Leading article: Evidence of a lobbying industry out of control

 

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Few would dispute the basic premise that everyone is entitled to an advocate. Whether that extends to brutal regimes laundering their stained reputations through London's £2bn-a-year lobbying industry is another question entirely. And one to which the answer is no.

The exposé published in this newspaper today paints a disturbing picture of top-level political access offered for cash and of self-confessed "dark arts". The mere fact of the investigation is an indictment of an industry run riot. Undercover reporters posing as representatives of the Uzbek government – one of Freedom House's "worst of the worst" repressive regimes – had no difficulty finding big-name public affairs specialists happy to represent their interests, broker contact with the upper echelons of the Government, and nudge human rights violations or child labour out of the public domain.

That a series of influence-peddling scandals have made no dent in either the self-confidence or the reach of the lobbying industry is as concerning as the complacency with which the "Uzbek" enquiries were received. Neither Cash for Questions, nor Labour's millionaire donors, nor any of the other similar upsets, has done anything to unravel a political culture with friendship, influence and PR murkily entwined.

For evidence, one need look no further than the boasts from Bell Pottinger outlined in today's report. It is, apparently, "not a problem" to get "messages" through to the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister's principal advisers. Even accounting for the bombast of the sales pitch, such claims are an embarrassment for the Conservative Party.

But the standing of the Tories is the least of it. It is the cheapening of the entire British political establishment that is so unforgivable. In the wake of Liam Fox's career-ending links with Adam Werritty, Bell Pottinger's claims only add to the sense of government-by-network, of parallel power structures accessible to those who can pay.

Perhaps more alarming still is the promotion of techniques to clean up the public images of vicious regimes. Negative references to human rights abuses can be pushed out of the top pages of Google search results. Compliant writers can be found to set up "friendly" blogs. Amenable academics can be cultivated to add authority to supportive analysis. Even critical Wikipedia entries can be "dealt with".

Such practices go far beyond the basic right to an advocate. And although Bell Pottinger's executives do make clear that the Uzbek government would need to institute a reform programme in order to improve its image, the requirements seem far outweighed by the scale of what is promised in return.

Before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron warned that lobbying would be "the next big scandal". In Government, his promised crackdown has been repeatedly delayed. There can be no more excuses.

There is, of course, a valid role for lobbyists. But the extent to which access is bought and sold, and the lack of transparency as to who is influencing whom, and on behalf of whom else, is a travesty. Britain has many first-rate services to sell to the world. Political contacts and image-massaging for obnoxious regimes must not be among them.

* Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM
* The Sting: The fake 'Asimov Group' meets Bell Pottinger
* The Transcript: 'David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister'
* We wrote Sri Lankan President's civil war speech, say lobbyists
* Vicious dictatorship which Bell Pottinger was prepared to do business with
* Oliver Wright: Vested interests are entitled to argue their case, but it must be in the open
* Andrew Grice: Plenty of talk about cracking down on lobbying – but still there's no action
* Leading article: Evidence of a lobbying industry out of control
 

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