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Book review: A Quiet Word By Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell

 

A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism, and Broken Politics in Britain has the title of an ultra left-wing rant fuelled by conspiracy theories, poor research, and unfounded assumptions. But it is, on occasion, a chillingly accurate description of how presentation and spin trumps substantive argument in the upper echelons of power.

Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell are furious that politicians, the media, and the public have been overwhelmed by lobbyists and masters of the dark arts of public relations.

Disingenuous, misleading, and deceitful, what they inelegantly describe as the “influence industry” is, they argue, “a serious, hidden feature of British politics”, which permeates and shapes every debate from nuclear power to schools.

The authors are directors of Spinwatch, the raison d’etre of which is to probe and attack corporate PR and lobbying, so this is not a sober, distanced investigation. But the book comes along at the right time, just weeks after the seriously diluted Lobbying Bill became law. More importantly, they accurately essay a world that most people don’t see, but which most certainly exists. A chapter on how lobbyists manipulate the media should become mandatory reading in journalism courses.

Clearly, the press should be sceptical of any word that comes out of a PR’s mouth and avoid them as often as possible. Yet the authors point out that those who should be intractable foes mix at expensive parties, while those same PRs and lobbyists will invoke legal threats if a story that doesn’t suit them is about to appear.

There is a page in this chapter that shows up the book’s strengths and flaws.

First, the authors superbly turn lobbying’s own sinister words against it. An industry “excellence awards” praised Hill & Knowlton for a strategy on pesticides for “avoiding national press coverage … as this would attract a strong response from the environmental NGOs”; in other words, lobbyists were rewarded for burying a legitimate story.

But the media, and the London Evening Standard in particular [disclosure: the Standard is a sister title of The IoS], come under fire for “recurring coverage supporting the case for expansion of Heathrow”.

This is unsubstantiated and seems to be an accusation that stems from the authors’ own disagreement with a third runway. If the coverage is supportive, it is because journalists have read documents like those that have been buried in the Airports Commissions website, including impeccable data from National Air Traffic Systems.

This is, then, an imperfect book skewed by its own anger – but A Quiet Word is important and, generally, right.

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