A Sisyphean Task

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Every time a new ‘lobbying scandal’ breaks, it reminds me of that Greek chap Sisyphus, sentenced to forever be pushing a boulder up a hill. Each time he makes it to the top, the boulder gets away from him – poor old Sisyphus – and rolls back to the bottom.

The analogy comes to mind every so often when we hear our politicians promise a ‘root and branch review’ of lobbying, or to ‘stamp out corruption’, once and for all. This is a task doomed to only partial success. It’s not a finite action, but rather an effort that has to be constant and recurring.

The central, unavoidable problem is that people in positions of power will always be vulnerable to being bribed. No political system is exempt from this potential pitfall. For things to operate in a non-corrupt way requires rules, and the integrity of all parties to stick by them.

Actually, most of the big companies professionally engaged in lobbying activities – in representing the interests and concerns of their clients – are very well behaved. And although you wouldn’t know it from the denigration they get in the press, most MPs are too. (I remember an interesting conversation with an Italian who said his favourite thing about the UK was our honest politicians. It’s all relative you see.)

Which is why last week’s Panorama – which sent the metaphorical boulder tumbling back down to the bottom of the hill, and did something similar for MP Patrick Mercer – was particularly frustrating. Instead of exposing or uncovering real corruption, all the programme did was manufacture a crime and then point to it as evidence of widespread malpractice.

One idiotic politician does not a broken political system make. To suggest such a thing is just lazy journalism. Anyone can invent a fake business and dupe a foolish person – and I’m not trying to exonerate Mercer here, who does seem to be particularly deserving of his fate. But if this little exercise in entrapment had been carried out by the police, rather than a journalist, the value of the evidence gathered would have been seriously compromised.

So for me, rather than casting doubt on the general trustworthiness of politicians, instead the integrity of the press is called into question.

Panorama is meant to be serious investigative journalism. This was just an exercise in sensationalism, and further evidence of the depressing dumbing down of our mainstream media. And it was irresponsible. Feeding the public mistrust of politicians doesn’t serve any of us well.

Further, it didn’t tackle the much more interesting – but difficult – question of corporate influence on government, which MP Douglas Carswell alluded to within the programme. This is a valid point.

There are a number of large corporates in the UK that enjoy particularly close relationships with government – and arguably because their (business) interests, and the national interest (security, the economy) are closely aligned. In these relationships no money is changing hands improperly – but defining ‘how close is too close?’ is an interesting question.

It’s a shame that instead of really interrogating this, the rest of the documentary busied itself with persuading a little known MP to accept money on behalf of an obscure (and fictional) interest group. And presumably also spending a lot of money flying the journalist out to Fiji – quite unnecessarily.

If this was an attempt to bolster democracy, it failed. We are all left none the wiser. The thorniest issues went untouched. Sisyphus toils on.

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