A UK Foreign Agent Registration Act is long overdue for the protection of everyone

Tory MP Bob Seely's idea of a UK version of the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) is an idea whose time is long overdue.

Comms to the highest bidder? Gabriel Milland thinks this should not be the case
Comms to the highest bidder? Gabriel Milland thinks this should not be the case

London’s status as dual world-capital with New York, along with the size of our economy and the global influence that the UK still musters, has meant foreign governments wishing to polish away some of the stains on their reputation have spent tens of millions of pounds on lobbying and PR in the last two decades.

Britain’s traditions of free speech and free press have meanwhile allowed an antagonistic foreign power like Russia to set up a brazenly propagandistic media operation in the UK at precisely the same time as it launched a new Cold War.

As Seely says, the threat to free societies does not only come from conventional military power or 'traditional' propaganda, but also from how powerful people are influenced – and parts of our industry have grown fat while subject to only the most minimal scrutiny.

For a sector whose core product is the ability to manage reputations, communications and public affairs professionals need to realise that this issue has the ability to hugely damage our own standing with crucial stakeholders.

It is not just NGOs and outspoken backbenchers like Seely who want us to do this.

It is also the rest of government, journalists we work with every day and – not least – the clients, who do not want their own brands tarnished by employing agencies associated with rogue regimes.

There is no reason at all why a statutory requirement to follow a code of conduct should affect the viability of any firm.

FARA has been in force in the US since 1938, but Washington, DC is a still a town where half the population are lobbyists.

The recent storm over Huawei and 5G shows just how complicated it can be to delineate between big business in a country like China and the state itself.

But no one pitching to work for the British government will want to have to explain why they have previously undisclosed links with senior Communist Party members in Beijing.

Likewise, why would any journalist want to have a relationship with a firm that also works for a regime which jails, tortures or even murders journalists?

Good agencies, the sort that are able to win the big-budget accounts on offer from sovereign nations and their proxies, will always have enough work.

The attitude of the profession’s dinosaurs – who liked to claim that "everyone is entitled to their reputation" – ended with the best-known exponent of this view exploding his own firm.

Countries like Russia will continue to wage asymmetric warfare against democracies like our own, whether that be in Salisbury or in Ukraine. Disinformation, spin and attempting to buy influence will continue to be part of that.

But if we want our own industry not to be portrayed as wilfully part of this campaign, the least that colleagues willing to help those countries can do is be open about accepting the roubles.

Gabriel Milland is a partner at Public First and was previously deputy director, Government Communications Service

 


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