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What lies beneath

What happens to the law in an age of fake news? A new book offers a few answers

18 February, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Boris Johnson and the Brexit battle bus

DETECTIVE Sergeant Harold Challenor set records for arrests, using the “sus” laws to slap cuffs on anyone he didn’t like the look of.

He joined the Flying Squad in 1958, and earned notoriety for his no-nonsense approach, using his catchphrase: “You’re nicked, my old darling.”

But his methods would today see him sacked.

He was eventually forced to retire after fitting up three innocent people – and Challenor’s downfall, considered to be a pivotal moment in the erosion of trust in the police, is one of many stories told in a new book by former barrister and judge Inigo Bing.

Populism on Trial: What Happens When Trust In Law Breaks Down considers of the rise of a toxic political trend that, Bing argues, is a step towards totalitarianism – and what shocks is how his wide-ranging and accessible polemic illustrates that today in the UK we are caught tightly in populism’s grip.

It has become a buzzword to describe the rise of authoritarian governments, undermining the cornerstones of democracy. He cites how the erosion of an independent judiciary and a diligent Commons in favour of the executive raises the spectre of unrestrained power.

Disturbingly, he recognises similarities between populist governments today and regimes that blighted history – Hitler, Mussolini and other dictatorships. The legal expert defines what the phrase means and the effect it is having on the UK today.

Bing describes how, in 2019, MP Jacob Rees Mogg asked the Queen to prorogue the Commons to halt MPs discussing leaving the European Union. For Rees Mogg, it was a way of ensuring what he called the “will of the people” was honoured, but to opponents, it was nothing more than an attack on the sovereignty of the Commons and the role of the judiciary.

Bing argues it highlighted how “populism” threatens liberal democracy, nibbling away at the public’s trust of the systems used to provide reflective and accountable government alongside an independent judiciary.

Bing explains how we are in the midst of a populist takeover. Boris Johnson’s election victory was, he states, won by styling himself as a leader who somehow represented the “people” with his Eton-educated coterie of privileged right-wingers.

“Liberal democracy in Britain is in crisis and there is scepticism about the traditional norms which provide the glue to hold societies together,” states Bing.

“Liberal democracies depend on society being vibrant, where a responsible free press reports true, not fake, news; where public discourse is polite, and where critical thinking is to be encouraged not reviled.”

In one telling passage, he cites the use of language and the rotten dishonesty at the core of British populism. The Daily Express printed a headline at the start of the EU Referendum campaign that claimed: “Major leak from Brussels reveals the NHS will be killed off if Britain remains in the EU.”

It was in no way true – but lies were a key plank of the populist’s game plan.

“The language populists use is important,” he adds.

“It is capable of stoking anxiety and corroding trust. At populism’s heart is an appeal to emotion, not facts.”

He quotes Leave fanatic businessman Aaron Banks, who said: “Remain featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work.”

Added to this, we are faced with “a digital culture full of rumour, guesswork, fake news and conjecture, which crowds out cool, objective assessments,” Bing claims.

“It has taken hold in Britain because the bedrocks of society – elected legislatures, independent judges and a free press – are threatened by intolerance, mistrust, online bullying and a cacophony of conspiracy theories.”

This removes facts from debate – “before populism took hold, a veneration of facts had once been so strong that fact-checking was a necessity for any journalist writing a story. Populist culture has changed this.”

He cites how evidence is replaced by meaningless mantras – Brexit Means Brexit, Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Oven-Ready Deal.

“The two bedrocks of Enlightenment culture – facts and truth – sit uneasily on the shoulders of populists,” he adds.

Cherry-picked ideas are chosen to suit a preconceived opinion – examples being the EU debate and, more recently, the pandemic.

This “poisons the reservoir of social trust,” he says.

“Populism has accusations that are vague, unspecific and garnished with the spittle of prejudice,” Bing writes, which in turn casts aside pragmatism, democracy and decency.

Bing delves back into recent history, charting populism’s rise. Examples include how the 2008 banking crash was explained by a lie that austerity was necessary while the bankers, who caused the crisis, were absolved of blame.

That populists hark back to an ill-defined period where Britain was seemingly a “better” place is a cornerstone of such lies: cases such as the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven are held up as examples.

And being against something is easier than standing for something – another populist trait.

“They are often uncertain about whether they are bold in their plans for the future or nostalgic for a lost past,” he writes. “They claim to be modernisers but underneath is a belief that somehow things were always better in the past.”

Bing offers a detailed but accessible consideration of populism, and the dangers it presents. He explains how checks and balances are essential for a healthy democracy – and how populism’s con trick is to persuade otherwise, to the advantage of the real elite.

Populism on Trial: What Happens When Trust In Law Breaks Down. By Inigo Bing. Biteback Publishing, £20.

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