Such is the paper's complete lack of any moral grounding that it then casts the action as "legal harassment" which "reeks of Remainer despotism".

This "sustained legal harassment", we are told, is occasioned simply because Johnson "had the temerity to campaign to leave the EU". This is "truly the conduct of anti-democratic authoritarian regimes the world over", the Telegraph huffs.

One doesn't have to like, or be comfortable with, the idea of legal action to recognise special pleading when one sees it. Already, the Telegraph has so completely lost touch with any idea of what constitutes truth that it had its own political correspondent, the very same Peter Oborne, resign from it, calling its coverage "a fraud on its readers".

That it has now elevated a practised liar to its star columnist, and rushes to his defence when he is called out as a liar, tells you all you need to know about the paper. But it also tells us an awful lot about contemporary politics. This is the art where the lie proliferates and the liars flourish. 

Across the board in politics, truth, accuracy and integrity have become redundant. And we are the poorer for it.

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