Category Archives: media

Chancellor confirms nothing new under The Sun

On Wednesday, the Chancellor of the ExchequerGeorge Osborne, fulfilled his constitutional duty by confirming the past few weeks’ media speculation on what changes there should be to tax rates and allowances and how they would be funded. This is known as The Budget.

Each year beginning in early March, we avidly read the papers to see what lies in store for us and on Budget day, the Chancellor confirms that he has read them too.

Of course, Chancellors always mange to pull some rabbits out of the hat and catch us by surprise with a gleeful “tah-dah!” Although pensioners might be thinking that the freezing of their tax allowance looks more like a poisonous snake than a fluffy white rabbit. If this group of voters were less steadfast in their voting allegiances, it might have more of ta-ta effect. The self-same well-briefed papers seem to think so and have branded it straight away as “Granny Tax”.

Pre-briefing (or spinning, if you prefer) of the Budget is not new. We can speculate how hard Charlie WhelanEd Balls and Alastair Campbell worked in advance of Budgets to secure the headlines they wanted. And this year’s process has been amplified by the dynamics of coalition politics. The well-informed press speculation has partly been a reflection of the internal negotiation between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers on what should be in the Budget and each party’s determination to show that they managed to put their stamp on the final package.

Speculation on the content of Budgets is not new and has always been driven by a combination of journalistic competition, political gossip and in recent decades, by politicians’ determined efforts to “manage” the media’s coverage.

It doesn’t always work, of course, and according to the Chancellor, the reason he is getting such bad headlines on the “Granny Tax” is because it was “the bit of news people didn’t have”. Shadow Treasury minister, Chris Leslie has said that the leaks were a “serious breach” and an “insult” to Parliament.

Chris Leslie’s criticism won’t hurt George Osborne, but as a mark of how far the conduct of politics has changed, just look at what happened to Labour’s first post-war Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, as described in meticulous detail in the late Ben Pimlott’s masterful biography of him.

As Dalton passed through central lobby on his way to deliver his 1947 Budget, he whispered a few of the budget details to a journalist on the Star, a London evening paper. The grateful recipient was able to phone through to his news desk just in time to catch the old Stop Press or “fudge” section of the paper before the presses started rolling. A few thousand copies ran with the line on gambling: “There will also be a tax on dogs and football pools, but not on horse racing.” Minutes later, the sub-editors removed the “will” and toned it down to “Also likely to be…”

The offending tip off appeared on the streets just 20 minutes before Dalton actually spoke in no more than 260 copies that were sold on Fleet Street, Middle Temple Lane and at a bus stop near Aldwych. Competing newspapers noticed it, brought it to the attention of suitably outraged opposition MPs, and an urgent Commons question was tabled the next day. Dalton defended himself as best he could but tendered his resignation that evening, as he believed that “one must always own up”.

Prime Minister Clement Attlee, possibly for a variety of reasons, accepted Dalton’s resignation, but stressed that “the principle of the inviolability of the Budget is of the highest importance and the discretion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer […] must be beyond question”.

The days of the inviolability of the Budget are long gone, but that can also mean that Chancellors’ “tah-dah!” moments are not always of their own planning.

Lobbyists: how to lose friends and alienate people

When Altitude was being formed as a company and we were discussing a name for the company, I jokingly suggested that we call ourselves Bill Pottinger, so that we might accidentally be invited to tender for work. Had we gone down that route, perhaps the public affairs industry would have been spared the embarrassment poured upon it by the ‘sting’ that takes up the first seven pages of today’s Independent.

Under-cover journalists from something called the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ invited ten London firms (not including Altitude) to pitch to a (fictitious) Uzbek organisation to promote its supposed interests. And, according to today’s report, Bell Pottinger employees made some rather staggering – and rather foolish – claims pertaining to their personal influence over members of the Government and Downing Street staff.

A few points immediately spring to mind…

1. After so many attempts by the press to dirty the reputation of lobbying, they seem finally to have succeeded in including some actual lobbyists in the story. Not fictitious ones acted by journalists to catch out politicians, nor businessmen with an interest in swaying political decisions but with nothing to do with the public affairs industry. No, this time they have actually caught out some real lobbyists. Well done the Independent – you’re the first paper to at least identify some lobbyists!

2. Let’s just re-read part of that story. Ten firms were approached for the fictitious work for the fictitious Uzbeks. Of those, two refused the work and three didn’t respond. Of the other four firms, there is no mention. Could it be that they – whisper it – acted ethically? Given the apparently scurrilous nature of the entire public affairs world, surely this is the newsworthy element!

3. And while I’m on that subject: I’ve written here before about how journalists are desperate to find a group in society on which to shift the focus of public disgust from the press itself. Yesterday, the Independent gave a curiously large amount of space to the establishment of The Journalism Foundation. The paper’s editor, Simon Kelner wrote:

“Journalism itself has had a bad press recently: here is a positive initiative that seeks to redress the balance and, whatever you may think when following the latest developments from the Leveson Inquiry, it’s in all our interests that, if nothing else, we keep monitoring those centres of power.”

Quite right too, Simon. Mud has been thrown and it has stuck, even on the holier-than-thou Indy, whose owner and financial backer, we discover in Kelner’s last paragraph (by which most people have stopped reading), are the founders of the Journalism Foundation.

Lo and behold, the day after the fanfare about this cuddly new Foundation – a new knight in shining armour to salvage the reputation of the press – we have an attempt to demonise the public affairs industry. Which compels me to quote Kelner again:

“…this skulduggery was practised only by a small minority, and one of the prices to be paid for having our vibrant and diverse press is occasional unruliness born of competition.”

He is referring, of course, to the press, not to the public affairs industry, which his newspaper today smeared with one broad brush. That’s a smart line in hypocrisy.

4. Some people – especially some of those who have worked within the circles of power but then faded away and perhaps feel resentment – really cannot help but boast in order to make themselves feel better about themselves. It happened before and it will happen again – it’s the frailty of the human ego. That doesn’t make the claims true.

5. The vast majority of the public affairs industry – represented in this instance by the unidentified firms that did NOT want to work for the shady outfit cobbled together for the Indy’s sting – whether members of industry associations or not, have long called for a regulatory code. This is because they have nothing to hide and want their industry respected for the legitimate role it plays in informing government policy.

It will be interesting to see how this story plays out. By 8.15am today, Twitter was flushed with comments on why this story wasn’t gaining more coverage on the BBC. I’m starting to hope that it escalates and is addressed at the highest levels because now that actual lobbyists are involved, it cannot be ignored.

Previously, I’ve defended my industry in the belief, gained through more than a decade’s experience in it, that the many, many people I’ve worked with are representative of the industry as a whole: honest, decent people who are open in their methods and who help their clients to open doors with their messages and arguments rather than their black books. Regretfully, I was wrong.

Let’s have a proper review of the industry, looking at how the bad apples may have smeared the reputation of the rest of public affairs (if, indeed, any actual wrong-doing took place). Without such a review or inquiry, it seems that the industry is destined to death by a thousand cuts, mainly inflicted by journalists trying to lift themselves from the bottom rung of the public’s ladder of disdain.

Political scandal? Time to kick the dog again…

Last year I blogged about lobbying, pointing out how the poor old lobbyist seems to be the end of the easy target in a political crisis, the dog that politicians and media go home and kick at the end of a bad day.

It seems that history is repeating itself and, once again, a lazy shortcut down the path to an unpopular but misunderstood cohort of practitioners of the supposedly ‘dark arts’ of lobbying is once again being beaten.

The scandal of Liam Fox’s friend Adam Werrity has predictably resulted in a call for tighter restrictions and regulations on lobbyists. This case is very similar to last year’s case on which I blogged – insofar as it hasn’t actually involved a bona fide lobbyist!

Proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists have long been supported within the public affairs industry, mainly because the industry has nothing to hide. In the recent case, it was Adam Werritty, who must surely have had no doubt that what he was doing was not wholly ethical or above board. In other words, he did have something to hide.

Being neither a lobbyist or in a position where he would have wanted to publicise his dubious activities, how on earth would a register of lobbyists have made a difference? Werritty would not have been required to be on the register – he’s not a lobbyist, he’s just a chancer of a businessman who abused the position of a friend. And even if he were a lobbyist it is unlikely that he would (a) register himself and put himself up for scrutiny or (b) given his clear lack of moral or ethical compunction, be swayed by any statutory requirement to register.

But once again, the whole saga provides two of the most abhorred sections of society – politicians and journalists – to take the moral high ground and kick the lobbying dog. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

From zero emissions to zero debate

The irony of the 2010 General Election campaign is that it is the most unpredictable for a generation, yet there has been little serious policy debate apart from on the financial crisis and National Insurance. Even the arch spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, is calling for more media coverage of policy.

There has been massive interest in the leaders’ debates, which has blown away all the early predictions of the likely result. It has also nullified the parties’ best efforts to devote discussion to specific policy areas on particular days.

So it should come as no surprise that polling by Ipsos Mori should show that, for the first time since 1987 (when the question was first asked), party leaders are as important as policies in deciding voters’ choice of party. The gap in favour of policies over leaders widened from 1997 to 2005, but narrowed dramatically by summer 2008 and is now level.

I know it’s the economy, stupid, so it is entirely appropriate for the level of public borrowing and the fragile nature of the economic recovery to dominate what little policy discussion there is. But there has been virtually no discussion of other issues such as transport, crime, health or education, education, education.

Does anyone recall being told that tackling climate change was the number one issue facing, not just the country, but the whole world? True, this and the related issue of future energy supplies, came up in last night’s leaders’ debate. But there has otherwise been virtually no mention of the subject.

The Guardian did at least host a debate between Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband and his Conservative and Liberal Democrat shadows, Greg Clark and Simon Hughes. After 36 hours, the paper’s online report had attracted 52 comments. By contrast, just one of its comment articles on last night’s leaders’ debate received 281 comments in half that time.

There is no shortage of policy or initiatives on energy, climate change or reducing carbon emissions. We are told that so-called green industries have the potential to create up to half a million jobs. Yesterday, I attended the 2010 Sustainability Live exhibition in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. This brought together hundreds of exhibitors, from renewable energy equipment manufacturers to sustainable waste disposal and water treatment specialists, university research departments, trade associations and professional bodies.

There is huge commercial and academic interest in developing the means to reduce harmful emissions, and to develop a more sustainable economy based on innovative and more secure energy supplies. Yet none of the exhibitors that I spoke to were aware of any discussion in the election campaign that is relevant to this burgeoning sector.

When it comes to climate change, we seem to have gone from zero emissions to zero debate. There will, eventually, be plenty of discussion on the policies that the new Government should pursue, but not till after the election.

X Factor politics, Hammer Horror policies

I attended a Conservative Party business event this morning, addressed by David Cameron. It was billed as Supporting Small Business and Building the Big Society. Unfortunately, the clamour from the media throng for his answer to the X Factor-like surge from the Liberal Democrats, meant that there was precious little space for him to say much about business.

But beyond the brouhaha surrounding National Insurance Contributions, you will learn little from the media on what each of the parties are offering business. The curse of reality TV politics, is that there is now even less space for policy debate in any area, let alone on business issues.

True, David Cameron did mention cutting Corporation Tax and exempting new businesses from paying National Insurance on the first 10 new jobs. But it was hard to get away from hung parliaments and attitudes to Nick Clegg.

Each of the parties has dedicated sections in their manifestos and websites on policies for business. The Conservatives will reduce red tape and form filling, simplify business taxes and make rates relief automatic for small business. Labour’s proposals include cutting regulatory costs, doubling the capital gains allowable under Entrepreneur’s Relief and temporarily increasing small business rate relief. Like the two main parties, the Liberal Democrats say that they will remove unnecessary regulations. They will also establish local enterprise funds, stimulate bank lending to business and part-privatise the Royal Mail.

As with manifestos as a whole, the wording can often be couched in such general terms that the promises can, sometimes, mean anything to anyone. People running businesses will make their own judgements on which party they would prefer in power. But regardless of which party wins, scrutinising manifestos will not be enough for business to ensure that the new Government implements policies that enable them to flourish. Businesses, whether individually or through trade associations, will need to engage with policy makers as soon as possible after the election. The purpose is not just to anticipate policy but to try and shape it before it is finalised.

Forecasting the election result has now got a lot more complicated. We may even be facing the prospect of a hung Parliament, with either a minority Government or a coalition. In these circumstances, and especially in the latter, manifestos go out the window to be replaced by policy programmes based on political horse-trading.

Businesses, as well as the financial markets, don’t like uncertainty. But post-election uncertainty is also an opportunity for business to exert its influence on future policy. But they must engage proactively with policy makers, be they ministers, advisers or officials if they want to see a policy mix that enables British business to thrive and expand. Failure to do so could result in the X Factor politics being generated by the leaders’ television debates, producing a Hammer Horror for business.

The leaders’ debate: an apparently brilliant three-way bore draw

Andy Gray, Sky Sport’s chief football pundit, turns to anchor man Richard Keys: “No goals, no shots on target, no incidents of note. There’s no doubt about it, we’ve just watched 90 minutes of absolutely fantastic football on Sky Sports. Football is the winner on the day!” he splutters with feverish excitement.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but all too often the channel which has paid so much for the rights to screen live Premier League football spends too much time trying to convince us that it’s worth every penny, instead of occasionally admitting that the game we’ve watched was poor. They’ve invested too much in promoting the product as the pinnacle of televisual sporting transmission to admit that sometimes it just falls flat.

And I can’t help thinking that last night’s leaders’ debate on ITV has met the same fate. Despite my doubts about the whole thing (see my previous blog ‘Watching the party leaders’ mass-debate’), I’ll admit that it was genuinely exciting that it was happening. But the media’s almost orgasmic response to the whole thing leaves me mystified and wondering whether they aren’t just trying to justify years of clamouring for the debates to take place.

Read between the lines of many of the previews of the event and you’ll detect that the outcome was already determined, albeit on dubious grounds: Nick Clegg (with little to lose) would win because he’s unknown and therefore fresh fodder, David Cameron has a slicker media presence, so he’ll be OK, Gordon Brown is the incumbent, so he’s up for a pasting.

Expel those thoughts and watch the debate again. Clegg gave very few responses that informed us what his party would actually do to fix things. David Cameron – touted as the contender who’d feel most comfortable on set – looked truly terrified during the early stages. As for Brown, in many reports the only credit he is given is for cracking the first (surely only?) “joke”, even though it wasn’t funny and he fluffed the delivery.

There were no gaffes, no big punches landed, no real opportunities in the debate’s tight orchestration to pursue a robust and searching line of questioning. But no matter, the important thing, evidently, is that from 90 minutes, if you look hard enough there’s plenty for the media to contrive that will fit into their pre-prepared coverage.

A political counterpart of Andy Gray might more honestly adapt my totally fictitious quote at the top of this piece by saying “No own goals, no in depth policy discussion, no real probing of the leaders. There’s no doubt about it, we’ve watched 90 minutes of nothing much at all. The media is the winner on the day.” But that’s just not good copy, is it?

Call me Mystic Meg, part two: making it harder to win new friends

A fortnight ago I wrote of how specialist interest groups may struggle to win the interest and support of new MPs after the election and cited the Cyprus lobby as an example. On Monday, the BBC’s Mark Easton broke news of how more than 20 MPs had visited foreign countries – one of them Cyprus – and then not properly declared their interests when asking questions in Parliament in respect to those countries.

To be clear from the start, there seems little doubt that some MPs had indeed failed to follow the letter of the rules to which Parliament requires them to adhere. There is at least a case to explain and possibly answer in that respect.

But other aspects of the story made me seethe. I haven’t done my research but I’m pretty sure that if the BBC had investigated whether MPs had acted similarly when visiting, for example, Afghanistan, Serbia or Sudan, they’d have found that there were similar discrepancies. But the focus was on Cyprus, the Maldives and Gibraltar. The sorts of places that viewers at home would like to visit.

The story shaped up as it did in order to play to the politics of envy and to rankle with the public. So, you might ask, what’s the harm? Well, the story may be short-lived but the implications for campaigns for positive change and the pursuit of social justice and human rights are likely to be disproportionately damaging.

As a Guarantor Power with security responsibilities and military bases in Cyprus, the UK has considerable responsibilities towards a fellow EU state and Commonwealth member in its 36th year of division and military occupation following Turkey’s invasion. The Maldives and Gibraltar also have genuine and important issues, the short-term effects of climate change and territorial sovereignty respectively, on which the UK cannot and should not turn its back. In fact, we should perhaps be asking why more MPs don’t visit them!

Andrew Dismore, on whom the BBC concentrated much of the story, has thousands of Cypriots in his north London constituency, as do Theresa Villiers, David Burrowes and others on the list. Their constituents demand representation in Parliament on the Cyprus problem. It is the duty of MPs to ensure that they are informed on such subjects and to seek to further their constituents’ interests. Their having acted in the spirit of what they are elected to do should outweigh that they did not act to the letter of the rules of Parliament.

In 1997, I went on a fact-finding visit to Cyprus with a delegation of newly elected MPs from the main parties. They did not enjoy a lavish break by the pool at a swanky hotel and neither did they expect to. They had two days of intensive back-to-back meetings with Cypriot politicians, UN officials and the British High Commission. They then got back on a plane and went home, better informed about the issues, possible solutions, potential consequences and the responsibilities of the UK in Cyprus.

Although Monday’s story is already fish and chip paper, if I were a new MP, I’d be reluctant to take up a trip to Cyprus, or anywhere that sounds nice, for fear of the consequences. For a cheap dig at politics, the BBC have risked real damage to the work of those who seek to better the lives of others, both abroad and in the UK.