Enter the Fifth Estate

It is an established fact that lobbyists, consultants, MPs, civil servants and journalists are integrated in a closed circuit of information. Less well known, however, is the extent to which journalists and politicians actively cultivate close ties with this "Fifth Estate". Thomas Leif reports on the German situation.
Thomas Leif
6 January 2011

Every now and then, key documents turn up that are reliable and watertight as legal evidence. Documents that reveal the true face of a sector, one which likes to give the impression of discretion and seriousness, which cloaks itself in the aura of sober argument and adorns itself with verifiable fact. We are talking here about the nuclear energy lobby, which, with its 109-page study Communication Concept Nuclear Energy: Strategy, Arguments and Measures has, unwittingly perhaps, given the public a unique blueprint of its true identity and hitherto hidden practices.

Suggestion, appearance of seriousness, impression of truth

It is no longer necessary to rely on secondary information if one wants to crack the secret DNA of the energy lobby or understand the techniques with which the sector manipulates the media. That the document can serve this "collateral purpose" is thanks to the Berlin-based company Business Consultancy for Political and Crisis Management (PRGS). "Conversations were conducted with journalists from Frankfurter Allgemeine ZeitungHandelsblatt,Wirtschaftswoche and Welt," write the authors of the unusually detailed classified study. "Of course, these conversations were conducted without naming [the client or] the contract." Sixteen editors of the mainstream media, obviously with the help of these sources, are politically evaluated and placed on a "Left-Right axis". "Only Welt, with its Green-Christian Democrat editor Daniel Wetzel, occupies a median position between the camps," comments the report.

Why go to the trouble? The lobbyists answer this simple question with disarming frankness: "The key to lobbying is well-founded material. Politicians and journalists alike prefer source-based info-material that suggests the neutrality of the information." The emphasis here is on suggestion, on the appearance of seriousness, on the impression of truth. The study gives a detailed picture of the full spectrum of modern lobbying and its manipulation-based cooperation with the media: commissioned studies tweaked to appear genuinely scientific; doctored surveys; lines of argument that ignore counter-arguments and prioritize advertising messages; negative campaigning strategies against critics of nuclear power; articles eulogizing the patrons of atomic energy. Completed punctually for the general election of November 2008, it is crystal clear what the authors of the study were promising they could do for the client (apparently E.on): "The findings of the IfD [Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach – ed.], Emnid [one of the largest polling organizations in Germany – ed.] and others suggest that only a change of government will be sufficient to turn the public mood in Germany in favour of nuclear power."

Strategic leitmotif

At issue here is, therefore, a unique document, albeit one that – as those familiar with the sector can confirm – is exemplary of similar forms of "mask" employed by other lobby organizations. The strategic leitmotifs of agencies such as PRGS that specialize in lobby work, are, as concerns the media, the following: 

- Anchoring topics and positions in the public mind via so-called "orchestrated communication" – in the case above, for example, the guarantee of the long-term operational lifespan for nuclear power stations (legislation for which has now been passed).
- Establishing semantically positively loaded concepts and "flags" via the media, for example "Nuclear energy as bridging technology", embedded in the concept of "sustainability". The term "bridging technology" is an invention of the nuclear lobby and is used by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
- Supplying selected journalists and media with "commissioned truths", i.e. "sexed up" (scientific) studies, tailored opinion surveys, faked statistics, PR agency-written texts, interviews and opinion pieces, and so on. The spectrum of these services and the raw information material available is unlimited. It includes the brokerage of so-called "experts" who can be employed as "rent-a-mouths".
- Defaming and discrediting media critics using all conceivable methods of negative campaigning. The aim is to damage their reputations.
- Targeting blogs, websites and other social media platforms for intrumentalization and manipulation – as was documented in the case of the privatization of Deutsche Bahn [in 2009 it emerged that DB had spent euros 1.3 million on hidden PR, including bogus contributions to blogs and online forums – ed.] 
- Groups and organizations active in fields relevant to the particular lobby topic are tested at great lengths for their susceptibility to corruption and instrumentalized accordingly.
- Steering these activities into an "iron triangle" consisting of so-called "public affairs agencies" and PR agencies. These work according to journalistic criteria and rarely leave traces. The crossover of experienced journalists into PR consolidates the professionalization of the branch.
- Trading in so-called "exclusive information". Agency information is exchanged for good conduct. Informants live – as return payment, so to speak – in a protected media zone. The basic tenet: "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."

Blueprint for the manipulation of the media

The PRGS report goes through all these techniques, analysing and evaluating them in terms of their potential effect. The company's managing director, Thorsten Hofmann, is now able to pass on his professional craft at the Quadriga University in Berlin. Established in April 2010 as a sister company to the German Press Academy (depak), the university offers an 18-month course in PR for working professionals (course fees up to euros 26,000, see:www.quadriga.eu). Hofmann's publication credentials include the PRGS study. According to the university, this perfectionist of lobby manipulation "is responsible within the subject field of Politics and Public Affairs for the continuous transfer between knowledge and practice". Assisting him in this is a board of consultants made up of well-known representatives of the German mainstream media. In other words: editors-in-chief and chairmen, even from ARD [Germany's largest public service TV network – ed.], assist the proven lobby expert Thorsten Hofmann in explaining how to lead the public up the garden path using documented manipulation techniques. Whether the consultancy roles of these well-known editors-in-chief and ARD chairmen can be reconciled with inter-state agreements or the codes of conduct of the quality newspapers is something that legal and control bodies might want to investigate.

On the issue of independent economic reporting, for instance, the guidelines of Westdeutsche Rundfunk (WDR) clearly state that "we carry out a critical check of all topic suggestions and contributions for possible PR and surreptitious advertising". The binding code of conduct for employees of Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) is even clearer: "We do not use our work with NDR for commercial PR, for unduly highly rewarded secondary employment or for any other private gain." Given the extremely strict rules and regulations that apply in public service broadcasting, it is inconceivable that the methods of the top teaching staff of the Quadriga University (on record at www.quadriga.eu), which clearly undermine press freedom, are so much as tolerated by prominent, high-ranking journalists. An experienced WDR features editor was recently fired for allegedly having allowed himself to be taken advantage of by the PR department of a skin-lotion company. A draconian punishment which, for the management of WDR, is certain to set a precedent for comparable cases at higher levels.

For some time now the increasingly untrammelled power of lobbyists, not only on politics but also the media, has been registered and criticized by the Federal Constitutional Court: "Lobbying poses a latent danger for the rule of law" was the core thesis of its former president, Hans-Jürgen Papier, in an interview with Börsenzeitung.

A marginal topic for most media

Several fundamental, mutually enforcing tendencies over the past few years have brought the power and potential threat of lobbying into the public eye and generated tangible anxiety among top politicians. Their concern focuses on the following issues:

1. The formulation of laws, directives or parts of laws by external legal chambers calls into question the legislative authority of the parliament.
2. The placement in the ministries of so-called "hired officials" belonging to lobby organizations constitutes what after detailed analysis the Federal Audit Office has called a "potential risk" to the independence of the state administration.
3. The crossover of top-level lobbyists from the nuclear industry, from private health insurance agencies and from the financial sector to the executive level of various ministries under the current conservative-liberal coalition fuels suspicions about openly practiced political clientelism and the transference of lobby power into the political administration.
4. Dubious practices of political financing via sponsorship, donations and remunerated speeches – combined with factual or alleged directly reciprocal services – lead to the widespread impression that lobbyists are able to purchase access to politics by means of "targeted cultivation of the political landscape".
5. The direct crossover of the presidents of federal states, ministers, permanent secretaries and top politicians into lobbying and consultancy roles in industry has risen massively in recent years. The practise also works in reverse: many leading journalists are now active as lobbyists.

While parliament is beginning to take note, in the mainstream press the influence of the "Fifth Estate" remains marginal to the preoccupations of leader writers. What might the reasons for this hardly coincidental journalistic agenda be?

A closed circuit of information

It is well established that lobbyists, consultants, MPs, ministers, civil servants and journalists are integrated into a closed circuit of information. What is new, however, is that journalist and politicians proactively and routinely cultivate close working ties to lobby organizations, actively making use of their legal, "specialist" and political "expertise". Peter Friedrich, MP and General Secretary of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has described this fusion of roles with rare frankness: "The lobbyist becomes the apparent aide of the MP or the government official, he supports him with arguments, helps with formulations, studies. [...] One's own interests and aims fuse with those of the lobby." What Friedrich openly admits is the case with the political class is confirmed by leading journalists, albeit off the record.

As of March 2010, there were 2177 lobby organizations in Berlin registered at the Bundestag. Jointly they hold 4500 passes that allow free access to parliament. The number of accredited lobbyists thus vastly exceeds that of journalists. These figures reflect the size of this murky field, which remains largely unreported. It should be added that it is easier to research the secret services than it is the lobbies. For that reason, value of the PRGS study for the information it reveals should not be underestimated.

According to a study made by the organization Lobby Control, 15 out of 63 ministers and permanent secretaries belonging to the previous SPD-Green Party coalition are today employed in positions with a "strong connection to the lobby". They profit from their insider knowledge, their old connections and their access to former colleagues in the ministerial bureaucracy, along with their media contacts. Their social capital consists in their familiarity with the more intimate workings of the political process: they know how politics works.

Revolving doors between politics and business

The fact that numerous diplomats also follow this route into lobby politics has been scarcely acknowledged until now. For instance, the former German ambassador in London, Wolfgang Ischinger, is now a lobbyist for the Allianz group. Jürgen Chrobog, until recently Permanent Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, is manager of the Quandt Foundation. The former German ambassador in New Delhi, Heimo Richter, is trying his luck at the Bosch Foundation. Somewhat further back, Klaus Kinkel, former Foreign Minister (FDP), was appointed president of the Telekom Foundation. Many more lobby careers can be documented.

Internationally renowned politicians also sell their political knowledge: former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, became a consultant to the investment bank JP Morgan, a bank that took advantage of banking deregulation to play a leading role in stimulating high-risk financial transactions. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his vice-chancellor Joschka Fischer have also taken this route.

The revolving doors principle between politics and business damages the image of politics because it demonstrates so clearly the overlap between personal interests and political motives. This attitude encourages distrust in the integrity and independence of politics. Without a legally binding "cooling-off phase" of at least three years after leaving political office, it will be impossible to stem the tide of these crossovers.

An initiative taken by the SPD parliamentary secretary Christian Lange in 2009 to introduce a "code of conduct for former members of the Federal Parliament" failed. Despite the fact that the government organized an investigation, the motion to formulate the code of conduct was rejected with the help of votes from the SPD parliamentary bloc. A letter from Lange to Chancellor Angela Merkel received the reply that, in view of the constitutional right to freely carry out a profession (art. 12 GG), the government saw no chance of a "code of conduct". Furthermore, added the permanent parliamentary secretary of the ministry of the interior, Christoph Bergner, who drafted the letter, "A code of conduct would not be legally binding and in important cases unable to provide sufficient opportunities for sanction." The reply highlighted a fundamental conflict: rules capable of containing the influence of the lobby are categorically rejected. All these developments and tendencies are, however, a marginal topic for the media.

Few journalists have an interest in the details of the power of the lobby; no one demands a cooling-off phase for journalists who cross over to join the lobby and – often enough – back again. The two-way dependency works. Clearly, anyone voluntarily embedded in a functioning circuit of information has no cause to complain.

Published 2010−12−31
Original in English: 

Original in German, English translation by Simon Garnett  

First published in Neue Gesellschaft / Frankfurter Hefte 7+8/2010 (German version). For more articles by Thomas Leif click here.
© Thomas Leif
© Eurozine
© openDemocracy

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