Organisations can be corrupt, not just people. As a new report shows. And without an public duty to be transparent, that will be the rule, not the exception.
Short thought: There are a million definitions of corruption. It’s one of those “know it when you see it” kinds of words, and an exact definition is probably unhelpful.
(Put up with me here. I’m going to wander off into a bit of a discursion. But I promise: it’ll come back to something current, and important. Something that ought to make you pretty angry. It did me.)
You can see this in one of the most common ones, which boils down to “the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain”. It’s not bad, so far as it goes. But there’s a lot of freight in those words, and in each of them – and that can lead us in unfortunate directions.
(One useful omission is any reference to “dishonesty”. For years, there’s been legal argument about whether dishonesty was an essential element in corruption. In the UK, it’s now pretty settled that it doesn’t – and that’s a good thing. “Corrupt” and “dishonest” are overlapping circles: you can be either without the other, although often they co-exist. Think, for instance, of blatant, balls-out abuse of power where someone simply takes advantage of their position without even bothering to hide what they’re doing. Not uncommon, and not in the slightest dishonest. But corrupt all the same.)
So what do I mean by “freight” in the words? This is where I behave like the stereotypical barrister: picking apart the language. But there’s a point, as I hope you’ll see. Taking it a step at a time:
- “Abuse”. Not all uses of power for personal gain are necessarily corrupt. A decision on behalf of your organisation might make you better off, but also be in the organisation’s best interests – and those of its stakeholders. No abuse there. No corruption.
- “Entrusted power”. An essential element in how law in England defined corruption used to be that an agency relationship needed to exist. This is still there in civil matters, to an extent: it’s trite law now (following FHB) that if someone acting for you takes a bribe, the law sees their gain as in fact yours, and which that agent (holding it in trust for you) therefore can’t lawfully use for themselves. As recently as 15 years ago, amid arguments over what ultimately became the Bribery Act 2010, many pushed for explicit inclusion of an agency requirement in the proposed new statute. Ultimately that idea died; but we still have the essential idea that bribery, at least (and corruption more generally) is about what you do with authority that you’ve been given and which you wield on others’ behalf.
- “Gain”. This is often misinterpreted as something strictly financial. In the UK, at least, that’s not the case, at least so long as bribery is concerned: the offences in the Bribery Act are committed for the gift or receipt of “financial or other advantage” (see for instance s1(2)(a) and s2(2)). Unlike in the Fraud Act 2006 s5, where “gain” has to be in property or something financial, an intangible advantage will qualify. Such as, for example, the preservation of a reputation, or the burying of bad news.
- “Personal”. This, I’d suggest, is also a dangerous one. It gives the impression that corruption is solely and always about individuals – whether acting in their own favour or for (for instance) their families or friends.
Now we’re at the point. Sorry it took this long. The reason for this textual exegesis is the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel, whose report (all 1,200-odd pages of it) was finally released last week. For the uninitiated, it tells a thoroughly grubby tale of the grossly-incompetent investigation, over decades, by the Metropolitan Police of a 1980s murder of a journalist.
But worse than the incompetence is what the Panel’s report says is the Met’s “institutional corruption”. Partly because of the prevailing suspicion that Met officers were far too close to crooks for comfort, as they were with private investigators who hovered in the hinterland between the two.
But mostly because of what appears to be an eight-year effort by the Met to obstruct the Inquiry, whether by failing to produce evidence, blocking access to systems, or otherwise. The Panel doesn’t mince words:
In failing to acknowledge its many failings over the 34 years since the murder of Daniel Morgan, the Metropolitan Police’s first objective was to protect itself. In so doing it compounded the suffering and trauma of the family.
…The lack of leadership, the reluctance to confront serious issues and the refusal to be publicly and internally candid about failings and deficiencies within the organisation, in this case and others, engenders distrust among the community served by the Metropolitan Police and within the organisation itself. The support of that community, and the confidence of good police officers in the organisation which they serve, is vital to the delivery of effective efficient policing. It is to be hoped that the findings and recommendations contained in this report will lead to a change of culture and ethos throughout the police service.
One could say that “institutional corruption” is a misuse of language. Is it really corruption for an organisation to drag its feet just to try to stifle criticism and keep its incompetence under wraps? That’s not “personal gain”, is it?
Wrong. What we’re talking about is, I think undoubtedly, the abuse of entrusted power. And it may not necessarily be for the individual gain of those making the decisions, but it’s definitely to aid the organisation at the cost of those it serves. Perhaps “personal” isn’t the right word; but to the extent that we’re talking about placing its own interests above the demands of its assigned duties and obligations, it fits.
Another criticism might be: well, isn’t self-preservation an inevitable habit of any large institution? Of course it is. But there’s still a dividing line. We’re back to the “know it when you see it”. There’s vigorous PR. And then there’s this. They’re not the same. It’s facile, and I think foolish or in some cases dishonest, to suggest otherwise.
The Morgan report is huge. Few will read it. But the summary is less than 20 pages. It tells an entirely unedifying story. And, to anyone concerned that those who protect us can be trusted not to privilege their own concerns over ours, it’s in my view essential reading.
Someone is right on the internet: A key recommendation in the Morgan report is the imposing of a “duty of candour” for public servants and public institutions. In other words, they would have a responsibility to be proactive in informing the people they claim to serve about what they’re doing and how.
This topic is picked up by David Allen Green in the latest of a set of posts concerning what he believes is a prerequisite for meaningful public service reform. David points out, perhaps slightly caustically, that calls for such reform are frequent (and the person voicing them is “usually Michael Gove”), but are rarely accompanied by any acknowledgement that without an imposition of transparency – that is, the obligation to disclose information they don’t want anyone to see – such calls are essentially meaningless. They are, he says,
Nothing but sophistry and illusion.
I think he’s right. Governments (and public bodies) in general are loathe to let sunlight into what they do, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say our current administration takes this to an extreme: whether it’s changes to judicial review, or a backstairs bit of the Cabinet Office making sure freedom of information requests are hobbled, or an apparently academic disquisition on whether judges are trespassing on the rule of law in cases concerning (also) freedom of information, the trend is to lock down, not open up. To avoid scrutiny. To obscure transparency.
In a nutshell: to be unaccountable.
This cannot be right. Particularly in our majoritarian polity, where the combination of first-past-the-post elections and parliamentary supremacy puts immense power in the hands of the government of the day, trammelled only by conventions which this administration doesn’t seem to recognise, transparency is critical if those running the show are to be held to account.
Mind you, I’d be saying the same thing were another party to be in power. Power corrupts. When it’s wielded without accountability, in the dark, its abuse is practically inevitable.
Ah, you might say. But you’re forgetting Hanlon’s Razor: that wonderful (and I’ve always believed accurate) warning against assuming malice where something can just as easily be explained by incompetence. (More pithily put as: “Cock-up is far more common than conspiracy.”)
No. I haven’t. If anything, that’s still more important. Errors, mistakes and negligence only get learned from if they’re recognised. Institutional pressure to sweep cock-ups under the carpet is always intense: yes, partly for legal reasons, but as often simply to save face. Without transparency, the same errors happen. Over and over again.
And we all pay.
(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)