Why corruption is harder to define than you think

One person's deal can often be another person's corrupt act.

The efforts of the Leveson Inquiry have ensured that the murky world of payments by journalists to public servants has received plenty of attention in recent weeks. The public interest arguments traditionally made by reporters and newspaper editors alike collide head on with concerns about what exactly is being surreptitiously "sold'" behind the general public's backs. The result is a political car wreck. On the one hand we have astute and well-connected journalists attempting, so they claim, to shed light on the misdemeanours of those in positions of power, whilst on the other we are confronted by deeply unsettling allegations about all sorts of private information seeping into the public sphere. And, someone, somewhere appears to be making decent dollar out of it.

Cajoling sources to give sensitive information that may be of interest to the wider world is not to be confused with, say, high-ranking members of the Conservative party allegedly seeking large sums of money for privileged access to the Prime Minister. Or indeed with simply hacking into phones. The latter two are clearly forms of corruption, both in a moral and ethical sense (as well as arguably legal one), and should be condemned as such. However, many of the relationships that Leveson has revealed are also rather more subtle, more nuanced, and subsequently more contested than are the instances of outright criminality or rather unsubtle influence peddling that tend to make the headlines.

What of the less high-profile, ethically more tricky cases where the public might well demand a "right to know" and a journalist is confronted with a way of obtaining relevant information through "unconventional channels"? Put another way, when is whistle-blowing a morally acceptable, and indeed laudable, act and when is it an act not just of disloyalty but arguably of criminality? The fact that money is involved further blurs the issue. That can be evidence of selfish instincts driving selfish behaviour, but it may simply be a premium that the leaker of information demands for the risks that he or she is taking. Finding a way through that moral maze is not simple.

The problem here is one that academic analysis of corruption has been grappling with for a long time. Corruption is generally understood to be the abuse of a public role for private gain - no matter whether that 'gain' be overtly financial or something much less tangible. So far, so simple. The problem comes with the many grey areas that define political behaviour. The art of lobbying to defend ones interests, for example, is fundamental to the functioning of a modern, pluralist democracy, and so for many it remains a key part of the political game. For others, the suspicion that the playing field is, and always will be, unequal can prompt accusations that the game is well and truly rigged. One person's deal can often be another person's corrupt act, and our understanding of what corruption is will be indelibly linked with our understanding of what politics is. There is subsequently no consensus whatsoever on what a corrupt-free world will look like, and that alone should tell us that finding agreement on what is and isn't corrupt will be virtually impossible.

To be clear, hacking into phones and bribing police officers is nowhere near this grey area. But many more transactions and relationships, often the ones that continue to happen way under the radar, may well be. And it is just these types of relationships that need to be analysed if we are going to reach a consensus on how politics should work and how the media should go on analysing it. Leveson is unlikely to find answers to these very political questions. But it is at least proving valuable in posing the right questions.

The Leveson Inquiry is proving valuable in posing the right questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

Dr Dan Hough is Reader in Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.