An Italian academic I know came to Britain just a few years ago wanting to study corruption. ‘You’re wasting your time,’ he was told. ‘Corruption isn’t a problem here.’
Could anyone say that now? The corruption in today’s Britain is not just out in the open; it is one of the most obvious aspects of our public life. Even Berlusconi must be impressed.
Most conspicuously, our divided minority government is only in office thanks to a payout of £1bn of taxpayers’ money negotiated by a small, regional party with a strong religious orientation, and to top it up the government is currently blocking perfectly normal public scrutiny of that party’s finances.
Now we have another example, no less flagrant: ministers cancelling a public inquiry (Leveson 2) into corrupt practices – one that has the potential to implicate politicians, possibly including their own party. This was done in defiance of the opposition parties who had been partners in establishing that inquiry, and also in defiance of the views of the inquiry chair, who happens to be one of the most senior judges in the land.
To cap that, the cancellation was at the behest of powerful newspapers that were the principal targets of the inquiry and that are politically very friendly with the governing party. Those papers, which had been relentlessly misrepresenting the inquiry for their readers, have naturally greeted the government’s decision as if it was an initiative worthy of Winston Churchill.
For a country that until recently tended to imagine it was not corrupt, Britain is showing considerable flair.
A government is corrupt when it governs in its own interests and not those of the public. Everything about the cancellation of Leveson 2 speaks of government self-interest and the appeasement of billionaire allies, and the public wasn’t even a consideration.
And in the background there is something more: a promised government ‘review’ of the funding of the press, with a focus, it seems, on screwing money out of tech giants. What does that imply? Yes, the possibility of more subsidies for those press allies. We are truly in the sewer.
Naturally, the Leveson 2 decision comes to us draped in the threadbare flag of press freedom. National newspaper companies that have been involved in criminality – and that is almost all of them – are so vital to our democracy, we are told, and do such a tremendous job of holding the powerful to account that we must not trouble them with awkward questions.
‘I believe in the freedom of the press,’ May and her ministers declare with indignation when their motives are questioned. And indeed so does the press. Armies of entitled editors and payroll journalists believe in the freedom of the press never to be accountable, never to have to answer any questions at all.
What’s more, they say, those crimes (‘wrong as they undoubtedly were’) are all in the past, and as the Guardian (no less) tells us, it’s the future we need to think about.
Tell me, how do you fight future crime if you haven’t investigated past crime? (And please don’t fall for the lie that all past crime has been satisfactorily investigated: look at the latest Byline revelations.) And how do you fight it if you haven’t made responsible for preventing it account for their past failure?
And anyway, what future should we be thinking of? The future of journalism, or the future of these corrupt organisations and their government friends?
Sadly, much of what we see in these papers is so morally compromised, so devalued, so cruel and unjust, that it is barely worthy of the name of journalism.
Inaccuracy and distortion are so rife that fewer than one in five readers trusts newspaper journalists to tell the truth (and the response of the press is to refuse to report that fact). Persecution of the vulnerable and of minorities, often involving flagrant hate speech, is part of the business model, with no regard to the social damage it causes. The inability of all but the rich to secure redress at law is relentlessly exploited.
This is not journalism as a service to the public, or as a pillar of democracy. It is a perversion of journalism. If real journalism is to recover and survive in these organisations compromised by criminality and corruption it desperately needs Leveson 2, whose brief is to identify what went wrong, how it went wrong and who failed. Only Leveson 2 can clear the air.
Which is why the people who face scrutiny are terrified of it. Which in turn is why they have leant on our weak minority government to block it. Which is why Culture Secretary Matt Hancock is prepared to take the unprecedented step of cancelling a public inquiry at the halfway point in defiance of every moral and constitutional consideration.
That is corruption.