Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Editorial: Punish character assassins

Published:Friday | November 13, 2015 | 11:00 AM

A court case has just been concluded in Scotland - which should be of some relevance to Jamaica, especially in the context of an election campaign - the outcome of which we suggest people pay attention to when Lady Paton and Lord Matthews arrive at their verdict. But whatever their ruling, in this period of electoral reform and calls for improvements to the tone and substance of political debate, perhaps legislators ought to be inspired by the case itself in making amendments to Jamaica's Representation of the People's Act.

The case involved Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish secretary in the United Kingdom's former Tory/Liberal-Democrats government and the Lib-Dems only remaining MP north of the border after the all-round wipeout of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in last May's elections. Carmichael represents the constituency of Orkney and Shetland, considered a Lib-Dem safe seat.

In April, as the election campaign was about to get under way, Carmicahel authorised his close adviser, Euan Roddin, to leak what he hoped was an explosive confidential civil service memo about the SNP's leader and Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, then lied about his involvement.

Sturgeon, apparently in a clear reversal of her declarations about wanting a post-election "progressive alliance" of Britain's left-wing parties, was supposed to have told the French ambassador in London, Sylvie Bermann, that she would prefer David Cameron, the Tory leader, as the UK's prime minister rather than Ed Milliband, the then leader of the Labour Party. The claim was that she did not believe Milliband to be of prime ministerial material, but more important, with the Tories in power, it would be easier for the SNP to force another referendum on Scottish independence.

The memo was drawn up on the basis of a briefing the civil servant was supposed to have had with a French diplomat, Pierre Alain Coffinier, and was seen by many as undermining confidence and trust in Sturgeon and her party. But its contents were hotly denied by the SNP leader and ambassador Bermann. Carmichael admitted to being less than "fully truthful" with the initial Cabinet Office investigation into the source of the leak.

 

Lose his seat

 

This matter found its court under a section of the UK's Representation of the People Act, going back to 1938, which makes it illegal for opponents and other people to speak falsehoods about the character or conduct of election candidates. In this case, a complaint was brought by four of Carmichael's constituents, who argued that they were misled by his behaviour, which was aimed at winning his seat. Technically, Lady Paton and Lord Matthews sat as a committee of the Commons, and their ruling could mean Carmichael would lose his seat.

Carmichael may well be right - that he acted on a higher motive than to smear Sturgeon with information he knew to be untrue - for at the time, he believed the memo to be true, speaking to the intention of the Scottish nationalists.

Our larger concern is how often, in Jamaica, playing nasty with known untruths is part of the political dialogue at the expense of the character of the opponent.

Not only are people hurt by such actions, but it fogs policy options and promotes ignorance. Jamaica makes an effort to deal with it via the political code of conduct but should legislate against it.