Leslie Huckfield case exposes Wikipedia’s weaknesses

Wikipedia (Photo credit: Octavio Rojas)

Les Huckfield is hardly likely to be famous outside his own household, but 35 years after he was a junior minister in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government he is back in the news again today – because, now living in Scotland, he has backed Scottish independence.

The pro-independence “Yes” campaign are, not surprisingly, doing all they can to milk this endorsement: they desperately need some “Labour” support if they are to have the remotest chance of winning.

Ordinary folk might be inclined to say “Leslie Huckfield [as he now calls himself], who’s he then?” and go to Wikipedia and look him up (click the link to see).

What they get there is a short article that is pretty light on detail and does not do much to impart the flavour of his politics – having once been a strong critic of far left entryism into Labour, Huckfield turned into one of the strongest defenders of the Militant Tendency’s/Revolutionary Socialist League’s presence in the Labour Party and, reports John Rentoul, once proposed banning all car imports into the UK.

But more importantly, it completely leaves out the one thing from his time as an elected politician that Huckfield should be famous for: successfully stopping his attempted prosecution for allegedly dishonestly obtaining expenses of more than £2,500 from the European Parliament by deception.

The story of that – and why it proved important in more recent British political history – is covered in this article in the Law Society Gazette.

There is no sign, that I can see, that someone has deleted this information from the Wikipedia article and certainly no suggestion that Huckfield himself has stopped this from getting out. (Nor, I should add, is there any suggestion that Huckfield did anything improper in seeking to stop his prosecution.)

But this is a warning against relying on Wikipedia as a complete source. And it is also a reminder of why paying someone to do a job thoroughly – such as compiling an encyclopaedia – may still have advantages over relying on crowd sourcing.

I love Wikipedia, it is surely one of the greatest things to come out of the Internet – but it is not something I would rely on when it really mattered.

University of Hertfordshire

University of Hertfordshire. This building hou...
Image via Wikipedia

I went to the University of Hertfordshire’s postgraduate open day today – a couple of strange feelings about the trip for political reasons – the one previous time I had been on the campus was when I had a not every pleasant encounter with the Revolutionary Socialist League/Militant Tendency controlled student Labour club of what was then Hatfield Polytechnic at the very end of 1987, and on the way there I suddenly realised I was walking down the same street where I had spent the afternoon “knocking up” for Labour on 1 May 1997.

But my trip today was nothing to do with politics: I was simply checking them out as a potential PhD institution. It was a long way to go for a five-minute conversation, though it was still worth it as it clarified for me that I should concentrate my efforts on getting the MSc project done and not worry about a PhD just yet.

I was quite impressed by the university, though, for a few reasons. Firstly, most of the main campus is built in a particular civic style popular in Britain in the late 1940s, early 1950s: low rise vernacular brick and glass I am going to call it as I don’t know any better. It’s a style I like because to me it suggests optimism and endeavour and public spirit after the huge financial and other hardships of the war – a war in which Britain’s willingness to sacrifice its finances was absolutely fundamental to the global victory over fascism and militarism.

Secondly, because they told a good tale of how they believe they are the best of the “new universities” and that they have backed up that claim by investing significantly in their infrastructure – they also said they run the largest university bus service in the world: so the Chinese are not beating Britain on every superlative yet!