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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.