Money makes the world go crooked, says watchdog

Most people believe that police and politicians have their snouts in the trough. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Tuesday saw the most prominent of the world’s anti-corruption NGOs, Transparency International, announce the results of its 2013 “Global Corruption Barometer”. As ever, the results make interesting reading, hinting - as they do - that the world (and the UK) is getting more corrupt.

With 114,000 people surveyed and 107 countries now included, the GCB gives a fascinating insight in to how corruption is both perceived and experienced across the globe. A range of institutions, ranging from the police to political parties and from the military to the media, come under the microscope, with many coming out with less than flying colours.

As far as the UK is concerned, the situation is less rosy than it was the last time this survey was conduced (in 2010) - and it is worth remembering that the story back then was hardly one of sweetness and light. Some 65% of people in Britain, for example, believe that there is more corruption in public life now than there was two years ago, whilst 62% think that the coalition government’s attempts to tackle corruption have been ineffective.

Given that corruption analysts up and down the land generally regard the 2010 UK Bribery Act as a groundbreaking piece of legislation, that doesn’t bode well.

Hacks have a bad name

The hacking scandal has done little to improve the public’s impression of where corruption might lurk and UK citizens have been unsurprisingly quick to point the finger at the media as a result. As a result of the scandal, 69% of citizens now believe that the fourth estate has serious corruption problems.

Transparency International’s analysis of these figures subsequently leads them to some pretty hard-hitting conclusions; “despite several warning signals over the past five years” note the report’s authors, “the UK has been complacent about corruption”. They also go on to bemoan the abolition of the Audit Commission and the significant cuts to the budget of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). It doesn’t make for pretty reading.

Depressing though much of the analysis can appear - and, to be clear, this is not just the case in the UK (citizens of 83 countries believe corruption has got worse over the past two years, for example, whereas citizens of only 11 countries think the situation has improved) - it is worth remembering two things when looking at surveys such as these.

Just a few bad apples?

While researchers at Transparency International make every effort to be rigorous when collecting and collating their data, we should be careful not to read too much into the detail of their findings. Corruption may well be widely perceived to be a problem that is getting worse, but that doesn’t actually mean that that it is case. Perception is not reality and at times the two can diverge considerably.

That doesn’t make the data invalid, but we should be wary of interpreting too much out of simple survey questions. The diet of apparently never-ending corruption scandals that citizens are fed has also fed the perception that corruption is everywhere. Yet it seems hard to believe that politicians of yesteryear were genuinely any different to contemporary ones - the big difference is that in 2013 the glare of the media is stronger and more intrusive that it has ever been before.

It should come as no surprise that certain institutions fare badly across the board. In many places the police are widely viewed as corrupt; unsurprising given that many of the corrupt practices that people actually see involve the paying of “facilitation payments” or “spontaneous taxes” imposed on them by officers of the law.

Or a whole rotten barrel?

Politicians also have lots of ground to make up, with citizens of 51 countries rating political parties as the most corrupt institution. Whilst politicians frequently do little to help themselves in this area, there is also a problem of expectations-management. Politics, no matter where you are, is messy, it is about compromise and it is about finding ways of allocating scarce resources. That many don’t appreciate this contributes to impressions of politicians as being in it for themselves and themselves alone. Despite all of their sins, in many places that is a generalisation too far.

One thing that we can conclude is that corruption is widely perceived to be endemic and systemic. Certain institutions are perceived as having more problems than others (in no country is the military, for example, believed to be the most corrupt institution), but the general picture varies from gloomy to downright depressing. Shades of grey to one side, that alone should give anyone interested in the quality of political life plenty of food for thought.