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Graft: a cancer on society

by Hugh Cortazzi

In some countries every aspect of life is corrupt. The policeman has to be bribed not to impose a penalty for some minor misdemeanor, real or invented. To obtain a license to buy or sell the palms of numerous bureaucrats have to be smoothed by gifts. To get a plea heard in court officials must be induced to allow the case to be presented and the judge must be “helped” to favor the petitioner. Appointments and promotions have to be “bought” at all levels. Contracts must be won by giving a cut to those in a position to determine the winner. Political parties and politicians must be won over by donations and lavish entertainment.

In countries where honest men and women and a free press have been effective corruption is generally suppressed and when discovered exposed. But while a society from which corruption had been totally eradicated is the ideal, greed is such a prevalent human failing that such a society exists only in the utopia of our imagination.

British people generally believe that their society is one of the least corrupt, but there are no grounds for complacency. The police and the press should be among the main instruments preventing the spread of corruption, but the recent public inquiry into press standards has revealed worrying signs of corrupt relationships between the police and the media.

The slowness and inadequacy of the police response to the accusations made against various newspapers and journalists of hacking into the private phones of celebrities and people in the news became more and more apparent as the inquiry progressed. The police in London responded by setting up a special unit to investigate allegations of corrupt relationships. As a result a number of police officers have been arrested and tried for offences involving corrupt behavior including receipt or solicitation of favors in return for information. Some journalists working for the now defunct News of the World, owned by News International, which is part of the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, await trial.

Police forces outside London have been accused of incompetence and covering up scandals. But while “bent coppers,” as corrupt policemen are popularly called, probably exist in small numbers the police in Britain are relatively unscathed by corruption. This is partly due to scrutiny by the inspectorate of constabulary and the independent police complaints commission as well as by sharp-eyed journalists.

“Whitehall” and the higher ranks of the British civil service pride themselves on their political neutrality and honesty. Nepotism was rife until civil service reforms were made in the 19th century. The danger of nepotism creeping back lies in the tendency of successive governments to appoint more and more political advisers thus trying to politicize the civil service on American lines.

Local government at city and county levels are not always of the same caliber and accusations are often heard about “influence” being exercised in relation to the granting or withholding of approval for local developments. But such accusations are difficult to prove.

The last Labor government came under fire over alleged payments for honors, especially of appointments to the House of Lords, Britain’s upper house. This “cash for honors” scandal was not the first of its kind. Independent scrutiny of recommendations for honors should reduce the opportunities for political parties to win donations by promising awards.

The reputation of the previous Conservative administration suffered in the “cash for questions” scandal. Accusations were made that members of Parliament were being bribed to put leading questions in the House of Commons to ministers. Another similar issue has been “cash for access” to ministers. Both these scandals raise the wider issue of what should be the limits on legitimate lobbying by groups and individuals working for particular interests and trying to influence decisions on legislation, regulation or administration.

The most difficult problems arise over the awarding of contracts. These should be decided by competitive tender, but decisions cannot be taken solely on price. Quality and ability to deliver on time must also be taken into account. Objectivity and expert advice should be sought but the final decision may have to be subjective.

Britain adheres to the international convention outlawing bribery and corruption by British companies operating abroad. Some British firms fear that this may put them at a disadvantage in comparison with foreign firms with less scrupulous government enforcement of the terms of the convention.

A contract to sell British military aircraft to Saudi Arabia aroused suspicions that to win the contract one or more Saudi Princes were enabled by the British company involved to make some very lucrative side-deals. The Saudi government reacted angrily and threatened to cut off intelligence cooperation against international terrorism if the special fraud office pursued the case. Although this suggested guilty consciences, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government capitulated in the face of this threat and the investigation was called off.

Japan’s reputation in the league table of least corrupt countries is high, but question marks remain. In particular, doubts are frequently voiced over the award of construction contracts and the close ties of the construction companies to the LDP as well as in the funding of the party and its factions. The role of the yakuza in the construction industry and allegations that in some areas, dominated by yakuza, shopkeepers have to pay protection money, while the police are persuaded to turn a blind eye to yakuza machinations, need further investigation.

Exchanges of gifts are a part of Japanese life and custom. At O-Chugen and O-Seibo companies send gifts to their customers and friends. It is traditional to flatter and smooth business and political deals by lavish entertainment. How far do these traditional practices reflect corruption in Japanese society? It all depends where you draw the line.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.