Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The lobbyists and the PM: Bell Pottinger calling the kettle black

The Independent's front page story today is on PR company Bell Pottinger's alleged influence on the UK government. It's based on an undercover investigation carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

I'm not a big fan of lobbyists but some of the individuals caught on camera actually come out of the story slightly better than you might expect.  They are quoted as showing interest in working to improve the image of the Uzbekistan regime but only if that government demonstrates an intent to improve its behaviour on human rights.
"A number of [our client] governments have had serious reputational issues,"[...]
But he also stressed a need for genuine commitment to reform. "Everything we are recommending is predicated on the agreement by the government to change," he said. "[That] justifies why a PR company is representing a country which previously people shouldn't have been talking to. Now it actually wants to change it is fully acceptable."
Another executive stressed, whilst talking about one of the firm's clients: "I wouldn't actually represent a client whom I didn't believe."
He added: "Just trying to sell the situation as it is or to say that things are changing when in reality they aren't is not going to work. Once we're clear that we've got the collateral, the proof that things are changing, then obviously we have the connections to get the message through to the right people."
They're also reported as boasting easy access to and influence over government, though that's hardly surprising in a meeting where they are attempting to promote their services to secure a lucrative contract.

It's probably the government and in particular the prime minister who comes out of this with the least credit, if the PR consultants (or the journalist's reports) are to be believed.  Mr Cameron and the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg have been repeatedly quoted about the damaging effects of the disproportionate degree to which lobbyists and big business influence government. They even have plans for a register of lobbyists.

The alleged lightning speed at which a business can get a message through a PR firm to the prime minister, who then instantly takes that complaint to a foreign head of state, in this case China, therefore, will be cause for concern. Whether that concern arises from being found out or a desire that such influence should not be so powerful is another question.  What was predicatable in the world of Westminster, the media and PR was that the PM's office would issue a denial:
"Bell Pottinger nor any other lobbying firm has any say or influence over government policy."
The almost amusing part of the story comes at the tail end where, through their lawyers Carter Ruck, Bell Pottinger declare:
"The conduct of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism does not remotely constitute responsible journalism. It is an attempt by unethical, deception to manufacture a story where none exists."
A case of the Bell Pottinger calling the kettle black? {Assuming you define a kettle (or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) as 'a vessel designed to withstand high temperatures, used in various processes such as refining and brewing' (stories)}

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