Worries about the Woolas judgment
Like many people, my instinctive reaction to the judgment against Phil Woolas is: good riddance. There are, however, two implications here that worry me.First, this might represent another increase in the lawyerization of politics and society. One effect of this ruling might be to encourage other defeated candidates in future elections to claim they were the victims of lies - and given that there is a thin line between outright lying and suggestion, exaggeration, half-truths or genuine mistakes, they will often have some sort of evidence in their favour. The result could be either that the courts decide the results in several marginal seats, or that candidates internalize this constraint, and run more tepid campaigns. As Ryan Gallagher says:
There is a danger that freedom of expression could be impinged. A paranoid self-censorship could result in overly sanitised, dull political campaigns lacking in fire or bite.
Secondly - and more importantly - this judgments highlights a failing in our democracy. The purpose of election campaigns is to test candidates’ claims. The fact that Woolas was lying should have been exposed in the campaign, not the courts. As Michael Harris says, “surely it is the right of the electorate to make a decision on his probity for elected office – not judges.”So, why didn’t this happen? One possibility is that the media and rival candidates lack the ability to scrutinize incumbents properly (and, in the case of the media when it comes to lies about Muslims, the inclination to do so as well). The other possibility is that the voters just don’t care.I’m not sure which of these is most worrying. But let’s be clear. This judgment raises more profound issues than simply that of the malevolence of Woolas.