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"Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely"

07/11/2016 at 13:32

In the sphere of politics and government, Lord Acton’s quote is just as apt today as it has ever been. The public esteem for our leaders has never been so low. There is an ever-increasing disengagement between politicians and the electorate. We feel betrayed by their corrupt practices of hypocrisy and lies, dressed up as “spin”.

Social media has effectively anaesthetised the persuasive powers of a mainstream media that for too long has been the sole effective conduit for political and other news. Like it or not, social media is the 21st century vox populi (voice of the people), such that our leaders have become more sensitive to daily tweets, irrespective of credibility or motive, than to headlines in the broadsheets or tabloids, whose hard copy sales are dropping daily.

They have good reason to be – the people who post on social media are individual voters and outnumber by millions the headline writers for mainstream media.

Social contract

In a democracy, politicians come to power by virtue of a social contract. In its simplest terms it means that in exchange for our vote politicians undertake to protect us from harm.

Sometimes the protection entails the state carrying out deeds in secret, with the claim that such secrecy is “in the national interest” because the deeds would be ineffective (and therefore fail to protect us from harm) if they were to become publicly known.

However, Lord Acton’s corruption occurs when the state pursues this secrecy in an illegal or morally reprehensible manner, such that if the public had been given prior knowledge it would not have consented.

The Katharine Gun case

In January 2003, Katharine Gun, a translator at the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), leaked to the press a top secret e-mail from the USA to the UK and others. It described actual and intended illegal activities, which included bugging some UN Security Council members, by the USA in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. The UK authorities wanted the information to remain top secret.

The leaked e-mail was published on the front page of The Observer on Sunday 2 March 2003 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/02/iraq.unitednations1. Gun was arrested days thereafter and on 1 November 2003 she was charged with breaching the Official Secrets Acts.

Her trial began on 25 February 2004. It took just thirty minutes for the prosecution to drop the case, by offering no evidence. The defence team had requested that the government  produce records of legal advice it had received during the months before the war. They expected that the advice would disclose the illegality of the war and, if so, they would argue that Gun’s attempts (by public disclosure) to stop an illegal war of aggression outweighed any obligations under the Official Secrets Act.

In September 2004, Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, declared the war illegal https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/sep/16/iraq.iraq


According to The Guardian of 31 January 2016, Katharine Gun’s experiences are being made into a film called Official Secrets, starring Paul Bettany and Martin Freeman as  The Observer journalists who reported the dirty tricks scandal, along with Anthony Hopkins as a retired general and Harrison Ford as a veteran CIA agent.

Whistle blowing

Katharine Gun was the classic brave whistle blower who put her career, and her freedom, at risk to expose the illegal and morally reprehensible activities of democratic countries that are prepared to ride roughshod over the basic tenets of a political system that is supposed to separate representative democracies from autocracies.


While the Gun case may not be an example of the most egregious abuse of power by a democratic state organ, it shows that without the necessary checks and balances in place, any organisation (state or otherwise) may arrogate to itself the power to carry out an act with impunity. The most effective of these checks and balances in a democracy is the rule of law. Unfortunately, respect for the rule of law in the 21st century seems to be diminishing, especially as sections of society are given more and more power, whether it be political, economic or military.