The managing editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Iain Overton has spoken out after the PRCA rejected a complaint against Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, as reported last Wednesday.
The PRCA’s professional practices committee’s five-person disciplinary panel found that there was no credible evidence of wrongdoing on the part of BPPA, after a complaint made by Mark Adams, boss of The Professional Lobbying Company.
Overton told PRWeek that he criticised the PRCA findings on two levels. ‘The first was that it failed to do a proper inquiry. The second was that even information in the public domain made it clear that there had been a breach of its own code.’
On the first level, Overton said that the PRCA did not approach him for comment in drawing up its conclusions: ‘There is much of what we were told by Bell Pottinger as prospective clients that is not public. And, as such, that could have informed the PRCA's decision. Had they approached me, I would have made this available to them, with conditions.’
Secondly, Overton suggested that Bell Pottinger’s claims that they could help arrange a meeting between the Uzbek president and David Cameron must transgress the PRCA code that warns against undertaking ‘any action which would constitute an improper influence on organs of government’ or of making ‘misleading, exaggerated or extravagant claims’.
Meanwhile, the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) has stated that the inquiry could have benefitted from greater transparency.
‘We have not seen the material considered and so cannot comment on the conclusion reached’, reads the UKPAC statement, adding that ‘one of the benefits that UKPAC membership offers to those who sign up to our terms and conditions, is an independent audit of complaints handling processes, in terms of transparency and public confidence that might have been valuable in this case’.
UKPAC has also published its response to the government’s lobbying consultation, which focuses on greater transparency, wide coverage based on a workable definition and the importance of ethical standards. Click here to read the full response.
PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham said: ‘I would be shocked if TBIJ’s reaction were anything other than unhappiness. But I reject their claims entirely.
‘The PPC judged the complaint on the evidence presented by Mr Adams and the material put into the public domain by TBIJ, The Independent and others. It was the PPC's clear view that the PRCA code was not breached and I stand utterly by that conclusion.
‘It would have been incredibly easy to have tried to make some "example" of BPPA, groundlessly expelling them for a non-existent breach of the code. But we take the rather sensible view that these matters are best judged by what our members have actually done, rather than what will make the BIJ and The Independent happy.’
Responding to the comments from UKPAC, Ingham added that the audit process referenced by UKPAC ‘does not exist - close on two years after UKPAC's creation’.
‘Indeed, UKPAC's January Board meeting minutes confirmed that there is still no start date even for the creation of such a process. Quite how a non-existent thing can "support confidence" is beyond my comprehension.’