A nation infected by scandal

Andrew Coyne on how the culture of corruption did not just infect Rupert Murdoch’s empire, but much of the British establishment

A nation infected by scandal

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Scandals used to be so simple. Power corrupts, we were taught, and scandals were the business of those few who held power. Teapot Dome, which before Watergate was what you thought of when you saw the words “American political scandal,” involved the payment of kickbacks to a single cabinet secretary. The Pacific Scandal was essentially a matter between Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Hugh Allan.

In this democratic age, however, the locus of corruption has shifted. Now, scandals belong to everybody. The corruption more typical of our times—perhaps Watergate marked the transition—infects an organization generally, an “everybody does it” mentality in which large numbers of people who never thought of themselves as criminals become ensnared. Think of the huge numbers of people who participated in or at least knew about the various exchanges that went into the sponsorship scandal. The phrase popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, social epidemic, seems apt. The culture of corruption spreads from person to person, encouraging each to adopt a standard of behaviour that, as individuals, they might otherwise find repulsive.

And so we come to the phone-hacking scandal—the second epidemic of corruption to strike the United Kingdom in recent years, after the parliamentary expenses scandal that led to charges being laid against more than half a dozen MPs and ended the careers of dozens more. It is by now well established that the hacking of personal phone messages by journalists at the News of the World was not, as was maintained for several years, a matter of a rogue reporter and his private investigator accomplice. Nor was it confined to the peccadillos of celebrities or royals.

It extended, as we now know, to literally thousands of people, including the widows of dead soldiers, the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and, most infamously, a missing 13-year-old girl, later found murdered, whose voice messages were not only intercepted but, when her mailbox became full, deleted, thus leading her family to believe she was still alive.

The invasions of privacy went beyond voice mail to include personnel records, bank accounts, and medical files—lawful in certain circumstances, but only where a public interest can be shown, as in cases of corruption. That would not appear to cover, for example, the news that the infant son of Gordon Brown, then the chancellor of the exchequer, had cystic fibrosis, discovered and splashed across the front page within days of the Browns learning it themselves.

This behaviour involved not only reporters at the News of the World, but at least in the Brown example, also the Sun and Sunday Times, sister papers in Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire. (The Sun denies it used Brown’s son’s medical records for its story.) In the fullness of time we shall learn whether it extended to other news organizations, though it is already established that some have hired the same private investigators.

If that were all, it would be shocking enough: the famously slipshod ethics of the British tabloid press spilling over into outright criminality. But it is the intersection with other pillars of British society that takes this story to the outer limits. Much of the confidential material sought by Murdoch’s spooks was supplied to them by police officers, often on the payment of bribes. Other police officers turned a blind eye to the News of the World’s phone-hacking activities, including those explicitly assigned the task of investigating how widespread the practice was, after the first cases came to light—in part, it seems, because their own phones had been hacked, and the evidence of professional and personal misconduct thus obtained. Even after it was revealed that News International had paid huge sums of money to other victims to settle their claims out of court, Scotland Yard somehow concluded there was no story here.

And overseeing all this, the political class of Britain: all of it, it seems, or nearly so. Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, leaders of both major parties have courted Murdoch with lickspittle zeal, in hopes of his papers’ endorsement. The current prime minister, David Cameron, employed one former editor of the News of the World as his communications director, and is close friends with another.

It wasn’t only political or personal connections that moved so many politicians to play nice with Murdoch. It was, as we are now learning, fear. Politicians who crossed him or his minions were openly threatened with the publication of embarrassing personal information. Only now that he is on the run, so to speak, are many daring to speak up. This was not so much a news organization as a bribery and blackmail racket.

The culture of corruption, then, did not just infect the Murdoch empire, but much of the British establishment. To be sure, it had its roots in power, as of old: the kind that comes with owning four national newspapers with a combined 40 per cent of total circulation. The reporters who stole people’s private information could not have done so without the approval of their editors, who in turn would have taken their cues from those higher up. All of them must have come to believe they could get away with anything. Who would dare stand in their way?

But it required also the acquiescence of hundreds of others, outside the News International ranks. Yes, they may have been acting, or failing to act, out of fear, or at least a sense of helplessness. But that is debauching in its own way. Power may corrupt, but so, it seems, does impotence.


A nation infected by scandal

  1. You made the comment “This was not so much a news organization as a bribery and blackmail racket”. I wonder how this reflects on the media closer to home. Specifically, when it is well documented that Sun Media heavy weight KoryTeneycke while speaking at the Manning Institute has said he would love to hear about “Leftie” professors and Teachers, he would love to “make them famous”

  2. This of course begs the question, why not the following title: “Britain: Most corrupt nation in the EU”

    There’s alot of it, so we don’t need factual comparisons to say there’s the most, after all.

  3. It isn’t just the newspapers of the UK that are corrupt.  It is, as the famous turtles that support the world, corruption all the way down.  IMHO, it is a non-productive pirate “economy”.  We might not be able to save the people of the UK from themselves, but it is high time we recognized the damage done and try to save ourselves, lest they pull us down with them. 

    It will, even under the most favourable circumstances, be a very rough ride.  

  4. You are so right Mr. Coyne about how the “culture of corruption” infects an entire organization or organizations and that the impotence of acquiescence is what allows it to fester. But you and so many other pundits, wonks, and just everyday people seem a little sanctimonious – it could not happen here.  

    It is happening here. A violation of our democracy just as serious as the New of the World, maybe more so.  

    The end of judicial accountability in Ontario.

    Under the guise of “bad manners” lawyers are being persecuted by the Law Society of Upper Canada for challenging judicial conduct. The ultimate message appears to be: no matter what a judge does to you or your client, you cannot object or you will be disbarred.  

    In 2005, a judge was caught in judicial misconduct. Amidst allegations that the Court was attempting a cover-up, the judge was eventually sued. The Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of the Attorney General, was implicated in the alleged cover-up through involvement of Court staff and by originally defending the judge in his personal lawsuit.  

    The case was dismissed in the Fall of 2008. Shortly thereafter, Attorney General Chris Bentley, the senior judges of the Ontario Superior Court (who had been directly involved in the events that led to the lawsuit) got together with the Law Society of Upper Canada to create what are known as “the civility protocols”.  

    Spear-headed by then Treasurer, W.A. Derry Millar (Weir Foulds), the Law Society started a campaign to encourage better civility between the Bar and the Bench. While there is nothing particularly abhorrent about the project per se (though perhaps the public would be better served by the Law Society focusing on lawyer misconduct that actually matters) the civility protocols have become a draconian danger to democracy in the manner in which they are being applied.  

    According to the civility protocols themselves, the protocols were meant to facilitate (or perhaps encourage) judges to report lawyers for conduct that previously would have been considered “not serious enough to merit discipline”. Though surveys were made and some reports disclosed about the nature of incivility in the Courtrooms of Ontario, at no time was there ever any solid evidence that mere incivility has any demonstrable negative effect on the function of the administration of justice.  

    Since most of the complaints by judges relate to trivialities – counsel not standing when they object, inappropriate attire or not being gowned, being late, and the like – it is difficult to see how any of this could have any serious consequences. The transgressions boil down to judges being annoyed or offended.  

    However, the Law Society has been prosecuting lawyers for incivility as though this offence, equivalent to jay-walking, is as serious or more than stealing a few hundred thousand dollars from your trust account or some other version of major fraud. Thus recently (as reported in Maclean’s) a young would-be lawyer was denied a licence to practice law as a result of a fight with his condo corporation and a senior lawyer is being prosecuted for his “uncivil” conduct in a case that ended nine years ago.  

    More importantly, the Law Society has sought to discipline certain lawyers (the policy does not appear to be being applied in an even-handed manner) for being “rude” to judges by suspending them on an interim basis as being a “danger to the public” and threatening them with disbarment on very thin grounds. One lawyer was suspended for using an “argumentative tone” with a judge six months before she was suspended for incivility on an urgent basis due to her supposed “threat” to the administration of justice. Another lawyer was suspended for, among other things, not going to pick up registered mail sent to her home, having three calendars that led to scheduling problems, and not complying with costs orders that the judges had no jurisdiction to make. A third lawyer was suspended because of what she might say about a judge, even though she had not said anything in public and was no longer in practice. 

    Behind each of these three cases is a common factor – the lawyers sought to recuse a judge for bias and raised other alleged judicial misconduct. The complaints made by the judges appear to be mere retaliation for objections to judicial conduct and it is the Law Society that is doing the retaliating.

    Though not stated as its primary purpose, it seems that the civility protocols – which result in accelerated and elevated prosecutions by the Law Society – are a means of encouraging judges to wage war on lawyers who may challenge them, and the Law Society has signed on to act as the armed forces, for the judges.  

    Challenging judges is sometimes necessary in defence of your client and, apart from the Canadian Judicial Council (which is by all accounts largely ineffective), lawyers are the public’s only defence against judicial excesses since lawyers are particularly situated to know when a judge is acting off-side and when an objection is appropriate. 

    However, thanks to the civility protocols and the manner in which they are being applied, lawyers in Ontario will now be subject to “accountability chill” – challenge a judge and you will be disbarred. To paraphrase the Law Society from one of the above cases – even if a lawyer whole-heartedly believes that there has been judicial misconduct it is discourteous to mention it. In other words, even if you think a judge has gone bad, it is too rude to notice it.  

    According to reports by Global Transparency International, Canada already ranks near the bottom in terms of effective judicial accountability. In Ontario at least, that situation is about to get much worse.  

  5. The ‘alledged’ behaviour of Rupert Murdoch and others (Piers Morgan) at the helm of the newspaper foodchains bring to mind a new title for this Top Job:  Preditor