Is the Prime Minister’s Office institutionally corrupted by Murdoch’s influence?

In politics, politicians succeed to the extent that they can gain support for their policies. In particular, they need public support or at least to avoid public resistance. They need public support to defend their policies against those who oppose what they want to do. If they fail to deliver their policies, then they could lose their office. Without public support, their policies fail and they could lose the next election. One of the ways they gain public support is through public speeches. The public hear or read these directly or the media reports them. The media can either support or oppose the policies and the politician. In some cases, part of the media will support and part will oppose. In that role, the media can interpret or distort that message. For example, a newspaper can make claims, on the politician’s behalf, to further the policy. In exchange, the media, even unsympathetic media, gain access to the politician. The media want an exclusives as well as influence, which helps them succeed against their rivals. At the same time, the politician wants to tell their story or at least influence those who might not support them. The media’s power to broadcast and access provides the opportunity to influence legislation, in particular any legislation that may affect them. The relationship is the same for any constituent. The difference, though, is the media provide a desired service and have greater ability to punish a politician than a voter does.

Politics as a transaction is legal as long as it serves the public interest.

In any political relationship, the politician acts for a constituent. In turn, the politician expects their support. The political exchange is the nature of politics. The exchange may involve a vote, a donation, or an endorsement. The exchange is legal and proper so long as the promised outcome does not depend on the favour or payment. The benefactor’s influence is corrupt if it undermines the democratic process. These include, but are not limited to, political competition and citizen representation. As Denis Thompson explains, some political behaviour may appear corrupt but is not because it does not undermine the democratic process.

It is not corrupt if the practice promotes (or at least does not damage) political competition, citizen representation, or other core processes of the institution. But it is corrupt if it is of a type that tends to undermine such processes (as indicated by the violation of legitimate procedures), and thereby frustrates the primary purposes of the institution.[1]

If the exchange were financial, like cash for questions, it would be both corrupt and illegal. An elected politician cannot use the office for financial gain at the expense of his core responsibility. Instead, the politician offers their service without a guarantee of the outcome. They may have to hedge their commitment against other issues, which is why they cannot guarantee an outcome. They may have to do as their party requires or what the larger public interest requires. If the politician only served their benefactor and not their constituency, then they would be corrupt.

When the benefactors is in charge, the relationship is corrupt.

Institutions often rely on benefactors. The relationship can be healthy or it can be corrupt. The more the benefactor dominates the relationship, the less healthy the institution. The institution is not following its purpose, it is following the benefactor’s purpose. One writer who has explored this problem is Denis Thompson. He argues that when the procedures and purposes needed the institution to fulfil its purpose no longer work properly, it is corrupt.[2]

What does this have to do with Rupert Murdoch? Everything.

Rupert Murdoch has had an enduring relationship with UK Prime Minister. The relationship started with Margaret Thatcher. She betrayed her duty to the public, and to her office, when she met with Rupert Murdoch in 1981. In exchange for looking favourably on his plan to break the print unions and expand his control of UK media, she received his media support. She made this exchange so she could stay in office.[3] She needed a political bodyguard. She needed an outsider, as anyone within the UK would allow rivals to emerge.[4] She agreed to benefit Rupert Murdoch in return for good press coverage. With the good press could support her policies and influence voters. She could make sure her message was supported and those opposed were muted or savaged by Murdoch’s press. Despite her claims to defend liberty, she acted tyrannically through her relationship with Murdoch. As she said in 1996, perhaps not reflecting on her use of a media bodyguard:

“It has been the guiding sentiment of tyrants in every age who believe that if you can control what people read and thereby what they think then you can control them.”[5]

With Murdoch as her media bodyguard, she was able to punish her political opponents. In her decision to favour Murdoch, she put her interests first. She put her interests before the common good.[6] She behaved, as she believed. There is no such thing as society, or a common good, as there are only individuals and individual goods.[7] Her corrupt behaviour made Murdoch into the PM’s bodyguard. No PM could, or can, succeed without his help or with his hindrance.

Once established, the relationship became the test for all future Prime Ministers.[8] Without it, they found it hard to succeed. Thatcher’s willingness to create it and Blair’s enthusiasm for a media bodyguard has been to the country’s detriment. Murdoch’s influence has had a baleful effect on UK politics and the public domain. In his role as media bodyguard, Murdoch has ensured his editors and reports are enthusiastic captains and foot soldiers. Since he became the bodyguard, his editors and reporters have behaved with appalling viciousness and cruelty in the public domain. They have monstered those who opposed their own interests and the interests of their nominal patron. They have always been careful to target the weak and vulnerable and rarely attacking those able to defend themselves. Even though the relationship appear unseemly, how is corrupt?

A corrupt organisation no longer serves its original purpose.

The organisation loses its way when its core purposes serve someone else. The institution’s purpose is diverted for or by someone else usually the benefactor. Even if the politician has a good motive, the conditions that allow for the improper influences are what corrupt the institution.[9] The Prime Minister wants to have a good reputation so they can be effective. A Prime Minister knows that the Murdoch papers have the largest circulation. Even though the tabloids can create the bad press, the politicians seek their favour. The politicians are not the only ones who want good press or a good relationship with the media. The price of such a relationship can be very high for the organisation even if the individual benefits. The cautionary tale is the fate of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). In 2000, Lord then Commissioner Stevens wanted good press relationships. He started a media relationship that undermined the Metropolitan Police Service.[10] In time, the newspaper dominates the relationship.

The conditions just as content can make the relationship corrupt.

Institutional corruption can be hard to spot. It is hard to spot because it occurs when legitimate processes are distorted. What is corrupt behaviour can appear useful to the institution and may serve some benefits. For example, the Prime Minister benefits from the positive news stories. They will have a relationship with the media. What is problematic is that the service that is provided undermines his office. The government has exclusive meetings with Murdoch.[11] These help him disproportionately. This undermines the institution’s role to govern in the public interest.

Institutional corruption occurs when an institution or its agent receives a benefit that is directly useful to performing an institutional function, and systematically provides a service to the benefactor under conditions that tend to undermine legitimate procedures of the institution.

David Cameron and previous Prime Ministers have received the benefit of good press. They use it as part of their institutional function. They cannot govern without media support to shape the public opinion. At the same time, the policies also ensure his party stay in power. An additional benefit is that the good press helps him retain his leadership. Most importantly, though, is that Murdoch gives the PM the ability to punish his political opponents. Murdoch’s papers attacked David Cameron’s opponents during the campaign.[12] The same power helps him to maintain discipline within his own party.[13] In return, Cameron provided a service to his benefactor. The service he provided was access, information, and influence over the policies that will affect News Corp’s competitors. In particular, David Cameron has accepted Murdoch’s views on the BBC.[14] Even though this benefits David Cameron, it undermines the office and its purpose. The relationship between the Prime Minister and Rupert Murdoch is institutionally corrupt. He is providing a service to his benefactor, Murdoch, under conditions that undermine his office in its public interest role. It is serving Rupert Murdoch’s interest. It corrupts the PM as it serves Murdoch’s personal interest. It only serves the public secondarily, if at all. The PM’s behaviour and decisions serve his benefactor at the expense of his responsibility to the public interest.

Institutional corruption is harder to identify than individual corruption.

It can be hard to see institutional corruption. What occurs is legitimate behaviour is used in a way that harms the institution. Politicians need to work with the press. The press have an interest in what the politicians do. The problem occurs when it is a systematic service. Like individual corruption, institutional corruption also means that the position is abused for a benefit. In the PM’s case, the benefit was good press and the ability to attack political opponents as well as obtain information on rivals.

When legislators accept a campaign contribution, even if they do a favor for the contributor, the political benefit may or may not be corrupt. Whether it is corrupt depends in part on whether it undermines or promotes the legislative process or the democratic process more generally

When Murdoch courted Thatcher, he gained a benefit. The PM will insist that the exchange was fair. They had better press. However, they forget how and why the relationship began. They forget its wider effects. Margaret Thatcher may have received better media coverage end ensured she ruled for a long time. However, the price has been steep. She betrayed her office as she made it dependent on Murdoch.

A pattern of behaviour is what reveals institutional corruption.

Corruption is rarely a single event. Institutional corruption is a pattern of behaviour. The corrupt behaviour becomes systematic. The benefactor expects the institution to respond in the same way each time. The institution responds in the same way to each request. In effect, the corrupt behaviour becomes a habit. In time, an overall culture of influence develops.

The distinguishing feature of institutional corruption with respect to service is that it is systematic in this sense: the service is provided through a persistent pattern of relationships, rather than in episodic or one-time interactions.

But when the service is provided in a continuing relationship or regular practice, especially when the recipient itself is an institution, habits and routines are established, expectations generated, and a culture of influence developed.

The relationship between the Murdoch and the PM fits this definition. In the relationship, he, and his editors, *expect* to have access and to have influence. They set up a culture of influence within the politicians. Moreover, they arranged for politicians to be routinely and regularly introduced to the News Corp through dinners and event. The best example of the overall culture of influence is the relationship between News International and the MPS. Neil Wallis, then working for the Sun, developed the Police Bravery Awards.[15] The awards created a place where such meeting could happen informally. Neither the police nor the press could be held to account. Unlike a formal setting where notes might be taken and attendance is noted, an awards dinner has neither. The Sun, a News International paper, created a perfect vehicle to influence the police. In a sense, it was no different from the Friday Morning Coffee sessions that Jimmy Savile organised. What made it so effective is that it was designed to honour the police for bravery. The press were seen publicly as their institutional benefactor and the relationship appeared legitimate.

If we blame the system, we avoid the problem we do not solve it.

One excuse that is often used to deflect claims of institution corruption is to say the system is corrupt. When people blame the system, they want to say “nothing can be done”. They will say it is only down to a few “rotten apples”. Thompson calls this “corruption conversion”. If we want to understand the phrase, look at the News of the World. The phrase describes News Corp’s strategy during the phone hacking trials. They succeeded by a strategy of downplaying the corrupt institution. If anyone was corrupt, it was rogue reporters.

The interaction between individual and institutional corruption gives rise to a phenomenon that may be called “corruption conversion,” a tendency of agents to try to turn each type of corruption into the other. Violations of one tend to be assimilated to the other, and vice versa. In both cases, the conversion leads to overlooking or obscuring the significance of institutional corruption. This is clear enough in the first case—the tendency to individualize misconduct. The charges are brought against the few “bad apples” who misbehaved, even if the conduct in less egregious form is widespread and cultivated by the institution. To the extent that the accusers succeed in this individualizing strategy, the wrongdoing is contained, and the institution and its other officials are exonerated.

The goal of such an approach is to downplay any institutional corruption as the result of individuals. The individuals are corrupt. The organisation is secure so long as the individuals are dismissed or punished. Once they have been removed, the threat of institutional corruption is removed. The strategy has worked for News Corp and the MPS. Both have used this strategy to mitigate the political and legal sanctions and to confuse the ethical context. Their respective strategies worked.

The corrupt behaviour is a choice.

A second excuse is to say that the whole press industry is corrupt. Thompson warns that the corruption is excused when it is seen as institutionalised. In this view, everyone is slightly corrupt, by the nature of the work or the system. If everyone is slightly tainted, then the actions of a few are not as bad. The corrupt behaviour is behaviour that is endorsed by the colleagues. The system is corrupt so you cannot consider the organisation as bad.

[A]ccused officials and their defenders are the ones typically disposed to emphasize the institutional aspects of alleged misconduct. Either they try to excuse the conduct as an institutional fault (it is not so bad because most of their colleagues do it) or they try to justify the conduct as an institutional privilege (it is not wrong at all because their colleagues endorse it). To the extent that the accused officials are successful in their defense, they manage to show not only that their own conduct but also the institutional practices in question are less corrupt than they seemed at first. Both of these tendencies of conversion thus reinforce the belief that institutional corruption is not as serious a wrong as individual corruption.

The behaviour describes much of what passed within The News of the World. The phone hacking was so widespread that no one saw it as problem. Alternatively, politicians have justified the corruption as the flaws of the system. They were not at fault; it was the system. The common refrain is: “I do not make the rules of the game, I just play by the same rules”. Yet, if the PM had good press from the News of the World, or the Sun (or any paper) then junior politicians follow their lead. They see the price of disobedience. They do not want to be “monstered.” However, we must remember that each person is responsible for his or her decisions.

The choices individual make create or avoid corruption

The focus on institutions can make it appear that the system is to blame which means everyone is corrupt or no individual is to blame. Instead, as Thompson points out we need to focus on the whole institution. Most importantly, we have to look at the institution within a wider context. The behaviour patterns within the organisation reflect how the institution behaves. The idea leads us to consider the system within which the relationship exists.

One of the great advantages of the idea of institutional corruption is that it directs our attention to the whole institution, and to the system in which the institution operates. It tells us to look for patterns and interconnected effects, and therefore to look for reforms that change structures and incentives rather than increase punishments and denunciations of individuals.

Thompson’s idea of institutional corruption helps us understand the way the Prime Minster, as an institution, has been corrupted. Margaret Thatcher needed a media bodyguard. The bodyguard has become a Praetorian Guard. The media bodyguard has corrupted the PM’s office in two ways. First, no PM can succeed without their help. Second, Murdoch receives a disproportionate benefit at the public’s expense. Margaret Thatcher and her successors have allowed a normal and legitimate relationship between politicians and the press to become a corrupt relationship. The Prime Minister’s Office lost its organisational way in a desire for “good press”. Thatcher’s success was at the price of the Office’s organisational soul and the public has suffered from her political tyranny ever since.

Can British politics shake off this tyranny?

The only way for the UK to recover its freedom is to wait for Murdoch to leave the political scene. He is trying to ensure his company’s dominates UK media after his death. The question is whether he will succeed. If he does, then he will have installed his influence within the UK PM’s office permanently. The relationship will be what the politicians and the public expect and endorse. The PMs who have allowed this and supported this change will need to consider whether they legitimately govern in the public interest or a private interest.

[1] All quoted material, unless credited otherwise, is from Thompson, Dennis F., Two Concepts of Corruption (August 1, 2013). Edmond J. Safra Working Papers, No. 16. Available at SSRN: or

[2] “More generally, to determine whether a dependency is improper we usually have to refer to the procedures necessary for the institution to fulfill its purposes. Understanding those procedures and purposes is where the critical work is to be done.”

[3] “She was trailing in the polls, caught in a recession she had inherited, eager for an assured cheerleader at a difficult time.”

[4] “For he [the despot] has no pleasure in seeing that the citizens are stout-hearted and well armed; rather he delights to make the foreigners more formidable than the citizens, and these he employs as a body-guard.” Xenophon Hiero Chapter 5 section 3.


[6] This is not surprising at all. In all of her public statements from 1945 she only mentions the term “The common good” 16 times. In nearly 60 years of public statements this seems surprising. Rupert Murdoch is mentioned 19 times (although in some cases he is mentioned by her interlocutor)

This is found at this site

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However, this should not come as a surprise given her antipathy to the idea of the common good. She believed in the individual and the individual good. She believed that if the individual pursued their own good, then the public would benefit as it would be automatic that they would act for the common good to achieve their personal good. Yet, this seems to ignore or forget the famous book by Mandeville The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices create Public Virtues She knew that individuals have unequal talents and unequal access to opportunities so her proposals would privilege the few at the expense of the many. Her approach would undermine the common good upon which justice depends. Like a classical tyrant, she pursued her individual good at the expense of the common good and justice.


so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and[fo 29] there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!

[8] Consider the following Aesop Fable of the horse and the stage as quoted by Aristotle. Rhetoric Book 2 Chapter 20 section 5

“The horse agreed to the terms and the man mounted him, but instead of obtaining vengeance on the stag, the horse from that time became the man’s slave. So then,” said he, “do you take care lest, in your desire to avenge yourselves on the enemy, you be treated like the horse. You already have the bit, since you have chosen a dictator; if you give him a body-guard and allow him to mount you, you will at once be the slaves of Phalaris.”

[9] “But in the case of institutional corruption, the fact that an official acts under conditions that tend to create improper influence is sufficient to establish corruption, whatever the official’s motive.” Thompson

[10] Lord Stevens, then Commissioner Stevens, courted the press as a conscious strategy from 2000 See Elizabeth Filkin ‘The ethical issues arising from the relationship between police and media. 2012 p. 11 citing MPS Special Notice 19-00, September 2000: A new policy for relations with the media.

[11] See for example,

[12] For example see this article and this analysis of the coverage

[13] Or do you say that a ruler, once he becomes popular, will have no further need of a bodyguard?” [2]

“No, no, he will need them, of course,” said Simonides. “For I know that some human beings are like horses—the more they get what they want, the more unruly they are apt to become. [3] The way to manage men like that is to put the fear of the bodyguard into them.

Hiero Chapter 10 section 1-3.


[15] “While at The Sun I conceived the idea and brought into existence, in conjunction with the Police Federation, the still-running and highly respected National Police Bravery Awards. Working together with The Executive of the Police Federation and with the active assistance of senior ACPO-rank officers, both around the country and at Scotland Yard, we inaugurated an Awards ceremony which is still highly acclaimed today.”

Neil Wallis, Witness Statement Leveson Inquiry page 4 See also

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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