Phone-hacking, then rate-fixing – which industry is next?

The anatomy of a modern-day scandal.

Regardless of the outcome of the Leveson inquiry, one of the most long-lasting effects of the revelation of the phone-hacking culture in the tabloid press seems to be the creation of a blueprint for how to overhaul an industry.

In that respect, the revelation that Barclays had been systematically lying to the British Bankers Association about the rate they thought they could borrow at is just the latest step in a process that we have all been through before. Not for nothing have bankers been talking, in private and ever more frequently in public, about the Libor manipulation being a "Milly Dowler moment".

For years now – ever since the crash, but even before then – there has been widespread belief that the daily grind of a banker's life involves dishonesty. The popular understanding of the financial crisis is that it involved misselling of complex financial instruments (the infamous collateralised debt obligations, which allowed sub-prime mortgages to be sold in tranches disguising the inherent risk in owning them) causing a crash which the perpetrators didn't suffer from due to their closeness to the sources of political power. Not only were the institutions bailed out, but the allegations of widespread criminality resulted in not a single British prosecution, despite the pre-election talk of David Cameron.

Just as phonehacking was never confined just to the News of the World, despite the fact that it was their hacking of a murdered teenager's phone which brought the scandal into homes nationwide, so the Libor manipulation seems extremely unlikely to be just the work of Barclays. The Financial Times reports, for instance, that 

[Barclays] admitted that [it] understated its borrowing costs during the financial crisis because it believed other banks were doing the same.

And a post today from ZeroHedge claims that the Libor manipulation was common knowledge. "Everyone knew" and "everyone was doing it", apparently:

Everyone knew we couldn't borrow at Libor, you only needed to look at CDS to see that... with real Libor rates 3 to 4 per cent higher than the BBA's submitted Lie-bor.

The "everyone knew" defence was trotted out under similar circumstances for the phone-hacking scandal, seemingly in an attempt to minimise the perceived transgression. There at least it was easily proveable. Journalists seem to find it much harder to keep quiet about these sort of things than financiers, for some reason. So we have Piers Morgan's infamous passage in his autobiography from January 2001 revealing that:

Apparently, if you don’t change the security code that every phone comes with then anyone can call your number and, if you don’t answer, tap in the four digit code to hear all your messages.

And nearly every celebrity who has given evidence at the Leveson has given evidence of stories being published which couldn't have come from any source other than phone hacking.

In both cases, everyone did know, and it really did mean that the average person finding out afresh was less shocked. After all, if you and the fifth person in a room finding out something that everyone else already knows, it hits a lot less hard than if everyone finds out all together.

Even worse, the structure of both industries lends itself to minimising harm (harm, that is, caused to the industries). Newspapers inculcate an attitude that the scoop is all, that it should be earned at any cost and that the editors won't ask questions beyond whether it is true or false; banks want their traders to earn money and don't particularly care how its done. In each case, it is easy to pass anyone caught in the act as a rogue reporter or a rogue trader.

So in the end it takes a single, uncontrovertible piece of evidence to shake the foundations of the industries. The hacking of Milly Dowler's phone showed the nation that, even if it was just one rogue reporter, the structures that let it happen couldn't be allowed to continue; and when the thread began to be pulled, the whole thing unravelled, and the idea that it could ever have been "rogue reporters" looked laughable. With the Libor scandal, a similar process seems to be under way; the story that it was junior managers acting illegally looks unlikely to last the week, given we now know that Bob Diamond and the Bank of England's Paul Tucker had conversations which somehow metastisized into instructions to give fake submissions.

And we seem to be reaching the apotheosis of the scandal: the chancellor is expected to announce a full inquiry into Libor this afternoon, which he is hoping to keep one step short of a complete Leveson-style investigation.

The uncanny similarity between the two events raises two questions: can we handle them better? and where is the next one coming from?

After all, the idea that endemic criminality in an industry can just be "talked out" seems absurd; and yet it is looking less and less likely that the Leveson inquiry will result in anything other than a light being shone on the industry. Damaging for those used to operating in the dark, but a far cry from justice. And holding a Leveson-style inquiry up as the best outcome for the Libor scandal, when we don't even know how the Leveson inquiry itself will end, seems foolish.

But the bigger question should be attempting to pre-empt the next scandal. We don't have to leave it until the event which shocks everyone into action, if we learn to recognise the signs. Large amounts of independence on the ground, a culture that emphasises no-questions-asked successes, and the dismissal of anyone revealed to be acting out of line as a "rogue" element are the warnings we should be looking out for. And personally, if I were the Metropolitan Police, I would be wondering who my Clive Goodman is going to be. 

 

Former News International Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks leaves her lawyer's office in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war