CONASON: Press Was Watching

LONDON -- Crossing the Atlantic to visit the mother country is no way to escape political scandals of an altogether familiar type. The Conservative Party, already crushed by its historic May Day trouncing at the polls, is suffering through the final stages of a long-running and juicy affair involving several former Tory Members of Parliament who took cash, luxurious vacations at the Ritz hotel in Paris and other emoluments in exchange for services rendered to various lobbyists and corporate interests, most notably a foreign business magnate, a nuclear power company and an American tobacco firm. Exposed by courageous journalists at The Guardian newspaper, this scandal's standing story line is "cash for questions" -- a reference to gifts made to M.P.'s who then corrupted the grand English tradition of pursuing debate through sharply pointed inquiries on the floor of the House of Commons. The alternative title is simply "sleaze." Although the structures and systems of politics here are quite different from our own, there are some remarkable parallels in the corrupt practices that have infested both, especially because crooked legislators here and in Washington have so long enjoyed the relative impunity provided by the lax policing of misconduct by their colleagues. The comparisons to be drawn will not be found in the campaign fund-raising investigations now underway on Capitol Hill, which are so burdened with partisan bias as to be virtually useless. (News has reached these shores about the resignations in protest of top staff members of the House of Representatives probe, who are furious over the shenanigans of their indefatigably right-wing and leak-prone associate David Bossie.) No, the striking resemblance lies in the way daily business has been done in the "mother of Parliaments" and its American offspring. Just as House Speaker Newt Gingrich would be given a multimillion-dollar pourboire in the form of a book contract by Rupert Murdoch, or, as Mr. Gingrich's deputy, Representative Tom (The Hammer) DeLay demands tribute from the corporate lobbyists who help to write the bills affecting their industries, so there was here a coterie of Tories who accepted stacks of hundred-pound notes and industrial "consultancies" from the companies whose aims they advanced. In both countries, those dealings were conducted simultaneously with "morality" crusades by the same conservative parties whose members were perverting the moral hygiene of the body politic. In both instances, too, there was a persistent quality of obliviousness in the offenders, who seemed to believe in the divine right of the moneyed to control public policy -- so long as funding flowed rightward into certain pockets, bank accounts and campaign committees. Ideologically, this tendency reflects a phenomenon that Robert Peston, the political editor of the Financial Times, calls "the seamier side of Thatcherite individualism." And finally, there was the obvious sluggishness and distaste with which the lawmakers in both legislatures undertook their duty to discipline errant members. The so-called ethics committees on the Hill have been as ineffectual as similar bodies set up to regulate the behavior of the denizens of Westminster. Indeed, the villains of the cash-for-questions drama might have escaped punishment entirely if one of the accused politicians had not foolishly and arrogantly instituted a libel suit against The Guardian, the result of which was the discovery of certain incriminating documents. Forced to hand over the proof of his own iniquity, the sleazy fellow almost immediately began negotiations to settle the lawsuit, with a nominal payment of legal costs that nevertheless represented an important victory for the crusading newspaper. Even so, there are a few things to be learned from the example of our friends over here. The first is that there is no substitute for an engaged and outraged press willing to place all of its resources and prestige behind its duty to defend democracy from political predators. The editors of The Guardian took enormous risks in the public interest, and their example puts to shame the often cynical and lazy attitude of their American colleagues. Their courage galvanized the rest of the British media to an extent that is almost unimaginable in the United States. The second is that an independent investigation, of the kind recently completed here by Sir Gordon Downey, the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, is the only effective means to police political corruption. Reforms of the Congressional ethics committees are almost certain to be inadequate unless they include the appointment of a permanent prober like Sir Gordon. Finally, there is the sterling example set by the British people themselves. As an electorate, they did more than whine about the dismal ethics of their ruling elite. After many months of close attention to the cash-for-questions saga, they took decisive action on May Day. Ian Hargreaves, the editor of the New Statesman, described it as a "joyful turning-out of the Tories in a wave of revulsion against sleaze." Such popular action is, he added, "one of the joys of living in a democracy." It is a pleasure in which Americans ought to indulge far more often than they do.

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