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In the comedic New York Times video Jonathan Pie: 'Boris Johnson Is a Liar' | NYT Opinion at about 00:45 the character (speaking to a fictional New York Times interviewer) says:

Actually I can't say liar, can I? Really? (surprised)

Oh in the UK you can't call them liars, you have to say like "Oh, he inadvertently misled parliament." Seriously? I can just come out and say it - call him a liar?

Ah, god bless America.

From Wikipedia:

Jonathan Pie is a fictional character created and portrayed by English actor and comedian Tom Walker. A political correspondent, Pie appears in a series of comedic online videos in which he rants angrily about British, American, and Australian politics, with the videos being presented as though he were a real reporter giving his personal opinions before or after filming a regular news segment.

In this case the Pie character is supposed to be explaining to the US audience of the New York Times about the news of Boris Johnson's apparently not telling the truth about parties which appeared to violate government restrictions due to the pandemic.

Question: Are there restrictions in the UK against calling politicians liars?

3 Answers 3

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Yes, Members of Parliament may not normally accuse other MPs of lying while they are speaking in Parliament - paragraph 21.24 of Erskine May states the following:

The general requirements of moderation in parliamentary language, reflected above, are viewed as particularly important when Members are speaking of other Members, not because other Members require specific protection, but in order to preserve the character of parliamentary debate. Words which may be tolerated by the Chair in other circumstances may therefore be discouraged or required to be withdrawn as unparliamentary when used in connection with other Members; though, as already indicated, what is unparliamentary is subject to the context in which a word or phrase is used. Expressions that are unparliamentary when applied to individuals are not always so considered when applied to a whole party.

Expressions when used in respect of other Members which are regarded with particular seriousness, generally leading to prompt intervention from the Chair and often a requirement on the Member to withdraw the words, include the imputation of false or unavowed motives; the misrepresentation of the language of another and the accusation of misrepresentation; and charges of uttering a deliberate falsehood.

Accusations of this kind must be made by tabling a substantive motion on the allegation, under which these accusations can be freely made and met by "a distinct decision of the House" (see Erskine May 20.21).

The devolved legislatures have similar rules - by convention if not explicitly codified. For example, in September 2020, MSP Oliver Mundell was asked to leave a sitting of the Scottish Parliament by the Presiding Officer for a breach of Rule 7.3 of the standing orders after raising a point of order accusing the First Minister of lying. Rule 7.3 does not explicitly list accusations of misrepresentation as disorderly, but uses the fairly broad instruction that members should "conduct themselves in a courteous and respectful manner".

In addition to tabling a substantive motion, there are other ways to skirt the rule - Churchill famously used the phrase 'terminological inexactitude' to avoid censure from the Chair, while written evidence from the Clerk of the House of Commons recalls an exchange between Tam Dalyell and Margaret Thatcher in 1984:

Mr. Dalyell: Is it the submarine commander or the Prime Minister who is lying?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member must not use that word. I am sure that he will rephrase that final comment.

Mr. Dalyell: Is it the submarine commander or the Prime Minister who is telling the truth?

Outside of Parliament, there are few to no restrictions on accusations of misrepresentations - beyond the risk of being sued for slander/libel. This risk provides another reason why the rule exists; while in Parliament, MPs enjoy parliamentary privilege, meaning they could freely accuse one another of anything while being protected from the jurisdiction of the courts. This, of course, would probably not lead to an effective and orderly debate.

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    What I know is based on observing Canada's parliament. In addition to not calling a member a liar (or accusing him/her of lying (or many synonyms of either)), a member must not lie. Anything in parliament is assumed to be the truth (I believe that the proceedings of parliament can be admitted in a court hearing without any chance of "cross examination"). It's not unusual for members (outside of parliament) to say things like "it's easy for that weasel to make those accusations here, in the hallway; let him stand up and say it on the house floor". If you get caught in a lie, bad things happen
    – Flydog57
    Feb 7, 2022 at 22:30
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    Re privilege: The funny thing is, in the US, our libel/slander laws are far weaker than in the UK. Congress is theoretically subject to the Speech or Debate Clause (which provides a similar measure of privilege), but in practice, if you want to say nasty things about other congresscritters, it's far easier to just tweet it or something; nobody is going to sue you. The Capitol Building is little more than a set piece for holding votes, making pointless speeches to empty rooms, and the (annual) State of the Union address.
    – Kevin
    Feb 8, 2022 at 7:07
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    @Flydog57 Ironically it seems to be the opposite in the UK. The rules of order which are so strict on pointing out lies are pretty free when it comes to other things, such as accusing other MPs of crimes. Since MPs can say what they want with impunity (so long as they frame it in a polite manner and don't use the word lie) on more than one occasion I have seen people who have been accused of corruption essentially dare the accuser to repeat the accusation outside of parliament so the accused can get redress through the courts via the slander laws.
    – Eric Nolan
    Feb 8, 2022 at 9:43
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    @Vikki they're not, see Erskine May para 15.27 - deliberate lies may be investigated by the Standards Committee, treated as contempt of Parliament, and sanctioned by the House. MPs can call out other MPs for lying, but only in a debate on the allegations, the substantive motions I mentioned in the answer.
    – CDJB
    Feb 9, 2022 at 16:45
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    @TylerH, yes the PM is a member. He represents the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
    – The Photon
    Feb 10, 2022 at 16:46
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There are no or very few restrictions for the general public or newspapers. Just by typing in 'Boris Johnson liar' on Google News I found articles from various UK newspapers as diverse as the Guardian, Independent and Mirror using the word liar to describe the Prime Minister. The Independent and the Mirror did so in quotes, the Guardian without quotation marks.

However, different rules exist for speaking in Parliament, as the Mirror article observes:

But Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle broke rules to declare: "I would prefer to be led by a lawyer than a liar! Will he now resign?"

MPs are banned from accusing each other of being liars and Mr Russell-Moyle was ordered to withdraw his remarks by the Speaker.

This is due to the idea of Parliamentary Language that is to be used in the House which, among others, does not allow Members to refer to each other by name, call each other liars or similar. These old rules are intended to cool down discussions, although in the case of the anti-lying rule leads to amusing euphemisms ('economical with the truth', 'inadvertently misleading Parliament') which everyone now understands to mean 'lying' but doesn't actually contain the banned word.

The character is poking fun at that rule of Parliamentary Language.

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    "misleading Parliament" isn't allowed either, unless it's prefixed by "inadvertently". See for example, this exchange from a week ago between Ian Blackford (leader of the SNP at Westminster) and the Speaker of the House of Commons. Feb 7, 2022 at 16:00
  • @Jan Where does that "very few restrictions…" come from, please? Here in the UK, the general public and newspapers have the same rights to free speech and "Oh, he inadvertently misled parliament" is in no way relevant. Seriously? Just tell it as it was… Feb 9, 2022 at 0:12
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    @RobbieGoodwin I don't understand what you're comment is trying to tell me; could you rephrase, please?
    – Jan
    Feb 10, 2022 at 11:54
  • @Jan First, "There are no…" restrictions is nonsense; pure, simple and indefensible. Trying to distinguish between "the (general) public" and the media, including "newspapers" reveals a basic misconception about the nature of responsibility in British-based law. There are indeed few restrictions, but they're fairly clear and equally far reaching. Are you Asking whether Parliament's own rules are more strict, or why, or what? In any case, who doubts there are restrictions in the UK - or any other jurisdiction - against calling politicians liars? Feb 10, 2022 at 20:37
  • @RobbieGoodwin I'll approach this from the end. Who is doubting whether there are restrictions -- OP is, that is why this question was asked. The question is clearly about calling politicians liars, so this answer should be read through exactly that lens even if I did not write out 'calling a politician a liar' at every corner. I am not asking anything (except for clarifying your comment, which you did, thank you!); that's why this is a post in the Answers section, not the Questions section. I am not distinguishing between the public and newspapers, ...
    – Jan
    Feb 14, 2022 at 9:38
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Since the fictional character Jonathan Pie is not an MP and does not speak in Parliament, I highly doubt he was referring to rules governing what language is acceptable in Parliament, as the other answers discuss.

Keep in mind that for somebody to be a "liar" or for a statement to be a "lie" requires not only that the statement is false, but also that the person who made the statement knew it to be false (or at least did not know it to be true, and did not care whether or not it was true), and that the statement was meant as a statement of fact rather than opinion or hyperbole. So while it is possible to claim that someone is a liar, demonstrating that claim requires clearing a high bar: you need evidence of the person's knowledge and intent at the time of making the statement.

Pie is a reporter, so the rules about what he is allowed to say include not only legal restrictions and regulations, but also what his employer(s) would be willing to publish or broadcast. The UK press does tend to avoid labelling politicians as "liars" or factually false statements made by politicians as "lies", at least within articles presented as factual news. This is probably partly a matter of culture and partly a matter of wanting to avoid legal liability.

  • Calling someone a liar is quite inflammatory. There are some news outlets (particularly tabloids) which don't shy away from inflammatory language in their (ostensibly) factual news coverage; but calling someone a liar makes you sound opinionated, so even if you can support your claim with evidence, using the word "liar" or "lie" may still give the impression that you are biased. So news outlets may wish to avoid using those words (except in clearly denoted opinion pieces) as they might harm the outlet's reputation; for BBC News in particular, it's existentially important for them to maintain a reputation of impartiality.
  • UK libel laws are a bit stricter than in the US*. Although I suspect it would still be very hard for a politician to win a libel case against a news outlet which called them a "liar", the motivation of avoiding legal liability nonetheless applies more in the UK than it would in the US. Although truth is a defense against a charge of libel, that requires the defendant to establish that the plaintiff truly is a liar, and as noted above that means you need evidence of their knowledge and intent when making the false statement. So even if calling somebody a "liar" would indeed be legally defensible, news outlets will prefer to err on the side of caution.

So when Jonathan Pie says he can't call Boris Johnson a liar in the UK, I doubt he is talking about laws or regulations; I think he is talking about what his employer (i.e. a TV news producer) would allow him to say on their channel.

*Says Wikipedia, "Defamation law in the United States is much less plaintiff-friendly than its counterparts in European and the Commonwealth countries."

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    Yes I'm pretty sure you are absolutely right; Pie is talking about what can and can't go into his explanation of current events in his New York Times interview.
    – uhoh
    Feb 8, 2022 at 21:34
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    “Since the fictional character Jonathan Pie is not an MP and does not speak in Parliament, I highly doubt he was referring to rules governing what language is acceptable in Parliament” Sure, parliamentary rules wouldn’t apply to Pie, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t referring to them. Those rules are a significat and much-discussed aspect of the current situation; it seems much more natural to assume he’s referring to them than to newspapers’ nebulous qualms, which in any case aren’t as restrictive as you suggest; see Jan’s answer. Feb 9, 2022 at 1:53
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine In the video, Jonathan Pie (the character) expresses surprise that he, a reporter, is allowed to call Johnson a liar in a NYT interview. Parliamentary rules have nothing to do with that surprise, because Parliamentary rules wouldn't be what prevents him from calling Johnson a liar in other contexts he is likely to want to call Johnson a liar in.
    – kaya3
    Feb 9, 2022 at 1:56
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    The examples from Jan's answer are an opinion piece from The Guardian which is clearly denoted as opinion, and two other articles quoting people calling Johnson a liar where the newsworthy angle of it is that those people (a Conservative ex-AG and a Labour MP) called Johnson a liar, and it is indeed newsworthy that those people called him a liar because one is from his own party and the other broke Parliamentary rules to do it. These articles do not show that a reporter like Pie who is not an opinion columnist would normally be permitted by his editor to factually describe Johnson as a liar.
    – kaya3
    Feb 9, 2022 at 2:02

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