By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Allegations of corruption did not exactly cost King Juan Carlos the Spanish throne, but they probably played a role in his decision to abdicate. A popular desire for change was fuelled in part by claims of a 5.6 million euro fraud by his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, who denies any wrongdoing. The resulting dynastic change may be considered a sign that corruption has become less acceptable. That would be a misreading.

Actually, it is hard to decide whether corruption is waxing or waning globally, because the concept is hard to define. A Danish anti-corruption group’s explanation captures the ambiguity: “Corruption is a broad term covering a wide range of misuse of entrusted funds and power for private gain… A corrupt act is often – but not necessarily – illegal. In handling corruption you will often face grey zones and dilemmas.”

That sounds about right, and the grey zone is large. A bribe, for example the sort of payment alleged to have contributed to Qatar’s selection as host nation for the 2022 soccer World Cup, is obviously corrupt. But what about a consulting arrangement that channels a substantial portion of the revenue from an oil well to someone with excellent political connections? In the country with the oil, such payments can be perfectly legal and socially accepted remuneration for services rendered. Outsiders see a corrupt power and business elite.

The Danish group was not considering the huge pay packets of corporate chief executives, but they seem to qualify as at least grey. Like a consulting contract, the money in question is considered a legal and socially accepted remuneration for services rendered. However, outsiders usually see a corrupt power and business elite. The seals of approval from remuneration committees and consultants only make the corruption look more deeply entrenched.