The Great Leveson Diversion

June 13, 2012

The MPs expenses scandal; the Leveson inquiry into press standards and the relationship between MPs, police and the media; the Iraq War and subsequent inquiries – it has been a traumatic time for the political class in recent years. Indeed, you could stretch that list further back into the 1990s, with widespread “sleaze” and worries about “standards in public life”. Rarely in British history have so many magnifying glasses been applied to aspects of public life. Even if the efficacy of such investigations is highly questionable, what can’t be denied is that attention has been regularly (and damagingly) focused upon major institutions in British society.

To some, the epidemic of inquiries will represent a triumph for British democracy. Such narcissism is misplaced. Look at what is missing from the list of institutions under investigation. We see the press, parliament, the police, parts of the secret state and military. Yet what we don’t see is by far the largest nexus of criminality and corruption operating in Britain in 2012. What we don’t see is the only institution that could be investigated which has world-historical significance – the only power in the country which can (and does) cause chaos in nations rich and poor, the world over.

Of course, what I am referring to is the City of London.

The world’s financial crisis (ongoing) truly began in London. London was where American banks set up operations that were too risky to satisfy regulators across the Atlantic. London is the world’s incubator and coordinator of tax havens. London pools capital which invests in coal and oil projects that are causing climate chaos. London speculates in vulture bonds, which seek to plunder the resources of the poorest nations in the world, London is where companies come when they want to offload toxic waste in African nations – a place where they can be confident of a fair hearing.

In truth, there are innumerable questions that the public could ask of the entrenched interests which control the city. Four years after the financial crisis, and now well into the resulting social and economic crisis, there has been no investigation into what went wrong. We have some measures to separate retail from investment banking that may or may not be implemented, and will certainly be attenuated by lobbyists from the banks. But we have no prospect of effective regulation to ensure that the City does not risk global financial stability through casino-like speculation, that the poor are protected (indeed, that finance works for them), that the environment too is protected, that transparency is enhanced and that boards become capable of holding executives to account (and that executive pay re-enters the real world).

The City has benefited massively from the demoralization of Westminster. Public trust in MPs is (rightly) at an all-time low. Public attention is focused upon politicians, police and press barons testifying in a court of law, instead of being fastened upon the corrupt and deeply elitist culture within the City of London. As austerity bites, we are witnessing a morality show – a Punch and Judy spectacular to which we are all the audience, while those in the City work the crowd, stealing our purses, our watches, our sweets.

It would not be taking it too far to suggest that Leveson functions as a grand diversion away from centres of financial privilege, towards those who enjoy the privileges of office, or the podium of public speech. Of those who are called to testify, anyone who matters enjoys the security afforded by financial investments and tax havens (very much including the Prime Minister) and they also know that the public will not intervene to challenge such unwarranted privilege. We, the public, are being fed controversy of the second rank – important in some senses, but subsidiary to the historically important controversy surrounding financial power.

When the political system is owned by concentrated financial power, and the press is owned by multinational corporations (and the odious police are on the take wherever possible) then it is the economic system that must be put on trial. Unless there is some open process of investigation of the City, then we will not have the chance to compare current arrangements with possible alternatives – democratically run financial institutions, new norms of ethical investment, means of dismantling tax havens, systems of accountability and remuneration for the movers of money.

Although I know that press freedom, the oligopolistic nature of the media, political corruption, individual privacy and bribery of police are important issues, they are currently acting as a safety valve for a malfunctioning economic system. If democracy means anything in Britain (a highly debatable contention) then we need a means of overhauling the broken down, archaic components of that system. Leveson isn’t going to get anywhere near that aim.

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