Democracy and Public Debate

Fake news and hate speech online – much of it spread via the giant tech platforms. Government ministers brazenly lying. Threats to the integrity of our elections through the dissemination of misinformation on social media. National newspapers that are increasingly partisan, and a local press too financially enfeebled to hold politicians to account.

In recent years, the quality of public debate in Britain has deteriorated sharply, thanks to all these factors and the increasing rejection of traditionally accepted norms of behaviour. And this threatens the very fabric of our democracy. We have lost a set of shared truths and facts around which we can base political debate. What can be done to reverse the decline?

A policy paper prepared by an FPC working group, to be debated at Autumn Conference, proposes a bold and distinctly liberal set of initiatives that carefully balance our rights and freedoms, especially the right to free speech, with the need to combat online harms and allow misinformation to be challenged.

The individual and their rights are at the very centre of Liberal Democrat values and they are also the starting point of this paper. It calls for a new Bill of Rights, fit for the digital age. This would guarantee the right to education – including lifelong education about public debate; the right to online privacy; the right for the individual to own their data; and the right to freedom of expression. To ensure freedom to take part in digital debate, it would also establish a Citizen’s Wifi service, freely available in public realm spaces.

The powers of the social media giants would be curbed through better regulation by a new, independent watchdog, which would also safeguard the independence of the BBC and ensure due impartiality among broadcasters.

Social media platforms would be required to negotiate fair compensation to news providers whose content appeared on their site, and finance a fund to support fact-checking sites and local journalism. The paper repeats the long-standing Liberal Democrat demand for full implementation of the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry and the commissioning of a Leveson 2 inquiry into relations between the press and police.

To improve the quality of debate during elections, the paper demands greater transparency around spending and social media advertisements and says the powers of the Electoral Commission must be strengthened, including the ability to impose meaningful sanctions when rules are broken.

But perhaps the best way to prevent people falling prey to online misinformation is through better education, which is why this is so central a policy in the paper. It calls for the introduction of critical thinking skills to the school curriculum, following the example of Finland, which is ranked as the European country most resilient to fake news.

It would also bring in a programme of lifelong critical thinking education, keeping citizens abreast of changing digital issues. This would include addressing the asymmetry of knowledge between social media platforms and their users, which means users’ content is used in ways they have no way of knowing, or to which they have consented.

The topicality and urgency of these issues should ensure a lively Conference debate, which will be held on Friday between 8 and 9 p.m.

The full paper can be found here.

* Martin Dickson, a former national newspaper journalist, joined the party in 2016 after the Brexit referendum. He is currently serving as chair of the Federal Policy Committee working group on Democracy and Public Debate.

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This entry was posted in Conference, Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Mike Falchikov 13th Sep '21 - 6:48pm

    An excellent contribution. This should also be aimed at reform of the way Parliament works – too much empty rhetoric and a totally out of date way in which “debates” are conducted.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Sep '21 - 2:03pm

    The integrity of elections is more about an informed electorate, preferential voting and much larger franchise than preventing minimal fraud.

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