Apparently these days it’s possible to have a ‘lobbying scandal’ without any lobbyists.
Two more MPs are alleged to have their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. The story is made more salacious by the fact that both Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind are high profile former Foreign Secretaries, and both have been caught on camera suggesting they can use their influence to the benefit of a Chinese company in exchange for payment.
The company was a fraud, concocted by the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches. This is of course not the first such story – there have been numerous instances of parliamentarians being caught on camera in recent years offering access and influence in exchange for payment.
There is a question as to the way in which these MPs’ actions have been uncovered. They have, after all, essentially been duped by media outlets making news rather than reporting what is happening in the world. But setting that aside, it’s wrong to simply wheel out David Cameron’s much quoted statement that lobbying is “the next big scandal” and to use this episode as means to bash, again, the public affairs industry.
What has happened in the past is that these scandals have been laid at the feet of shadowy ‘lobbyists’. This is a distortion of the facts. The vast majority of these stories have not involved public affairs professionals but rather undercover journalists and individuals prepared to unfairly use their access and influence for financial benefit. This has unfairly characterised the public affairs industry and helped the government in pushing through a Register of Professional Political Consultants that even MPs recognise as being wholly unfit for purpose.
The public affairs industry doesn’t operate in that way. While in the past the public affairs industry might have involved a big book of contacts, these days it is about making an argument and presenting a case – whether that is to civil servants, MPs, peers or ministers. It is about evidence and explaining how an organisation can present a solution, or why it’s problem must be considered by those who form policy.
This latest story is not a ‘lobbying scandal’. It is about cash for access, and the two things are different. Any effort to use this story to besmirch the reputation of the public affairs industry is unfair and unjust. And the Register of Political Consultants does nothing to prevent such instances in the future. In fact, by preventing a majority of practitioners from disclosing their clients, it makes the situation more opaque rather than transparent.
So, can we please not describe this latest undercover report as a lobbying scandal?