David Cameron claims that child poverty is down. Actually it’s only down by relative measures, not in absolute terms, according to the government’s own Office of National Statistics. George Osborne says in a speech that debt is falling. In fact, it’s not a genuine reduction says the respected and independent Institute of Fiscal Studies.
Maybe these are simply mistakes by the politicians. Or maybe they’re deliberately trying to mislead the public in the run up to the election: the general election in May is most unpredictable for at least a generation. Either way, these untrue ‘facts’ do mislead people and hinder a proper democratic debate, and hence impede democracy itself.
Happily the last few years have seen the rise of independent “fact-checkers”, small organisations who go to the original sources to see whether politicians’ claims are actually true. Full Fact is the UK’s fact-checker and claims to have found hundreds of cases of unsubstantiated statements by politicians since it started in 2010. Full Fact highlights the true data on its own website and Twitter feed etc., and has prompted public retractions and corrections from every major national newspaper, parliament, MPs and pressure groups. It also checks ‘facts’ in newspapers, and has persuaded two newspapers to set up proper corrections columns. Full Fact operates year-round, but has gone into over-drive in the run-up to the election, for obvious reasons.
These BS-spotters must be helped out by individuals and charitable donations. Nobody else can enable their work: clearly they can’t take political money, nor government funds, and one wouldn’t want them supported by companies. So it’s down to you and me. Full Fact grew an idea into a proper organisation courtesy of a grant from the Nuffield Foundation (legacy of Lord Nuffield, creator of the Morris Minor) but in the last two months alone, has received support from 1297 random private people, each giving about £25.
It’s hard to overstate the importance here. If we care that our leaders are chosen based on their actual performance, and the actual state of the economy and public services, rather than fairy stories, then these fact-checking Inspector Clouseaux are indispensable. For all of us who bitch about politics and elections being full of BS, now is our chance to fix it.
Caroline Fiennes is the director of Giving Evidence, and author of It Ain't What You Give, It's The Way That You Give It, a guide to effective charitable donations. Buy it discounted from www.giving-evidence.com/book