The undercover investigation produced seemingly damning evidence on MP Patrick Mercer’s activities and, while implicating Lord Laird in agreeing to set up an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for money, did not prove he had broken any rules.
PRCA director general Francis Ingham was typically forthright in saying the programme’s 'coverage of parliamentarians prostituting the political process was abhorrent’.
He and others argued that the programme told people nothing about the public affairs industry as no lobbyists were involved in the sting.
Iain Anderson, director of public affairs agency Cicero and deputy chairman of the APPC, said: ‘Panorama exposed clear abuses of the parliamentary rules and people are rightly shocked. This is a story about greedy parliamentarians, not about professionally registered lobbyists.’
This was contradicted by the critical stance of Tamasin Cave, the spokeswoman for the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency.
Cave argued: ‘This isn't a scandal about rules being broken so much as an expose, again, of a culture within British politics where cash for influence is deemed acceptable. And while the lobbying industry will protest that it is another scandal absent of professional lobbyists, they are very much a part of that culture.’
Direct Line head of public affairs Andrew Friel disagreed with Cave: ‘Most of the programme was about Patrick Mercer allegedly breaking Parliament’s existing rules, which are there to safeguard against financial impropriety by politicians.’
The programme offered context on lobbying and impropriety with a series of interviews with observers, including Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell.
Some of the harshest comments on lobbying came from Carswell, who claimed ‘various parasitical corporate interests have managed to wheedle their way into the House of Commons’ and that some APPGs ‘are little more than front organisations for big corporate interests’.
The focus on corporate lobbying was queried by academic Anne Gregory, professor of public relations at Leeds Metropolitan University and chair-elect of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management.
‘It’s an enormous mistake to think it’s just corporate organisations that lobby,’ she said. ‘I’m not saying they are whiter than white and I’m sure a lot of lobbying goes on that you and I would not be happy about, but a colleague of mine did some research five or six years ago the biggest lobbier of government was the public sector and NGOs.’
Lord Laird, who resigned his Ulster Unionist whip and referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards after the allegations against him, has denied breaking parliamentary rules.