Lobbying under scrutiny

The row between Bell Pottinger and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has again thrust lobbying into the spotlight. Kate Magee assesses its impact on the public affairs industry.

The impact of the latest lobbying scandal
The impact of the latest lobbying scandal

Lobbying scandals are nothing new. The 'cosy' relationship between politicians and lobbyists inevitably hits the headlines from time to time.

But the recent furore around Bell Pottinger and the undercover operation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), published in The Independent in December, has shifted the focus from wrongdoing by politicians to the behaviour of lobbyists. Not to mention the fact that the whistleblower in the recent Sunday Times 'cash for access' expose was a lobbyist himself (Mark Adams from The Professional Lobbying Agency).

Two weeks ago, the PRCA cleared Bell Pottinger of any wrongdoing, saying it did not breach its code of conduct during TBIJ's investigation. The decision has not been universally accepted, with TBIJ claiming the investigation lacked thoroughness, and Adams calling for Bell Pottinger's defence to be published (see opinions overleaf).

The wider impact of the sting has been an increased focus on lobbying in the media. Meanwhile the Government, keen to distance itself from allegations of 'sleaze', is mulling over the responses to the consultation on a statutory lobbying register.

In an interview on Newsnight on 3 April, Chime Communications chairman Lord Bell claimed the media's stories were - rather ironically - part of a lobbying effort to bring in a new statutory register of lobbyists. They have also been viewed as a diversionary tactic for a put-upon media, which are using the issue to persuade the Leveson Inquiry they need strong investigatory powers to unearth such scandals.

War of words

TBIJ and The Independent certainly appear to be embarking on a campaign against lobbying in general and Bell Pottinger in particular. In a front-page lead on 10 April, the paper revealed a 'leaked memo' that shows Bell Pottinger offering to help clients make the most of a new EU programme, the European Citizen's Initiative, which is supposed to help ordinary people influence policy, and bans organisations from using it. But Bell told PRWeek: 'The "leaked memo" has been on Bell Pottinger's website since 28 March. Shock horror, The Independent finds out something everyone else already knew.'

And yet, amid the mud-slinging, the key points can get missed. In a democracy, should those with the money to buy in lobbying firepower be allowed to do so relatively unchecked? Are the ethical codes of the public affairs industry enough to ensure - and convince the public - there is no undue influence? Do we trust politicians to ensure they hear all sides of an argument and make a fair decision, or is the impact of party donations too strong?

That a lobbyist may boast they can get a message through to a politician is hardly evidence of malpractice. That is part of their job after all. But questionable practices by lobbyists are a serious blight on our system of governance. It would be naive to think forcing companies to sign a register would remove improper conduct. But, done well, it sends out a message that lobbying politicians is a serious endeavour.

Alternatively, as Sermelo's founder Jonathan Jordan argues on prweek.com/uk, the route to greater transparency and accountability may be for elected officials to register their meetings, despite the logistical nightmare that could create. Either way, it is only those who have something to hide that need fear the glare of transparency.

VIEWS FROM THE KEY PLAYERS

FRANCIS INGHAM, CEO, PRCA

Francis Ingham PRCA

A self-regulatory regime has to be fair. Fair to the best interests of the industry it regulates; fair to the public it protects; fair to the members concerned. That does not equate with it always being universally popular, but it is a prerequisite nonetheless.

BPPA was found not to have breached the PRCA Code of Conduct for the simple reason that from the evidence presented to our independent Professional Practices Committee, it had committed no breach. BPPA stressed throughout the 'pitch' the bogus 'client' would have to change fundamentally before it would represent them - not just appear to have changed. Its use of language regarding 'black arts' might have been ill-advised, but it did not breach the code.

As for the criticism of us now made by TBIJ, it was fully aware of the complaints process, and could at any point have made its 'evidence' available to the complainant, Mark Adams, or have contacted us directly. It did neither.

You cannot expel members just because The Independent will give you a good headline if you do. Instead, we stand by the decision that has been reached independently, via a thorough process, and based on the evidence presented to the PPC directly, and the evidence in the public domain already.

The issue of how the public affairs industry regulates its activity is much wider than this case. The biggest lobbyists in our country are not consultancies. They are charities, think-tanks, business groups, trades unions. A statutory register needs to include all of those who lobby or it will be an expensive failure.

IAIN OVERTON, MANAGING EDITOR, THE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

London has become the go-to destination for despotic regimes to launder their reputations. And Bell Pottinger is one of the go-to companies in London for this. It has worked for regimes implicated in serious human rights violations like Sri Lanka or Belarus.

Fearing litigation we went undercover. We chose a nasty cause: child labour in Uzbekistan. Our ambition was to show a UK statutory register of lobbyists was needed. Lord Bell claims this makes us lobbyists. We aren't the ones engineering off-diary meetings with ministers, faking identities to manipulate Wikipedia, boasting of dark arts. But the PRCA said Bell Pottinger did no wrong. This is flawed.

First, the PRCA never asked us for our evidence. There was much said to us by Bell Pottinger that we didn't make public that might change their minds.

Second, the code states consultants must not propose 'improper influence' on, or exaggerate 'access' to, government. Bell Pottinger told us it persuaded Cameron to complain about fake Dyson products to the Chinese premier. Number 10 dismissed these claims as 'gross exaggeration'. A clear breach of the PRCA code.

The code also says PR executives must disclose 'the identity of their employers'. Bell Pottinger told us 'for Belarus nobody knows who pays us'. When discussing how to communicate child labour reform, particularly if it was a slow process, they said they could 'baffle' people with statistics.

The PRCA should have a long think. What sort of industry does it want to represent? Perhaps one that isn't offering 'dark arts' to despotic regimes.

MARK ADAMS, FOUNDER, THE PROFESSIONAL LOBBYING CO.

Mark Adams

When any public affairs firm is the subject of a front-page newspaper report three days running, it is inevitable concerns will be raised. I had no hesitation about making the complaint to the PRCA, even though I was forced to resign from Lansons to do so.

The day I submitted my complaint, Tim Bell emailed me to ask what I thought I could achieve by my complaint. The answer was simple. The Independent reports suggested serious wrongdoing, in my view. It was essential that the PRCA investigated.

I am always wary about commenting on rulings when I have not myself heard all the evidence. Because the PRCA Professional Practices Committee meets in secret, I did not hear Bell's defence. It did however clearly persuade the PPC. I will continue to have doubts unless and until Bell publishes his defence. To clear Bell Pottinger's name fully - and to maintain the reputation of the lobbying industry - I urge him to do so now.

A further sign of Bell Pottinger's damage to lobbying's reputation is Peter Bingle's laughable claim he is not a lobbyist at a recent panel debate. It is deeply damaging to our profession - an honourable profession, vital to democracy - when one of its longest-standing members tried to deny he is part of it.

Lobbyists should stand up and be counted. We are a profession and should act like one. Based on professional standards and a commitment to propriety, the vast majority of us are a credit to the political process. I hope that even at this late stage, Bell Pottinger will join the rest of us.

LORD BELL: Key quotes from Newsnight interview on 3 April

Lord Bell on Newsnight

On TBIJ's undercover investigation

'(The published video of the meeting) is three and a half minutes out of an hour and a half's tape. If you think that's a fair representation then you're deluded ...

Salesmanship in a sales meeting is a perfectly reasonable thing ...

How come you don't say to me why did TBIJ pretend that they were a group called Asimov, give us credentials, create a website, create business cards ...

'(It) is just a complete piece of entrapment and rubbish and is in the middle of a PCC complaint and (our conduct) has just been upheld by the PRCA ...'

On a statutory register

'(A statutory register) is what all of this is about. That's what Mark Adams is fighting against. It's what TBIJ wants. It's what The Independent newspaper wants. They are in fact lobbying for a statutory register of lobbyists and they're paid for it.'

On transparency

'We have no secrecy about our client list. It's published on our website. It's available to everybody. We've never ever said we won't publish our clients ...

'We get asked questions about lunches that we hold with politicians, dinners we hold with politicians, we openly declare them, the politicians declare them.

'We tell people what they are about, we tell them what the rules are. We even have sessions, Jeremy, with politicians and journalists present and we sit there and we let the journalists write about it.

'So all this rubbish about the lack of transparency is just that, it is rubbish and claptrap put up by people who want to prove that something unpleasant is going on, or as you so charmingly put it, that we smell. Well actually I don't smell.'

 

LOBBYING TIMELINE - HOW RECENT EVENTS IN THE LOBBYING WORLD HAVE UNFOLDED

14 October: Dr Liam Fox resigns as defence secretary ahead of Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell's report of his investigation. He admits he 'mistakenly allowed' his personal and professional responsibilities to blur. Fox's friend Adam Werritty is branded a 'lobbyist'.

6 December (am): The Independent publishes TBIJ's undercover operation into Bell Pottinger. It claims to have caught the UK's largest PR agency 'secretly boasting about its access to the Government and how it uses the "dark arts" to bury bad coverage'.

6 December (pm): Mark Adams, then Lansons' head of public affairs, submits a formal complaint to the PRCA. The complaint includes the sentence: 'I am concerned that the overall behaviour of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs (BPPA) may have damaged the reputation of the lobbying profession.'

20 January: The Government launches a consultation on a statutory lobbying register.

24 March: Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas resigns ahead of the publication of The Sunday Times 'cash for access' investigation.

25 March: The Sunday Times publishes its three-month investigation that shows Cruddas claiming donations to the party of £250,000 a year could give people 'face time' with senior ministers and that 'premier league' donors could lobby Prime Minister David Cameron directly.

3 April: Chime Communications' Lord Bell appears on Newsnight to give a robust defence of lobbying. The Daily Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle says: 'Bell wiped the floor with Newsnight's tired-looking Jeremy Paxman.'

4 April: The PRCA officially rejects Adams' complaint about BPPA's practices during the undercover investigation. The five-person PPC panel finds no credible evidence of wrongdoing and says the agency adhered to its code of conduct and best practice guidelines.

13 April: Government consultation on a register of lobbyists closes.

Image of Adam Werritty from Rex

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