Freshwater CEO Steve Howell defends agency following Sunday Times claims

The head of Freshwater has hit back after his agency was the target of a Sunday Times sting, saying he fears lobbying is being 'stigmatised'.

Steve Howell: Freshwater CEO
Steve Howell: Freshwater CEO

Steve Howell has come to the defence of his public affairs head John Stevenson after an article yesterday focusing on the influence of lobbyists in Parliament.

The piece, a follow-up to stings carried out earlier this month as part of the newspaper's ‘Westminster for sale’ series, involved journalists posing as representatives of a South Korean solar energy company pushing for new laws to boost business.

It included claims Stevenson made during meetings with the undercover reporters relating to efforts to stop the building of a barrage on the river Severn.   

The newspaper says Stevenson claimed to have written most of a speech by Lord Cope on the issue, something that Lord Cope says Stevenson ‘overstated’.

Howell denied any implication of improper influence and said: ‘The whole premise of the role of lobbying is to persuade. If you’re successful and convince people there’s nothing wrong with them arguing that, and that is a part of democracy at work. We believe it’s as much a part of the democratic process as journalism and we believe it’s perfectly legitimate for campaigners to campaign.

‘All politicians use speechwriters and there's nothing wrong with that as long as they are saying what they believe. The role of a lobbyist – as John made clear – is to convince politicians of the merits of a case.’

Included in the article, which also involved conversations with lobbyists at Keene Communications and Hulf McRae, are claims that Stevenson said he could orchestrate a ‘Trojan horse’ campaign to push for solar energy laws and could persuade MPs and peers to raise questions in Parliament.

Additionally, it reports that he said he could set up an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for £3,000 and quotes him as saying that MPs' ‘sheep mentality’ would help build momentum. Freshwater already provides secretarial services for several APPGs.

Howell called Stevenson ‘a good guy who has done a great job’ and said that clients had so far been supportive following the article.

Stating that 'a poor choice of metaphor – made under pressure – is not wrongdoing’, he said: ‘I think there is a stigmatisation of lobbying taking place. Lobbying is fundamental to democracy and I accept it has to be done in a proper fashion but we were making proposals in a proper and legitimate way.’

He also hit back at The Sunday Times, whose parent company News International has been embroiled in phone hacking cases, adding: ‘We do not need ethical guidance from the people who brought us phone hacking.’

Keene Communications, which also discussed APPGs with the reporters, responded in the article.

It stated that its services were ‘above board’, adding: ‘Keene has done nothing wrong in relation to its provision of secretariat. During the course of the conversation Keene explained that APPGs were run by parliamentarians. The comments made about the operation of the… minerals group [the APPG mentioned in the piece] were completely inaccurate remarks made on a Friday evening, in a pub, after work over some beers.’

Robin Hulf, of Hulf Mcrae, which the paper also claims offered to set up an APPG, said in the article that he ‘gave no formal agreement to do anything’ for the reporters.

The piece follows PRWeek revealing undercover reporters had been approaching agencies, and three Lords – all of whom deny wrongdoing – being investigated for improper conduct around the issue following a previous piece by The Sunday Times and a joint investigation by the BBC's Panorama and The Daily Telegraph.

Meanwhile, MP Patrick Mercer recently resigned the Conservative Party whip after Panorama alleged he had accepted £4,000 to lobby for business interests in Fiji.

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