Andrew Le Sueur: Wikipedia on the British constitution

ALeS NYC 2012 bwAs everybody reading this blog will know, Wikipedia is an online, multilingual, free encyclopaedia compiled using Wiki software. What may be less widely known is the process by which articles on Wikipedia are developed. Anybody with access to the Internet and some basic computer skills can create new articles and edit existing ones. Expert knowledge of the topic in hand is not required: this is not a place for dissemination of original research; instead, contributors are expected to cite secondary sources and adopt a neutral point of view (“NPV”). Errors – some made maliciously, others in good faith – abound. The great majority of contributors use noms de plume or lurk behind the anonymity of IP addresses.  It is, however, among the 100 most popular websites in the world. Thanks to Google, it is often the first port of call for people trying to find out about a subject.

The Wikipedia phenomenon has itself become a subject of academic study from a variety of disciplines. Research questions have included whether it is based on “wisdom of crowds” effects (huge numbers of people making large numbers of edits) or driven by “elite” users? How do editors coordinate their contributions? How are rules and procedures created and implemented within the editor community? Why do people spend time editing it?

I want to consider the Wikipedia article “Constitution of the United Kingdom” (to which synonyms such as “British constitution” are directed). This is worth doing for several different reasons. It is probably among the most read pieces of writing on the subject: what we know for sure is that it has been viewed 69220 times in the last 90 days. So far as I can tell, it has been written by amateurs rather than people with a professional or academic interest in the subject matter: as such, it provides a snapshot of a collective effort to capture what is regarded as important about the constitution. I want also to suggest that the quality of the article raises questions about the role of academics and other experts in promoting public understanding of the constitution.

The article’s history and contributors

The first version of the article was started in February 2003, two years after the launch of Wikipedia. During the ensuing 10 years, 564 distinct contributors have developed the article. It was set in motion by an editor known as “Jtdirl”, who describes himself as an Irish “cultural creative” and “postmodern idealist” who subscribes to the view that “This user does not believe Wikipedia takes the expertise and knowledge of academic contributors seriously enough”; but by October 2005, Jtdirl seems to have stopped editing the article, leaving it to others to carry on the work.

Another early editor of the article was “Deus Ex”, who seems to have stopped editing in 2005, explaining “I will not be active in Wikipedia editing for the foreseeable future. I cannot justify spending significant amounts of time on Wikipedia. I am also beginning to become frustrated by the lack of direction and progress – to become a truly reliable encyclopaedia, Wikipedia must have stable versions of important articles verified by qualified experts. … the problem with Wikipedia-in the current set up, it is simply not reliable enough to be considered an encyclopaedia”.

By far the most prolific contributor is “Grover Cleveland”, who to date has made 91 changes to the article. He contributes across a range of subject matter, including US politics and classical music. In all, ten contributors made ten or more “edits”; two appear to be lawyers though not specialists in public law. Several hundred more have made a small number of (often very minor) changes to the article.

Conclusion: the article is the work of non-experts.

Assessing the quality of the article

Wikipedia users are invited to rate articles using a widget at the end of the article. The “Constitution of the United Kingdom” receives relatively high scores as “trustworthy”, “objective”, “complete” and “well-written”. This is a generous assessment.

Any more detailed assessment has to recognise that the article is part of a cascade of linked articles. For example, devolution gets relatively light coverage in the article but there is a separate one on that subject. The article is, in places, historical in its approach though it fails to present a clear chronology of the development of the constitution.

It contains a number of erroneous statements or assertions that are misleading without qualification or further explanation: “Parliament has the power to determine the length of its term.” “By the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 [Parliament] has the power to remove individual judges from office for misconduct”. (Yes, but rather misleading). “However, as part of Parliamentary Sovereignty, Parliament could create new prerogatives if it so wished regardless”. “The Prime Minister is normally a member of the House of Commons.”

The balance of coverage in the article is lop-sided. There is discussion (twice) about the Church of England but the ECHR and Human Rights Act 1998 is relegated to a passing reference in a paragraph towards the end under the heading “Other constitutional reforms”.

The article would not pass a peer review process for an academic journal and nor would it receive a good mark as an undergraduate essay (though I suspect it has been cut and pasted into some over the years). But those, of course, are not fair points of comparison.

Conclusion: the article, like many of those linked to it, could be much better than it currently is.

Promoting public understanding of the UK constitution

Academics and other experts from time to time attempt to promote public understanding of the British constitution. This can be done through books (there are some valuable contributions in the New Oxford Companion to Law (OUP 2008), edited by Peter Cane and Joanne Conaghan; and Hilaire Barnett’s Britain Unwrapped: Government and Constitution Explained (Penguin 2002) would be another example). The cost and lack of immediate access to books, however, put them at a disadvantage in the digital age.

Another avenue is that taken by The Constitution Society, whose website (see here) is its main educational resource: it contains some imaginative and well-designed ways of communicating facts and ideas about the constitution.

What I want to suggest is complementary to these attempts to promote public understanding: that people with expertise on aspects of the British constitution contribute to articles on Wikipedia. A coalition of the willing could, relatively easily, improve and develop the amateur efforts of the past 10 years.

Who will join me? I’ve made a few forays in Wikipedia (always using my real name). I’ve improved Stanley de Smith’s biography. In 2011, I rewrote and expanded the article on “Law of Jersey” and related articles. I made early contributions to the article “Supreme Court of the United Kingdom”. Wikipedia is not a place for preciousness: one’s carefully crafted sentences can be hijacked modified by unknown contributors; irrelevances (to my mind) introduced; some dubious assertions tacked on. But if one accepts that writing for Wikipedia is more like standing on a soapbox addressing a crowd than a contribution to a highly refined academic debate, it’s possible to make it a better read. And that’s the point: people, in their tens of thousands, do read Wikipedia. If those of us with expertise want to reach them, then let’s roll up our sleeves and get stuck in to editing.

 Andrew Le Sueur is co-convenor of the UK Constitutional Law Group, a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Constitutional Law and Professor of Public Law at Queen Mary, University of London.

 Suggested citation: A. Le Sueur ‘Wikipedia on the British constitution’ UK Const. L. Blog (27th January 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Andrew Le Sueur: Wikipedia on the British constitution

  1. Maggie Beirne

    I think that this is an excellent idea, though as a non-expert I would not be willing to share the load involved. Wikipedia is widely used, and the more reliable and expert it is (whilst still accessible to the non-expert), the better that is. Nice to have academics contributing in this way to the public good .

  2. Caroline Brook Boysen

    Quite agree. It’s easy to do (have edited entries myself) and quite with the spirit of the times in the best sense of the word. Let academia spread itself onto sites such as wiki. Yes.

  3. Erum Sattar

    Thanks for writing this! Its a much-needed and pragmatic call to engage as widely as possible. All the best with your efforts!

  4. Agreed. I haven’t been involved with this article (UK Constitution), but let’s get together and do it. One possible way is to convince the moderators to let academics have control of specific articles. Is that possible?

  5. Wolter Joosse

    I concur with the sentiments of Andrew Le Sueur. However, I wonder is education in reality not accepting what is put in front of any student? Is history not what we are made to believe? Is a precedent not the opinion of a judge? When was a student ever challenged to prove a text book right or wrong? Why is it that we cannot challenge a judicial decision and prove it wrong. why does it require another decision when law is meant to be clear, precise, and transparent? Is learning not supposed to be the journey of the student? So why then are they made to accept the views and opinions of others? The whole notion that the UK has no constitution, that parliament is sovereign etc promoted by people with degrees and titles [on this blog and elsewhere] is as good [or bad] as the opinions and information expressed in Wikipedia. It does not always pass the test of research.

    It is law [a constitution] which create parliaments.The King makes the law and is appointed [created] by the Creator [Almighty God] and he acts as His Viceroy and temporal Sovereign. For this reason the lineage to the throne follows birthright. From [first] born male heir to male heir. The King is tied to the natural law by his covenant. That is the constitution and ‘common law’ of the Realm (Jeremiah 31: 33 and 34). The Natural Law is in part codified under statutes and Royal decrees such as the Coronation Oaths Act, 1689, the Magna Carta, 1215, the Petition of Right, 1628, Habeas Corpus Act, 1640, the Bill of Rights, 1688, the Statute of Monopolies, 1623, among others. The King is mandated by sworn covenant that the King uphold the Laws of God, which is the natural law and our ancient and inviolable common law. If the King violates his mandate/contract he abdicates government (Jeremiah 33: 20 and 21) (The Koran Surah III : 26). That the King is appointed by God is reflected in his title e.g. ‘George VI by the Grace of God King’ and throughout the coronation ceremony. The King is the Trustee of the National Estate as common wealth. He cannot claim it as his own.

    Sovereignty is at all times whole, complete and total. It is not possible to abrogate from sovereignty. Hence the King could never lawfully empower Parliament to enact law. The creator always enjoys sovereignty. The King, as Sovereign, created the parliament. Only the King was empowered to govern in God’s Name and only in accordance to His/Her/Its natural law, our true common law. The concept that allowed parliament to consent or reject any proposed law was only established by decree of King Charles I under the Petition of Right, 1628. However Charles I made it very clear in Parliament that he maintained at all times the prerogative [power] to enact law. He would have violated his coronation oath/covenant and deemed abdicated had he abrogated from his sovereignty. In reality and at law this still holds true today. Every Bill passed through Parliament requires the Royal Assent before it becomes a law. The fact that no assent has been withheld in modern time is not to be mistaken for that Parliament can now enact law. Any such claim would constitute treason and render the law ultra vires.

    The Petition of Right was sought as a safeguard against a King who would violate his oath and covenant and would enact laws that would not be in the interest of his people. But incredible as it may sound, the Westminster system in truth and reality defies the Petition of Right that had provided the Parliament with the power to reject a proposed law [of the King]. As said before, only the King is empowered to govern and to sit in [God's] judgment. Of course he needs support in governing the realm. Hence he appoints Ministers of State and Justices. These become upon appointment Officers of the Crown who then have a duty, through their sworn allegiance to uphold the coronation oath/covenant..

    By habit [or design] the King selects the Leader of the political party that collected the most votes at election as Prime [first] Minister. This Prime Minister then selects his Cabinet [other Ministers]. The King and his Ministers form the Executive. The Executive [Ministers] then draft Bills to be introduced into the Parliament for these to become law. Now when these Ministers take a seat in Parliament they immediately create a serious conflict of interest. They were elected to Parliament as representatives of the electors [people] to whom they became answerable. But at the same time they also now represent the Crown. Considering the fact that Parliament, following the Petition of Right, was a safeguard against unreasonable laws of the King, however, the safeguard was effectively removed.

    The Prime Minister, as Leader of the winning political party at elections, also controls [in general] the numbers in Parliament. Hence in reality the situation remains as it was before the Petition of Right. The King would still control the Parliament and thus every law by virtue of his Prime Minister’s control of the Parliament. The Parliament and intended safeguard under the Petition of Right therefore is no longer in place and is utterly derailed. Notwithstanding that, a Member of Parliament could not be subjected to 2 Sovereigns. The electors had created the Member and therefore the Member was answerable to the electors. But as Minister he/she is now also answerable to the King/Crown. A perfect system? I leave that to your imagination and natural reason. To me it appears more like a perfect system that has allowed for the hi-jack of the Parliament and Crown. The latter becomes more feasible when we research history and in particular Mr Cromwell and his associates.

    On the subject of history, l have always personally been intrigued how the Parliament could have elevated Willem [of Orange] and Mary to King and Queen as equal Sovereigns? Firstly since there was no King how could there have been a Parliament? It is also impossible in law to have equal sovereigns, since sovereignty is all, complete, and always whole and total. Then following the death of Mary only Willem of Orange remained the purported Sovereign of England. Why then did the birthright to the throne not follow the lineage of the House of Orange? It appears on the facts that the invalid parliament created the king and as creator the king became subservient to parliament, or rather its political parties. the latter is evident by the fact that the Sovereign has to ask parliament to leave the country or to marry a Catholic. Where did sovereignty go to, and how was that legally possible? It is not!

    In conclusion I concur, that one must not accept all what one reads without properly researching the facts in search of truth and reality. Personally my research suggests that little, if anything at all, stands on valid foundation of law today. My research suggests that a foreign agenda is followed instead of law. Bad practice does not make for law or has a place within our common law. The latter is our true Constitution..

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