Pete Digger: It’s a case of déjà vu all over again

Written by Peter Digger on 24 February 2015 in Opinion

The latest cash for access scandal shows how the public affairs industry has failed to articulate the role that ‘lobbying’ plays in developing good legislation.

For many of us working in the broad corporate affairs arena, this week’s media, and the response of the main actors, is reminiscent of Groundhog Day.

An undercover reporter pretends to be a company looking for lobbying support. Unwitting Parliamentarians fall for it hook, line and sinker, providing some choice quotes for the media.

Politicians respond with ill-conceived and short sighted policy proposals designed to wrong foot their political opponents rather than solve any underlying issues that might exist.

And of course our industry responds with factually correct but ultimately spurious observations that no ‘professional lobbyists’ were involved, nothing to see here, move on.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t so depressing.

Over the years, this particular trick has been run time and again.

It used to be routinely run against industry participants who generally jumped in with both feet, invariably in their mouths. In more recent years it has been Parliamentarians who have been the target. The most recent sting is pretty much a carbon copy of that which Geoff Hoon and others were subject to shortly before the 2010 Election.

Whether the play is against PR firms or politicians, the questions that arise are always the same. Why do none of these people undertake due diligence before they agree to meet the ‘hot prospect’?

Why do they use such overblown language?

I have never been in a pitch where people have described themselves as ‘taxis for hire’ or boasted of the ‘dark arts’, let alone made a boast that they might soon be elevated to the House of Lords. In all these cases there is a level of naiveté that is astounding.

Labour’s response that all outside interests for MPs will be banned, much like Cameron’s previous commitment to ‘regulate’ the lobbying industry, misses the point. It is also likely to cause significant opposition from the Labour benches, and others, if any attempt is ever made to implement it.

After twenty years of working in the industry, it is also disappointing to observe how poorly we are served by our generally self-appointed representatives.

The defence that ‘no professional lobbyists’ are involved in the latest sting, whilst correct, conveniently ignores the fact that for more than a generation we have failed to articulate the role that ‘lobbying’ plays in developing good legislation.

Industry in-fighting and the failure to effectively promote or consistently police a voluntary code have left us vulnerable to misinterpretation and the promulgation of misinformation about the service we provide to clients.

The Lobbying Act and associated regulatory guidance will, of course, have no impact on stories like this. It is so narrowly framed that Government has managed to create a situation in which an ineffective voluntary system continues to carry more weight.

Similar stories will inevitably reoccur. In the meantime, our industry, collectively, needs to get on the front foot and explain what it is we do and why it is important, to avoid a situation where we all end up in the dock by proxy when such crude sting operations are repeated.

About the author

Pete Digger is managing director at MHP Communications

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