12 Jun 2019

Should Boris have to face the music like the rest of us?

Robin Campbell-Burt – Director

Marketing and advertising executives have clear standards that they need to adhere to, shouldn’t politicians be following suit?

Having spent just under 20 years working in marketing and communications I am very aware of the regulations that we have to obey.

The UK government is very clear – marketing must be accurate, legal, decent, truthful, honest, and socially responsible.

Furthermore, ‘The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations’ mean that marketing cannot mislead or harass consumers by including false or deceptive images, leave out important information or use aggressive techniques.

These measures seem perfectly reasonable and any marketing specialist with integrity should have no problem in abiding by them. They also seem an ideal template for our politicians.

The news that Boris Johnson MP will go to court to answer a private prosecution for lying that the UK gives the EU £350m a week seems to some people like the right thing to do.

Whether or not it is the truth (like a lot of politics it is and isn’t at the same time), I think that it is a sad day when democracy is reduced to the same level of thought as marketing. Perhaps it is not so surprising when we think how central consumerism has become to our society, both for our personal sense of identity and as a driver for economic growth.

But there are vital differences between the roles of democratic debate and marketing in our country. Democracy is about the competition of ideas – of what could be, as well as what is. Politicians debate and compete with each other’s’ ideas and an engaged public witnesses this, deciding with what and whom to agree.

Politics is supposed to challenge conventional thinking. At its best it will always push the boundaries.

In contrast, the multitude of products and services that are continually being marketed to society simply does not face the same level of public scrutiny that our politicians come under. This surely must be the central argument why we should treat them as different things and why marketing requires specific regulation.

The controversy of what was written on ‘that bus’ is well known by anyone who is politically engaged – public debate has revolved around it endlessly. So why is it necessary to go to a court of law? The public sphere of the media has already done its job.

The big issue is that If Boris is to have his day in court, then everyone in politics will have to face a judge who will then decide what they can and can’t say. Big on the list would surely be George Osborne for his statement that there would be 500,000 job losses or that we would all be over £4,000 a year worse off from the Brexit vote.

Then there is Jeremy Corbyn and what he has said regarding his past support for the IRA; Gordon Brown when he claimed he had ended boom and bust recessions (remember 2008 anyone?); or the Green Party and its more lurid campaign claims over global warming.

All of these people could be challenged in a court of law – regardless of whether you support them or what they say is true. This in short is a recipe to grind our healthy democratic competition of ideas to a halt.

It would also suck the law into the highly partisan world of politics undermining its independence. This would not be democracy. In fact, having the courts adjudicating on public debate would be the end of democracy.

A final thought is that the law is a rich person’s business. Only those with the funds behind them will be able to push claims in court against politicians. The private prosecution being brought against Boris Johnson has had to be crowdfunded by thousands of donations.

Big business in particular will have an inbuilt advantage. Just imagine how an oil company could take the Green Party to court to challenge its rhetoric on climate change and who is to blame for it.

It will be the weakest and most vulnerable in our society who will suffer if private prosecutions of politicians take off.