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Media catch-up

In case you missed them, hear is a selection of media articles from this week that are worth a read, or a re-read:

BBC online: Bill-by-Bill progress report on Coalition’s plansAt the end of a week where the Lobbying Bill has advanced and a Tory rebellion failed, what’s the bigger picture when it comes to the Coalition’s delivery of the Bills in the last Queen’s speech? Here, the BBC kindly summarises the answer…

FT: David Cameron admits Labour’s 50p tax plan is ‘politically convenient’Polls indicate that Labour’s 50p tax rate is popular with ordinary voters – 60 per cent of voters agree with the plan. But YouGov pollster, Anthony Wells, says it risks playing into a wider perception of Labour being anti-business.

FT: Davey to back energy industry calls for tougher regulation of North SeaShock, horror! Believe it or not, an industry is calling for tougher regulation, and the minister supports them. Energy Secretary, Ed Davey is expected to back demands from the industry for a much tougher regulatory regime in the North Sea, requiring companies to collaborate to maximise the recovery of oil and gas from existing fields and new discoveries.

The Times: Aerospace adds jet-powered boost to the economyFigures from UK aerospace trade body, ADS, show that booming production of commercial jetliners is bringing in more than £1 billion of new business to the UK’s civil aerospace industry. ADS argues that the figures show how important the sector is to UK economy, and the government needs to maintain support for companies that could take their operations overseas.

BBC online: Location, salvation, damnationStriking oil in your back garden won’t make you rich, but will add to the Queen’s coffers. Property and land ownership laws have taken some strange turns over the years. Here the BBC looks at where common sense and legal lunacy have crossed paths to leave the UK – and the US – with some anachronistic quirks.

FT: UK wind power company scraps farm plansCheshire-based, Community Windpower has scrapped plans to build two new wind farms because of the government’s “constantly shifting” position on renewable energy. It said that it has been forced to abandon one project in Cornwall and another in Lancashire, which together would have supported 120 construction jobs. Government plans to force green generators to bid for subsidies were “likely to crash the price at best…or stop generators selling green energy altogether.”

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Were you up for Portillo (on lobbying)?

Last week, on the BBC’s This Week programme, former MP and memorable victim of the electorate’s wrath, Michael Portillo, spoke about the recent so-called lobbying scandal.

Since seeing it live – it’s on at about 11.30pm, putting off most viewers – I’ve watched it on BBC iPlayer many times. In about 90 seconds, he beautifully sums up the churlishness of portraying the recent stings on politicians as a scandal about lobbyists, even though none were involved. This is a point being made by many decent, integrity-driven public affairs practitioners, and one which is roundly ignored by the media.  [If anyone reading can tell me when the last lobbying scandal worthy of national media hysteria that actually did involve lobbyists was, please do let me know.]

But Portillo goes a step further even than that, expounding the crucial role that lobbying plays in politics. He goes so far to say that without lobbying, politics would not function. You can watch it here, 25 minutes into the show:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b02w2wxt/This_Week_06_06_2013/

Or, if you can’t be bothered to click on it, or are simply unwilling to catch a glimpse of Andrew Neil in the presenter’s chair, here’s a transcript of what Portillo said:

“It’s perfectly clear that the things of which these people are accused would be offences. They would be against the rules and they would certainly lead to their expulsion from their parties and possibly suspension from Parliament, and so on. So it’s perfectly clear that the rules are already in place.

Secondly, it’s pretty clear that these people were all caught by a sting; in other words, there wasn’t a real lobbyist involved at all… So actually, creating a register has nothing to do with what’s just happened… If you create the register, you simply allow people to find our more easily, the people that are genuine lobbyists and those that are journalists.

But let me make a fundamental point: all politics rests upon lobbying. The principle rooms in Parliament are called lobbies. And the reason they exist is to allow the public to come into Parliament and visit their Members of Parliament, and they meet them in a place called a lobby, which is the origin of the term, and the interchange between the people who have interests, which need to be considered or even protected by Parliament and the people in Parliament, is fundamental to the democratic process. And since time immemorial, to smooth the interface between the public and the different vest interests, and the Members of Parliament, there have been people who undertake lobbying, and lobbying can be a very respectful thing, and without lobbying, politics wouldn’t function.”

Do me a favour, don’t do me a favour

Just days before the latest lobbying scandal that didn’t involve lobbyists broke, the Financial Times, expressed concern about the so-called revolving door through which civil servants and ministers pass to join companies as lobbyists. The drift of it’s columnist, John Gapper, was that we should be worried that decisions could thus, be made on the basis of favours.

We should certainly concern ourselves with how government decisions are made, but as I argued in a letter to the FT earlier this week; if you want to influence government effectively, there is no substitute for having a credible, well-argued and factually-based proposal.

In case you missed it, here is the text of my letter:

Sir, I dont doubt that former civil servants, ex-ministers, or even the occasional former prime minister can help businesses to influence government policy (We should worry about the revolving door for jobs, Comment, May 30). However, regardless of the status of such advisers, government policy is not decided on the basis of special favours. If government policy or procurement decisions cannot be justified on policy or financial grounds, or for meeting stated political objectives, then the dispensers of these favours would very quickly be found out.

John Gappers lobbyist informant is perfectly correct; large businesses do not need favours, as they will be listened to anyway. I was a special adviser for seven years, and I would never have risked my position by giving out favours to anyone.

Any business, large or small, that wants to influence government decisions will find that there is no substitute for having a credible, well-argued and factually-based proposal. There is no mystery or black arts involved. Advisers add value by helping businesses to articulate their case clearly and effectively. If they do that, then there is no need for favours.

In other words: “Do me a favour; don’t do me a favour”.

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.

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?