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 Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

0800 7318496