When Scotland’s voice on the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) warns that disinformation from MPs threatens national security as much as Russia, it’s probably best to listen.

Owen Thompson, SNP chief whip until December, fears disinformation now poses an existential threat to democracy, and has a solution which he wants all parties to back: creating a UK “truth tsar” to fact-check MPs, punish them, and force them to correct the record. His position as Scotland’s point man on the ISC – which oversees British espionage – gives his comments heft.

Political lies permeate Western democracies, Thompson says. And he’s not partisan about it. All parties must get their act together over disinformation, Thompson believes, including his own. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson accelerated the slide, but unless we halt political disinformation democracy is in trouble.

“There’s responsibility on elected members to say ‘we’ll absolutely stick to facts’,” he states. The public needs “mechanisms” which give them “confidence in what elected members say … We’ve crossed the Rubicon, we’re now in a place where if there’s no enforcement, things will run riot”.

Thompson says that “mechanism” could be called a “truth tsar”, or “independent fact-checker”, or “regulator of fact”. Whatever the eventual title, it would hold MPs accountable for deliberate lies. This isn’t about naming and shaming MPs for accidentally getting statistics wrong, he adds. Such mistakes are usually corrected. It’s about wilfully disseminating disinformation.


The Herald: SNP MSP Owen Thompson

Thompson suggests the truth tsar could be run by academics so it maintains public trust. “Enforcement of the ministerial code in Westminster is useless,” he adds. The truth tsar could also regulate Holyrood, Stormont in Belfast, and the Welsh Senedd.

Any truth tsar would need government funding, but politicians should have absolutely no power over it, Thompson says. “We need a conversation about this across civil society where we ask: ‘do we want to end up in the place where it looks like we’re heading, or should we do something to stop it?’.”

He noted recent comments by UK Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick claiming Scotland “does not house refugees”. It was a lie told in Parliament for which there were no consequences.

Sanctions for lying MPs that should be enforced include “being made to make personal statements where they correct [what they’ve said]”, or if MPs are found to have lied and refuse to amend statements they should be “suspended from the house”. That inevitably leads to loss of earnings and possible career-ending by-elections.

“Currently, there’s no real way to hold MPs to account,” says Thompson. If the proposed truth tsar found an MP had lied, then that would escalate to an investigation by the Commons’ Standards Committee, he proposes. It has the power of suspension. That provides “the opportunity to have an actual sanction from the House”, he adds.


“You're suspended, you don’t get paid – there’s a very direct impact on individuals who put themselves in that situation.” Lying is, he adds, “a personal choice”. Suspension, if long enough, can trigger by-elections as seen in Rutherglen and Hamilton West with former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier.

“So if someone is really abusing the system, throwing out claims left, right and centre – a Trump situation – we could actually deal with it,” Thompson adds.

He says that with Conservatives seemingly focused on “culture war” issues for the next election, and the party’s “tie-in with GB News where [Conservative] MPs present shows and interview each other”, the risk from disinformation ramps up.

“If we don’t start tackling disinformation, the whole thing is going to run away from us,” says Thompson. 

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“We should’ve caught this five years ago, but we are where we are. If we at least try to grapple with disinformation now, you hope we can get something in place that prevents the absolute breakdown of democracy.”

He supports ending the “bizarre” practice of forbidding MPs from calling each other liars. Members of the public can be defamed by MPs, but MPs cannot accuse each other of lying. Ian Blackford, the former SNP Westminster leader, was chastised for calling Johnson a liar over partygate.


The Herald: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a plenary session of the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic and Humanitarian Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, July 27, 2023. (Pavel Bednyakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Disinformation, Thompson says, is “absolutely” one of the biggest threats to democracy, on the same footing as Russia, China and Iran. Thompson notes that we also face extreme disinformation threats from nations like Russia using “cyber troops” to destabilise Western elections and political debate. 

A truth tsar could also be used to crackdown on social media. Thompson supports regulating “wild west” platforms like Twitter in the same way press and broadcasters are regulated. “I’m all for everyone having their opinions, but when it’s absolutely provable that [claims] simply aren’t true, and just disinformation, we need to do something.”

When it comes to political lies, “all parties need to be doing better”, he says. “We need to call it out when we see it on our own side. If we claim it’s only others creating this situation, we’re not helping. We must be absolutely open and say this covers everyone.”

Thompson stresses his concern isn’t about “opinion”, but lies and presenting false facts as truth. The 2014 referendum saw disinformation on both sides, he adds.


The Herald: Midlothian MP Owen Thompson this week urged Labour leader Keir Starmer to back his Ministerial Interest (Emergency Powers) Bill

His concerns over disinformation come against the backdrop of the culture war around freedom of speech. “If feels like we’re through the looking glass,” he says. “What should be straightforward has turned into an utterly toxic weapon.” He notes how figures like Conservative Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson weaponised free speech. Anderson, however, was accused of trying to silence opponents by, for instance, saying anti-monarchists should leave Britain.

“That’s ‘freedom of speech so long as you agree with me’,” says Thompson.

“A very small but vocal minority have managed to create this situation. They can’t win an argument so they try to shut it down. It’s not logical saying ‘we must have freedom of speech’ but then saying ‘you can’t do this, you can’t say that’. It’s incumbent on us all to listen to all sides.”

Freedom of speech, though, doesn’t mean anyone must share a platform with the BNP, he adds. “We need freedom of speech, and we need to protect those targeted by hate.”

The debate around trans rights “could be seen” as a case study in disinformation, he suggests. “All this information was out there and everyone was just feeding on the bits they wanted. 

“An independent fact-checking mechanism would have helped with that, to say ‘actually no, that’s not true, or this is absolute fact, please base your opinions around this core basis of fact’.”


On gender reform, Thompson says personally he “thinks what the Scottish Government did was the right thing”. MSPs from every party, including some Scottish Conservatives, also voted for the law

“I’ve not been very vocal as I don’t think I know enough to have waded in either way. I’m certainly happy to talk to anyone with an opinion. It’s a personal responsibility to say ‘your opinion is different but I’m going to listen to you’.”

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Thompson adds: “I can’t see how making general protections available for a tiny group of people has grown into such a big thing. I might be missing something, though, and if I am, I’ll be the first to hold my hands up.”

He recalls a constituent – a member of an “organisation trying to march through the community” – asking if Thompson would attempt “to block” the demonstration. Thompson adds: “I don’t agree with him, but it’s my responsibility to make sure he’s treated fairly.”

In terms of disinformation, Thompson is also concerned about “dark money” from secretive donors influencing UK politics. Phoney online local campaign groups are an additional worry for him. Some emerged amid Covid but were found to be “blatantly political”. The Electoral Commission, which regulates political advertising, can be circumvented by such tactics.

Green policies have now become the focus of much disinformation, Thompson feels. “The pushback must be stronger.”


The Herald: Alex Salmond's show on Russia Today shows a powerful man displaying his power

Thompson accepts the risk of foreign states, such as Russia, using disinformation tactics to “create instability” within Scotland’s constitutional debate. Putin has interfered in Western elections, specifically in America. 

He says he regrets appearing on Russia Today in the past. “I should’ve thought better of that at the time, but didn’t.” Shutting RT down in Britain, though, “was the right choice. It was just fake news”.

Alex Salmond’s show on the Russian disinformation channel was “undoubtedly” wounding to the SNP. Opponents can now say “you were co-operating with the Russian state”.

Nor is independence helped by some in the Yes movement, or Salmond’s Alba Party, peddling disinformation that Ukraine or Nato were responsible for the war. “It’s baffling how people get to that position. I’ve seen a number of sources in Alba very much of the pro-Russian side.”

Thompson says that some of the more aggressive online bloggers and digital Yes activists “aren’t friends of the independence movement”. Some have been accused of pushing disinformation. Others now use right-wing talking points to attack the SNP.

It was “probably naive” for SNP MPs and MSPs to favour some of these online activists during the 2014 independence campaign, he says. “Again, it’s not helpful. It’s another case where the opposition can just point and say ‘you’re relying on information from this source’.” Ironically, some SNP politicians who aligned with online activists in 2014 now denounce similar sites as abusive.

The influence of China’s Confucius Institutes in Scottish education has also been flagged for disinformation risks. Thompson suggests Scotland could redirect its relationship towards Taiwan so the same opportunities exist to learn Mandarin without “the level of concern” around Chinese Communist Party influence. But such moves could rile Beijing.

Thompson is also concerned about the “influence” some foreign actors have in British public life, like Evgeny Lebedev, son of a Russian oligarch and former KGB officer, given a peerage by Boris Johnson. He owns the Evening Standard.


There's a soupçon of self-interest in Thompson’s plan to purge politics of disinformation, although others might say he’s deceiving himself. He believes that in any future independence referendum the Yes campaign would have truth on its side, but “if the unionist side had to rely on fact-checked arguments it would be a challenge as their arguments aren’t nearly as strong as ours”.

Regardless of which side is most supported by fact, Thompson says the benefit of a truth tsar would be that in any future vote “everybody would have confidence in the arguments made by both sides … as information would be fact-checked and accurate and everyone would be able to make an informed choice about their country”.

Given he sits on the Intelligence and Security Committee, Thompson is clear that the North Sea remains “significant” in terms of any future Russian military threats towards an independent Scotland. A Scottish government defence paper will be issued in “due course” covering the matter. Creating Scotland’s version of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ is “being looked at” in preparation for independence, Thompson adds.


Scotland's geography, he believes, means claims that Nato wouldn’t accept an independent Scotland are “nonsense. We’ve a unique strategic position they’d need.” He believes this negates claims that Nato would be upset with an independent Scotland removing Trident.

Thompson thinks attacks levelled at Nicola Sturgeon when she discussed possible Ukraine no-fly zones symbolise Scotland’s thoroughly divided politics, where rival parties immediately denounce ideas rather than discuss them. If the same idea had been floated from the right, the tone of the discussion may have been different, he speculates.

He finds the idea of Trump’s possible return to power chilling regarding Ukraine’s future. “Every suggestion seems to be that he’d just walk away. If we’re talking Russian interference, you don’t get any bigger than that.”

American pullback from Ukraine would cause “chaos, with implications far beyond Ukraine to countless operations keeping us all safe”. The potential of Trump destabilising the world underscores for Thompson the importance of a truth tsar so this country doesn’t go the way of America. “Trump can say anything. We must make sure we don’t edge any closer to that than we already have, we’re way too close for comfort.”

Twitter owner Elon Musk is also pinpointed as a disinformation risk. “He seems to be trying to make fact and truth what he wants them to be. He’s changed what was already a fairly toxic environment and made it worse, poured petrol on the fire.” That’s why social media needs to be regulated like traditional media, Thompson believes.

Both young and old are susceptible to online lies. The young, he feels, as they get all news online, and the old as they’re accustomed to traditional media fact-checking content, and so risk believing all information online is also verified. The Online Safety Bill “isn’t enough” to control digital disinformation, especially in the age of AI. “We’re playing catch-up all the time,” he says of legislators.


As a former SNP chief whip, Thompson admits that matters have “been a bit crazy … and quite bruising” for the party lately. Is keeping oversight of British espionage on the ISC easier than controlling the now fractious SNP?

“Some might suggest that, I couldn’t possibly comment,” Thompson jokes. “We’ve had decades without a bumpy patch, so in many ways it’s more surprising we’ve not had a situation like this before.” On his departure as chief whip, he simply says: “It’s not uncommon for new leaders [Stephen Flynn who replaced Ian Blackford] to have their own choice come in”.

Thompson believes Scotland “will get a referendum”, but says if the path to independence is either through “a referendum or direct negotiation” after an election then he’s “relatively relaxed”. While “impatient” SNP members “want independence yesterday”, he says, “we have to secure independence in a way that we don’t just win it, but keep it”.


The Herald: Scottish Labour group leader Anas Sarwar (left) and Labour leader Keir Starmer

He said that if Labour needs help forming the next UK Government “it shouldn’t be a surprise to them what the SNP would be looking for if they wanted our support … They have to say no [to granting a referendum] as that’s just the politics of it now”. He suggests that with Labour “lurching” right, matters might be different when the party faces “the hard light of day and counts the numbers”. Thompson believes that “whatever the result, the next Westminster election will at least be the third best we’ve ever had”. 

Keir Starmer’s tactic of concentrating on winning back English seats risks “alienating” Scottish swing voters. Thompson notes Scottish Labour MSPs like Monica Lennon “openly criticising” Starmer’s decisions, such as retaining the two-child benefit cap, and says political rivals must “be better” at praising each other when they do “a good thing”.

He was “very disappointed” when Sturgeon resigned “out of the blue”, adding: “She was doing a great job. I’ve always been a big fan.” The party needs “a conclusion” to the ongoing police investigation, “whatever the end is going to be. Then we can see where we’re at”. However, “ultimately”, he thinks, “the party will be fine”.

Humza Yousaf, who Thompson backed for leader, is “doing a great job, but from day one has faced an absolute onslaught”. He feels the “main thrust has come from some elements of the media, not the opposition. The media appears to be doing the opposition’s jobs for them. Every politician needs held accountable, but that needs to be balanced and fair”.


Thompson backs Yousaf’s “focus on a wellbeing economy”. He doesn’t feel the SNP is anymore divided than it ever was, but believes the leadership contest simply revealed “very different viewpoints”, adding: “Was it any different to Labour or Tory leadership contests?”

But he “gets” that progressive voters were alienated by some of the positions aired during the contest. 

He doesn’t accept the criticism that SNP legislation just keeps collapsing of late. He says gender laws and the deposit return scheme were derailed by the UK Government, and the marine protection legislation was delayed after consultation. 

“The consultation came back and we acted on the findings but are now being criticised for that,” he points out. 

“I’d have thought that’s exactly what governments should do.”

Thompson predicts more challenges from the UK Government, adding: “If we were in this current environment at the time minimum pricing [of alcohol] was put through the Parliament, I don’t think we’d have got it. 

“The UK Government has no respect for the devolved powers of the Scottish parliament.”

The SNP-Green deal is “massively beneficial”, and Thompson can’t understand why some party colleagues want it over. 

“I see why opposition parties would talk it up as a negative,” he adds. 

“But running a minority government in the current environment? I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”