Book review: A Quiet Word

This book shines a bright light on the murky dealings surrounding politics, PR, big business and journalism, but the real issue it uncovers may not be lobbying but rather the dire state of our democracy.

Tim Holmes
15 April 2014

A Quiet Word - Cave and Rowell, Bodley Head

What do the following policies have in common: NHS privatisation; fracking; academies and “free schools”; tax cuts for the rich; corporate tax loopholes; and the Private Finance Initiative? And what do they share with the decisions not to regulate sugar, tobacco, alcohol, pesticides and banks; not to address climate change; and not to reform Britain’s anti-democratic electoral system?

The answer is that all of the above were victories for corporate lobbyists – many secured after years of campaigning. In their revelatory and disturbing new book A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain, Andy Rowell and Tamasin Cave trace assiduously the activities of Britain’s powerful, well-funded influence industry, shining a light where few other investigators have. The result is a “hidden history” of British politics over the last few decades.

A Quiet Word exposes the whole box of tricks lobbyists use to “control the intellectual space in which officials make policy decisions”: manipulating media, peddling PR, constructing opinion polls, hosting events, and hiring “wonk whores”: academics and think tanks that function as credible third-party spokespeople. To maximise its influence, the industry applies every dirty tactic at its disposal against opponents, be it monitoring, spying (often by former intelligence personnel), smears or intimidation. One intelligence firm, hired by arms company BAE systems to spy on the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, kept records on over 150,000 activists and union members. It lifted computer files, email passwords, bank account details and personal diaries from CAAT members, who “were followed home and their friends spied on”.

The press provide occasional glimpses of lobbyists’ astonishing degree of inside access--Defence Minister Liam Fox’s best man Adam Werrity acting as a channel for arms industry funds and lobbying; Stephen Byers offering himself as a “cab for hire”; New Labour’s Derek Draper flaunting his government contacts in front of an undercover reporter--but these scandals only scratch the surface. Law firms, management consultants and accountants now lobby on behalf of their clients. “Gastronomic pimping” at dinner parties and London clubs offers privileged access to the political elite; while a revolving door allows lobbyists to second employees to positions inside government and to recruit insiders--sometimes politicians’ family members, more often high-level officials--with not only contacts but extensive knowledge of political processes, institutions and key individuals.

Some of the “insider trading” that results is utterly shameless. Former military procurement minister William (Lord) Bach, for instance, lobbied for Finnmechanica while it sold less-than-suitable helicopters to the MoD, a purchase widely regarded as inexplicable. Four ex-health ministers--Tory and Labour--became lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies. Ex-Transport Minister Stephen Ladyman lobbied for contractor ITIS from his constituency office, using his “Commons email account, Parliament’s address and taxpayer-funded facilities”, and even setting up future meetings within a year of leaving office (when MPs are barred from lobbying).

The media is thoroughly imbricated in these elite networks. Journalists, politicians and lobbyists inhabit the same world and mix at the same parties, while PR companies groom, collude with and recruit journalists, turning hacks into flacks with depressing regularity. Businesses use the media to reach policymakers, place stories, conscript third-party advocates and noisily reframe debates on their terms. The use of third-party front-groups is rife: corporations fund academics, scientists, protesters, think tanks, charities, supportive allies, professional bodies, fake institutes, campaign groups – anyone that will take the money and say the right things. Where necessary, companies keep a low profile, suppressing damaging stories while lobbying in private; “for every story fed to the media,” studies find, “there is one being carefully kept out.” Often PR firms work alongside corporate lawyers, using the threat of litigation to snuff out damaging stories quickly and discreetly, while applying extra pressure through “astroturf” (fake grassroots) campaigns on Twitter or via email. The internet poses challenges, but PR firms are moving in, monitoring opponents and even offering a round-the-clock service whitewashing Wikipedia and Google on clients’ behalf.

The result is a well-oiled machine, constantly at work getting monied interests what they want. “We’re in it for money” lobbyist Peter Gummer (Lord Chadlington) admits – and lobbying can prove a very lucrative investment indeed. One study estimates a return of $90bn on an initial spend of $3.5bn; another of between $6 and $21 per dollar spent; another still of $100. “It seems remarkable,” the Economist notes, “that companies would do anything but lobby”.

Other clients use lobbyists to shore up their power – “reputation laundering” for despots perhaps the grubbiest side of the industry. Infamous media “bad guys” may be out of bounds, but lobbyists happily accept money from brutally repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, helping them spruce up their international image. Burson-Marsteller turned down Gaddafi, but helped not only the Argentine generals but also Indonesia during the East Timorese genocide; Bell Pottinger rebuffed Zimbabwe, but assisted both Pinochet’s Chile and the Belarusian dictatorship, which, it assured us, was “embarking on a journey of democratic change.” Having assisted Iraq on its own such journey, Alistair Campbell now works for Portland Communications – which counts as clients the repressive governments of Russia and Kazakhstan.

But the lobbyists’ political role goes well beyond whitewashing dictatorships. Since the early twentieth century, lobbyists have aggressively defended capitalism whenever popular movements challenged its legitimacy. From “Corporate Social Responsibility”, the commercial world’s whitewash campaign, the Tories learned to frame their extreme anti-poor programme as “compassionate conservatism”. And, when democratic reform threatened their electoral prospects, the party’s corporate lobbyist friends at the Taxpayers’ Alliance helped sabotage it.

Constantly cropping up throughout A Quiet Word is evidence of the ignorance, arrogance and bigotry of the moneyed elite. A few pro-democracy lines from an Occupy leaflet reduce a roomful of tax haven representatives to gales of laughter. No such derision meets a lobbyist’s claim to have “infiltrated” Occupy, rather like claiming to have “infiltrated” your own back garden. Lord Bell likewise sees nothing wrong with manipulating Wikipedia, since it is “a ridiculous organisation… created by a bunch of nerds”.

Almost as damning are the book’s revelations about mainstream NGOs. Corporate strategists often “divide and conquer” their opponents by organising sham consultations, which allow them to manage opposition; flush out dissenters; and divide cooperative “moderates” from uncooperative “radicals”. With such tactics they routinely manipulate large NGOs.

The book professes to be neutral with regard to policies, and does not entirely succeed in this regard. Yet its revelations of undue influence alone are so damning that this is no great problem. At times, indeed, the authors seem over-cautious, dismissing allegations of “corruption” and “conspiracy” despite clear evidence of both, in a bid (one presumes) to pre-empt the inevitable hysteria of their critics. Moreover, while outlining a strong, plausible right-wing case against the power of moneyed lobbyists, their investigation raises uncomfortable questions about what right-wing ideology actually is. So awash with corporate money are modern “conservative” movements that it is unclear where ideology begins and PR ends: the notion of “personal responsibility” beloved of conservatives, for instance, has been hugely reinforced by tobacco, alcohol and sugar lobbyists, all of whom benefit when blame lands on us rather than them.

The boundaries of “lobbying” are equally fuzzy, and that the authors are describing a discrete group called “lobbyists” becomes less and less plausible the further one reads. Rather, they appear to be charting a nexus of elite power, thoroughly ensconced in corporations, media, civil society and government, mixing in similar circles and sharing the same outlook. That they describe this beast in such detail, making no bones about its scope or nature, is to the authors’ credit. Yet their emphasis on lobbying almost misses the bigger story they have unearthed.

How, then, can we reclaim our democracy? The ideal upheld by Rowell and Cave is of rational and informed deliberation, the kind that corporate propaganda seeks to bypass by appealing to emotion. They are therefore understandably cynical when PR experts present humans beings as manipulable, emotionally-driven creatures. The problem is that the PR experts may be right. Certainly, the idea of “pure” rationality seems to be a fallacy. Emotion regulates our rational capacities: without it, we do not become Mr. Spock; we become unable to function. If so, perhaps we need to start deciding who gets to influence us, how, and to what end – because someone will, whether we like it or not. And because, as A Quiet Word makes clear, some of those that would are already hard at work.

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