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

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

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