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.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.