Analysis: Why lobbyists still arouse suspicion

The role of lobbyists is parodied in the film Thank You for Smoking, released this week. Robert Gray asks why public affairs cannot shake off its image woes.

Jason Reitman’s comedy, Thank You for Smoking, centres on the character of Nick Naylor, a fictional lobbyist for the US tobacco industry whose job ‘requires a moral flexibility that goes beyond most people’.

Although lobbying in the US differs greatly from the way public affairs and political comms are practised in the UK, the movie is a fresh blow for an industry long beset by an image problem.  No one would suggest that this is as severe as during the 1990s, when scandals such as the Neil Hamilton and Mohamed Al Fayed ‘cash for questions’ furore associated lobbying with sleaze. British PA firms reacted by forming the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), with the aim of improving standards of probity by requiring members to sign up to a code of conduct.

Constant battle
Self-regulation has undeniably raised standards of practice among APPC member firms, but reputational issues persist. There was the notorious ‘Drapergate affair’ in the early days of the Blair administration, when lobbyist Derek Draper was alleged to have bragged that he could introduce his clients to the most powerful people in government.

More recently, PA consultancy Sovereign Strategy – not an APPC member – was attacked in The Sunday Times for employing former Cabinet minister Lord Cunningham, and for its relations with the Government and pro-nuclear lobby. Earlier this year The Times ran an in-depth investigation into all-party groups (APGs), which enable politicians and special-interest bodies to discuss issues and act as a pressure group. The newspaper discovered six APGs were in breach of parliamentary rules, as the PA consultants involved in providing them with administrative or financial assistance had neglected to disclose their client. 

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer, investigated. Last month he stated that MPs and peers should be made to reveal links to companies with a vested interest in their work, making it clear that transparency around possible outside influences was crucial.

So, how bad is PA’s image problem? And is the industry doing enough to tackle it? APPC chair Gill Morris bridles at the suggestion that her association should do more. She adds that APPC members are ‘the good guys’ because they have embraced self-regulation. But although the APPC has worked hard to change outdated perceptions, some scepticism and wariness remains. 

‘I’m afraid a slight suspicion of the lobbying industry does linger in the corridors of Westminster,’ says The Sunday Times political editor David Cracknell. ‘But I think the whole business has cleaned itself up since Drapergate eight years ago. Lobbying in the wider sense of the term will always go on; in fact, I think lots of civil servants welcome the input from the business sector in the policy-development process.’

Cracknell believes that journalists are still interested in investigating lobbying activities but feels that because the industry is ‘quite paranoid now about being seen to do anything sleazy’, it would be hard to make stick any allegations of ‘buying favours’.

He sees it as a good sign for the public affairs business that when the occasional story does appear, there is scant enthusiasm from the press pack to follow it up.

The Guardian’s assistant editor, Michael White, agrees: ‘Notorious cases of blatant fixing, rare enough, excite passing media interest, but it soon melts away. My more serious fear is that civil servants who don’t get out enough are overimpressed by outside commercial interests, smart-talking PFI or IT peddlers, lobbyists and other snake-oil salesmen.’

Bell Pottinger Public Affairs managing director Peter Bingle contends that the biggest problem for the public affairs discipline is not integrity. Rather, the challenge is that it is still not seen sufficiently as an important driver for business by the people who matter, such as client CEOs and finance directors. Bell Pottinger is notably not a member of the APPC, a group Bingle dismisses as  ‘irrelevant’.

Such talk is a source of exasperation to many other agencies, which are keen to present a united front on ethical standards as a means of improving perceptions. ‘It’s a shame,’ says Hill & Knowlton director of public affairs Rod Cartwright. ‘No one who practises good ethical PA has anything to fear from self-regulation. I don’t see why people are threatened by this.’

Groups flex their muscles
Cartwright, in his capacity as chairman of the PRCA’s public affairs committee, has been involved in discussions with the APPC and CIPR – whose government affairs group has about 600 members – over how the three bodies could team up. CIPR government affairs group chairman Robert Khan feels there is ‘certainly scope for closer collaboration’ between the three, and is keen to see existing codes broadened so that everyone practising PA is covered, from consultancies to in-house practitioners, lawyers and NGOs.

‘Obviously some of the recent publicity has been unhelpful,’ says Khan. ‘But we are a long way forward from the position in the mid-1990s. The emergence of PA as a reputable and effective industry continues strongly.’

PepsiCo V-P of public and government affairs Stephen Kehoe says: ‘Speaking as an in-house practitioner, I think people perfectly well understand where I’m coming from – that we have a legitimate voice at the table as a big stakeholder on anything that may impact our industry. I’m not aware of any problem reputationally with in-house PA practitioners. I’d be happy to sign a code of practice, though it wouldn’t change anything I do.’

Progress has certainly been made in the way public affairs is conducted and perceived in this country and, although there is still work to be done, few cinemagoers are likely to see Thank You for Smoking as a faithful portrayal of lobbying.

What does a possible real-life equivalent of the fictional Naylor make of it all? Simon Clark, director of smokers’ rights body Forest, attended a preview of the film.  ‘I enjoyed the movie but it made me feel uncomfortable,’ he confesses. ‘Naylor is this slick figure, and is portrayed as someone who doesn’t necessarily believe what he is saying.

‘We do believe what we are saying. We’re not playing a game. I don’t want to sound pompous, but there are clearly two sides to a debate.’

Indeed. And so long as it is undertaken with transparency and integrity, lobbying will be seen as a crucial part of the democratic process.


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