At last we can keep election lies in check
Sunday April 3, 2005
Politicians lie, cheat and distort the views of their opponents at general elections. This year looks like being the ugliest of all, although previous
campaigns have been bad enough.
In 2001 Labour lied about tuition fees while the Conservatives made malodorous claims about immigration statistics. In 1997 Labour pushed the palpable
lie that the Tories would abolish the state pension, while in 1992 John Major falsely pledged not to raise VAT.
This time, however, there is a new watchdog to catch the politicians out. Channel 4 has had the dazzling idea of setting up FactCheck, a new website
to sift political fact from fiction.
The website came on stream only last week, but has already scored some notable hits. Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt has been caught out making false
claims about Tory childcare policies and forced to promise never to make them again. Yesterday FactCheck tore to shreds shadow chancellor Oliver
Letwin's claim that Labour had produced 'a quarter of a million extra bureaucratic posts ... people behind desks dealing with pieces of paper'.
As FactCheck showed, Letwin's so-called pen-pushers included school matrons, librarians and lab assistants.
Just as good as these two direct hits, however, is FactCheck's sober and diligent analysis of the major points of contention behind this year's
election battle. Labour's claim that the Tories have a £35 billion cost-cutting agenda, or Tory allegations that violent crime has soared under New
Labour, are analysed and dissected. All this analysis can be read by clicking on to www.channel4.com...
The British website is the brainchild of Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4. But the idea was born in the United States
during last year's presidential elections.
At the start of that campaign FactCheck.org - which was funded by an educational charity, the Annenberg Foundation - was unknown. But by the end its
site was receiving more than 100,000 hits a day and even playing an important role arbitrating in disputes, for example over the Swift Boat Veterans'
campaign that cast doubt on Senator John Kerry's service in Vietnam.
The key strengths of FactCheck.org were rigour, clarity, transparency and, above all, impartiality. These have been duplicated in the British version,
whose team of experienced political journalists and researchers is run by Jon Bernstein, former editor-in-chief of the government's Directgov
FactCheck can play a vital role in restoring public trust in politics in an age where political lying and deception is taken for granted. There is an
existing British model for FactCheck in the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, which monitors the economic statements of the rival parties.
There is no question that the IFS has brought a discipline to the economic statements made by politicians in the three decades since it was launched.
But until now there has been little or no restraint on, or examination of, political statements in wider areas.
As a result British political culture has been poisoned. Measured and reasoned debates about the future of Britain have been impossible during general
elections. Voters have been unable to reach proper judgments in the face of rival assertions from entrenched political machines.
FactCheck can perform an immeasurable service to British democracy. It can force politicians and the media to focus on truthful and accurate claims.
The endless accusations of bad faith made between rival politicians in their battle for power have prevented real debate about policy and the future
of the nation. If organisations like the IFS and Channel 4's FactCheck can secure common agreement on the facts, then the mist will have cleared and
for the first time in decades we can all see the real battlefield.
· Peter Oborne is the political editor of the Spectator.
He is presenting a film on the general election for Channel 4's Dispatches to be screened on 25 April.