Lobbying's image problem strikes again

The Sunday Times' "generals for hire" story was undoubtedly a good read. One stand-out detail was the fact that Lord Dannatt met the undercover journalists at his private lodging in the Tower of London, where the front door is guarded by a beefeater.

Sunday Times lobbying sting
Sunday Times lobbying sting

The Sunday Times’ “generals for hire” story was undoubtedly a good read. One stand-out detail was the fact that Lord Dannatt met the undercover journalists at his private lodging in the Tower of London, where the front door is guarded by a beefeater.

It was also startling that the former commander-in-chief fleet of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Trevor Soar, felt he could simply “ignore” the two-year ban on lobbying imposed on him by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

And then there was the toe-curlingly excruciating quote from General John Kiszely on his links to a certain defence minister. He told the reporters posing as representatives of a South Korean weapons manufacturer: “Andrew Rowbothan... shared a house with my wife at Cambridge. I keep reminding him of it.”

Whether or not serious wrongdoing was uncovered is a moot point. Either way, the bragging of the generals (or the “galloping greed of the old warhorses” in The Sunday Times’ excellent phrase) was yet another stain on lobbying’s soiled reputation.

As many industry figures argue in this issue, that is a tad unfair. As is frequently the case in a “lobbying scandal,” those caught boasting about their lobbying ability were clearly not representative of the wider industry.

The retired generals snared by The Sunday Times follow in the footsteps of Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers, Adam Werritty, Sarah Southern, Peter Cruddas and (albeit to a lesser extent) the consultants at the centre of the Bell Pottinger scandal. They appear to be doing a form of lobbying – but not as most of us know it. On page 18, Weber Shandwick’s Jon McLeod calls the retired generals “amateur lobbyists”.  

The point is that most professional lobbyists working for agencies or in-house are honest, transparent, signed up to ethical codes and wouldn’t dream of such tawdry behaviour. Professional lobbyists also know that without a rock solid argument, high-level contacts are irrelevant, no matter how many times you remind them of their close links to your wife.  

Yet try telling that to the public. The unfortunate truth is that every lobbying scandal – and they are occurring with increasingly frequency – adds to an erroneous impression that the industry is all about lurking in the shadows and exerting undue influence on the policy process.

At a recent PRCA Public Affairs Group discussion of lobbying’s image problem, some public affairs professionals appeared to believe the media was to blame for not honestly reflecting the industry. But to expecting reporters to go out of their way to be nice about the profession is not a realistic position to take. Pigs will fly over Fleet Street before a news editor gives the thumbs up to a story about lobbyists adding value to the political process.

Rather, lobbyists should make the most of the opportunities available to get the full story out themselves. Next time a former big cheese embarrasses themselves by offering access to an undercover journalist, lobbyists should be flooding the airwaves to condemn them as “not one of us”. At this rate, it won’t be long until they get the opportunity to do so.

8th November 2012 by David Singleton

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