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Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)
Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

The week the Yanks saved the Brits Add to ...

I was greeted with incredulous stares when I told my Libyan hosts this week that I'd make a 17-hour drive across the Sahara followed by a six-hour flight from Cairo to London in order to watch an uprising against a government that had become intertwined with a corrupt police force and a power-seeking media.

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The folks in Benghazi were hardly alone in raising an eyebrow. From the beginning, Britain's phone-hacking scandal has drawn glib comparisons to the Arab spring: We have a country that has spent four decades under the thumb of an oligarch (albeit an Australian media baron), where large sums of money were used to buy top positions and immunity from prosecution, and where mutual collusion seemed to have produced a conspiracy of silence.

That comparison doesn't quite work for a number of reasons. Key among them is that not only is the British crisis rooted in the structure of the country's government and media, but so is its solution.

The unravelling of this scandal, the explosion of revelations and sackings and confessions, all were produced by powerful critical voices within the very political and media system that was subject to the scandal. This is a country whose public and popular institutions are not a closed loop of self-justifying uniformity.

This is a crucial difference. When Labour MP Chris Bryant stood before a House of Commons emergency session that he and other MPs had called two weeks ago and declared there were "immoral and almost certainly criminal deeds" being done, he was acting as an empowered part of the British state. As a member of a select committee, he carried the power, even within a non-minority government, to force the Prime Minister to call an inquiry.

A good democratic government is polyphonic. It doesn't speak with a unified voice but contains numerous ones of genuine power and high pitch that aren't under the sway of a central conductor. The idea of real competition within an elected government is the great development of the parliamentary system.

This sometimes produces ugly dissonance - as we saw in Washington this month as the many competing voices of Congress and the White House nearly disagreed their country into bankruptcy - but it's crucial to have laws and structures that allow competing claims to power among different groups of elected officials. When I hear people calling for "consistency" in government policies, I worry: The best and least corruptible systems are those that produce the least consistency.

But the Brits can't be smug about their system. What saved them this week was a set of institutions and practices largely imported from the United States. Britain's parliamentary select committees, as we saw when Rupert Murdoch, his underlings and top police officials were grilled on Tuesday, are the key instruments that allow a Parliament to rise against a government or an industry or an agency, and check its excesses. These committees have real teeth (unlike their Canadian counterparts).

The select committees nearly didn't come into being. When they were created in 1979, the beginning of a long-term effort to move away from cabinet-based government, many MPs denounced them as a filthy Americanization. "A great counterbureaucracy" will be built, one MP warned, "something on American lines." Of course, it was precisely this American-style empowerment of the individual MP that allowed this year's exposure of media-police corruption.

What also helped was an Americanization of journalism. The only reason we got to see this week's historic events in London is because, last October, The New York Times Magazine published an investigation into the British tabloids' voice-mail-hacking and police-buying practices - a story that had been dropped by the British press in part because the country's tougher libel laws prevented reporters from poking into private corners. The magazine piece emboldened the better (and money-losing) papers, especially the Guardian, to take the risks to turn it into a crusade.

The British system saved itself. But it took far too long. Whatever the outcome, there need to be reforms - not more regulation of the press but more liberal laws to let it be more aggressive, intrusive and nosy. And the "mother of all Parliaments" could use even more Americanization, if it's to rescue democracy once again.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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