From Chongqing to Chipping Norton, money and politics have got too cosy
Scandals in Britain and China show the need for the separation of powers and the independence of professions
Let us consider the tale of Murdoch Xilai and little Bo James. I mix them up like this since both Britain and China are roiled by scandals involving corruption, spying, intimidation, cover-up and collusion at the highest levels.
Of course such affairs do not unfold in quite the same way in one of the world’s oldest democracies and in the world’s oldest autocracy. Imagine a fiercely independent judicial inquiry, a cross-party parliamentary committee and a largely free press all investigating the Bo Xilai case in Beijing. Imagine opposition politicians interrogating president Hu Jintao in angry parliamentary exchanges at what, by analogy with Westminster’s PMQs we might call CPGSQs (Communist party general secretary’s questions). They order things differently in China.
Yet any complacency in Britain would be entirely out of place. What has happened over the decades during which Rupert Murdoch became the second most powerful person in Britain has been profoundly corrosive, not only of our domestic politics but also of our foreign (especially European) policy, our media and our public morality. Far too many of our politicians have been craven lickspittles, cowed not just by hope of office and fear of political attacks in powerful mass media, but by personal fears of tabloid-style exposure of real or alleged features of their private lives.
It should never have happened here. It must never happen again.
Underlying these very different stories is a deeper lesson about two universal keys to good and open government. The first is the separation of powers: not just the classic public powers of executive, legislature and judiciary but also the separation of private from public power, including that of the media (“the fourth estate”) from ruling parties and the state. The second is the independent ethos, codes and self-confidence of separate professions – lawyers, journalists, politicians, civil servants, soldiers, academics – without which even the most elaborated formal separation of powers is not worth the paper it is written on.
Britain does not have the classic separation of powers seen in the US. Government and parliament are too closely intertwined, although the House of Commons has recently reasserted a little more independence, especially through select committees such as the one that just produced its damning report on the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal. The judiciary, however, has largely kept its independence through these murky times. If you want a great example, just watch Lord Leveson, head of the judge-led inquiry into part of this scandal, treating Rupert Murdoch as if he were just another unreliable witness.
With the fourth estate it’s a mixed picture. One peculiarity of contemporary Britain is that it can plausibly claim to have some of the world’s worst and some of the world’s best journals and journalists. (Beside “journalist” perhaps only the word “dancer” covers such a wide range.) It’s for others to assess the performance of papers like the Guardian, or public service broadcasters like the BBC. But there have been moments when even the Murdoch-owned Times has been quite brave in reporting the scandal dragging down its proprietor and the grotesque wrongdoings of its tabloid sister papers.
The heart of darkness in Murdoch’s Britain has been the incestuous relationship between private and public power: more specifically, between money and politics. (The same is true in the US, with a significant part played by Murdoch-owned Fox News.) Both Britain’s largest parties, Labour and Conservative, have been craven in their wooing of Murdoch and other media barons.
In this, as in so much else, following the trail blazed by Tony Blair, David Cameron, while leader of the opposition, flew specially to meet Murdoch off the island of Santorini, on a yacht called Rosehearty. (So when someone makes the Murdoch version of the movie Citizen Kane, the weary newspaper mogul must die with the mysterious word “Rosehearty” slipping from his lips.) Cameron’s subsequent criticisms of the BBC bore an uncanny resemblance to those advanced by the Murdochs, who supported his election bid. With all we have now learned, I personally find it impossible to believe that his culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was then rigorously impartial in assessing News Corp’s strategic bid for control of BSkyB.
The interwining of private and public power, of money and politics, is also at the heart of China’s scandal. There are intriguing small connections between the two countries’ affairs.
One question in the Bo Xilai case is how he and his wife Gu Kailai got their son Bo Guagua – the James Murdoch of Chongqing – into Harrow school and then Oxford university, and how they paid the fees. If a report in the Daily Mail is to be believed, Gu Kailai approached a British company called Vistarama to supply a giant helium balloon observatory for the city of Dalian, of which her husband was then mayor. She suggested an “extra payment” of £150,000 for the air freight, explaining: “We pay the company, you pay the school.” Vistarama reportedly declined the unconventional offer. One trusts they word things more delicately in Chipping Norton, where Murdochs and Camerons used to hang out together – and where, more seriously, the political, legal and economic context is quite different.
The Chinese-British connections also run the other way. For the first decade of this century, Murdoch’s strategic dream was to break into the China market. According to a superb book on the Chinese Communist party by the Financial Times’s Richard McGregor, Murdoch wooed the then Communist propaganda chief Ding Guan’gen as assiduously as he himself was being wooed by Blair and Cameron. Later, and here’s the most revealing part: “Murdoch joined forces in an expensive business venture with Ding’s son in an effort to find a way around China’s tight restrictions on foreign broadcasting, all to no avail.”
In Britain and the US, the problem is an incestuous relationship between money and politics, but at least these are still recognisably two separate powers. In China, after 30 years of Leninist capitalism, the two seem to have become deeply intertwined – often in the same families. That, when taken together with the lack of the classical separation of public powers, and the enforced weakness of China’s media, is obviously a much larger obstacle on the road to open, good government.
But I say it once again: no complacency please, we’re British. Let us put our own house in order before lecturing anyone else about the state of theirs.