When is a bribe not a bribe? When it’s in plain sight and called something else

I had a friendly disagreement earlier this week with fellow archivist @byekitty over Bernie Ecclestone.

I made the not very original point that he has, essentially, paid a bribe to have the charge of bribery dropped without a trial. Kat responded by, quite reasonably, arguing that it’s not a bribe because what he’s done is a formal, recognised part of the German legal system.

That got me thinking about social norms, the context for behaviour and what we deem acceptable.

I was reminded of this again earlier on today, by a press release from the Electoral Reform Society, which notes that:

The 22 new peers appointed today have donated nearly £7m to political parties…

The vast majority of the £6,912,841 comes from one donor, Michael Farmer. But another five of the new peers are also party donors or closely associated with party donors….

I’m dog-sitting at my Mum’s today, and her copy of the Shorter OED defines the noun bribe as:

  1. A thing stolen; robbery; plunder.
  2. ‘A reward given to pervert the judgement or corrupt the conduct.’
  3. Rascally behaviour.

The quotations given are:

His sonnes tooke bribes and perverted judgement (1 Samuel 8:3)

and

His rise hath been his giving of large bribes (Pepys)

As for the verb:

  1. To take dishonestly; to extort.
  2. To influence corruptly, by a consideration, the action of.
  3. To purchase by bribery.
  4. To gain over by some influence.

The quotations:

To bribe a trustee…is…to suborn him to be guilty of a breach or an abuse of trust (Bentham)

and

He fawned, bullied and bribed indefatigably (Macaulay)

At the moment I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil‘. This is an account of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, who as the head of an SS section dealing with ‘Jewish Affairs and Evacuation’ was deeply involved in the murder of Europe’s Jews during the second world war. Through the actions and self-justifications of Eichmann (who was neither a fanatical Nazi nor, apparently, mentally ill) Arendt explores in great depth the fallibility of human conscience, how people can convince themselves that something terrible and criminal is acceptable and normal, even virtuous: if it is defined as legal; if those around us (especially our superiors) all agree that it’s right; and if our own career, safety, financial security and so on is bound up with it. Something Arendt dwells on is the importance of language in sanitising vile actions: the murder of the Jews was the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem’; they were ‘evacuated’ or selected for ‘special treatment’; their killing by gas was a ‘medical procedure’.

Arendt is of course dealing with extremes, but similar processes are, I would argue, at play here.

Bernie Ecclestone has taken advantage of ‘a paragraph the German criminal code [which] allows for trials to be ended under conditions that are “appropriate for resolving the public interest in a prosecution”, as long as the gravity of wrongdoing does not outweigh doing so.’ (source) The £60 million being paid by Ecclestone is the highest sum ever paid to end a trial in Germany.

As to the new Life Peers, the House of Lords Appointments Commission has this to say:

A particular issue arises in relation to nominations by a political party if the individual being nominated has made a donation (or a series of donations), a loan or a credit arrangement to or with a party or a political cause. On the one hand, the Commission believes that nominees should not be prevented from receiving a peerage just because they have made donations or loans.  On the other, the making of a donation or loan to a political party cannot of itself be a reason for a peerage.

Of central concern to the Commission, therefore, is the credibility of individuals who have made significant political donations, loans or credit arrangements.  The Commission believes that the best way of addressing this issue is to reach a view on whether or not the individual could have been a credible nominee if he or she had made no financial contribution.

Which I don’t find terribly reassuring, since ‘credible nominee’ is hardly a high bar. It’s a fudge, recognising that currently peerages-for-donations are legal and fine, so long as they’re not too blatant.

Essentially what I’m saying is that we’re all hypocrites, and the rich and powerful most of all. I’m also saying that we should give things accurate names. Bribery is, in certain circumstance, legal in the UK and Germany. In this country you can buy power and influence. In Germany you can buy freedom from prosecution. We should be honest about that.

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