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UK corruption: It's time to wake up
Evidence emerging from the Leveson inquiry has highlighted a disturbing culture of corruption which spans key UK sectors and institutions. This morning, Detective Sue Akers suggested that some sections of the press have been making regular payments to a network of corrupted public officials.
In the past it may have been easy for UK citizens to pretend that corruption is a problem which only exists overseas – not in our own parliament, prisons, police force, and newsrooms.
However, Aker’s revelations now leave no room for denying the fact that the UK has a corruption problem. It may not be as widespread as in some other countries where the problem is entrenched, but any level of corruption in our public institutions is too much.
Last year, Transparency International UK published the most extensive study into UK corruption ever undertaken. We found that the growing threat of corruption is often met with complacency, and that key institutions are refusing to confront the problem. Of particular concern are prisons, political parties, parliament and sport where the response to the increasing corruption risk is often incoherent and uncoordinated. Today’s revelations only add to the mounting evidence which leaves little room for any denial of the problem. Our report revealed that there are an estimated 1000 corrupt prison officers currently working in the UK, therefore facilitating organised crime to continue both inside and outside the prison walls. In sport, the recent conviction of Mervyn Westfield has shown that even British county cricket is not immune to corruption.
The issue of payments being made by members of the press to solicit information from the police was also highlighted in our report as cause for concern. Earlier today Akers said that there was “a culture at the Sun of illegal payments” and mentioned that the police are investigating “frequent and sometimes significant sums of money” paid by some journalists to members of the police force.
The argument has been made by some that bribery is occasionally necessary to obtain stories which are in the public interest. However, if bribes were paid as alleged, this was illegal under British law even before the UK Bribery Act came into force in 2011. Bribery would give certain news outlets unfair advantage over their competitors for stories, which – as has been pointed out today – are often not in the public interest. The fact that some assert that bribes are justified in order to sell news is itself a very sad commentary on ethical standards in certain sections of the media.
It is unfortunate that those who use their positions of influence to act unscrupulously are tarnishing the good reputation of the system as a whole. Our report showed that the UK media is not endemically corrupt. In fact, there are many journalists who are to be commended for exposing the crime and corruption which would remain hidden if it were not for their efforts. This also applies to the countless politicians and police officers who work hard to expose corruption and uphold integrity.
There must be a zero tolerance approach to corruption in all circumstances. Most importantly, the government needs to take corruption more seriously. Ironically, it has appointed an 'overseas anti-corruption champion'. But who oversees the fight against corruption within the UK? Actually, nobody does. Even worse, some of the oversight structures that are safeguards against corruption, such as the Audit Commission, are being hastily dismantled with no real thought as to the consequences.
The fragmented response to this problem needs to be addressed in a robust and coordinated way. There should be no place in the UK for a culture of impunity, in which powerful people or organisations involved in corruption do not face the consequences of their actions.
The mounting evidence shows that, unless it is rooted out swiftly, corruption will increasingly threaten key pillars of the UK's society and democracy. What we need is strong, clear and coordinated leadership from the government and parliament. Complacency is no longer an option.