Agency CEO fights back following lobbying claims

LONDON: The chief executive of Freshwater has hit back after his agency was the target of a Sunday Times investigation, saying he fears lobbying is being "stigmatized."

LONDON: The chief executive of Freshwater has hit back after his agency was the target of a Sunday Times investigation, saying he fears lobbying is being “stigmatized.”

Steve Howell has defended his public affairs head John Stevenson after a Sunday article 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 laws to boost business.

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

The newspaper reported that Stevenson claimed to have written most of a speech by Lord John Cope on the issue, something Cope said Stevenson “overstated.”

Howell denied any implication of improper influence.

“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,” he said. “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.”

In the article, which also included 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 members of Parliament and peers to raise questions.

It also reported that he said he could set up an All Party Parliamentary Group for £3,000, or about $4,600, and quotes him as saying that MPs' “sheep mentality” would build momentum. Freshwater already provides secretarial services for several APPGs.

Howell called Stevenson “a good guy who has done a great job” and said clients have so far been supportive after the article was published. He said that “a poor choice of metaphor – made under pressure – is not wrongdoing.”

“I think there is a stigmatization of lobbying taking place,” Howell said. “Lobbying is fundamental to democracy, and I accept that 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. “We do not need ethical guidance from the people who brought us phone hacking,” Howell said.

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

It said its services were “above board.”

“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,” it said. “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 claimed had offered to set up an APPG, said in the article that he “gave no formal agreement to do anything” for the reporters.

The piece followed PRWeek UK revealing undercover reporters had been approaching agencies and three members of the UK House of Lords – all of whom deny wrongdoing – to investigate them for improper conduct.

Meanwhile, Member of Parliament Patrick Mercer recently resigned as Conservative Party whip after TV program Panorama reported he had accepted £4,000 to lobby for business interests in Fiji.

This story originally appeared on the website of PRWeek UK, the sister publication of PRWeek at Haymarket Media.

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