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Why corruption is harder to define than you think

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

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

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.