[Under Covid restrictions should that read: “an elbow bump on the funny-bone away”? – Owl]
John Arlidge www.thetimes.co.uk
It started with a one-line email that was designed to look casual, almost an after-thought. “Completely unrelated,” wrote David Bass, who was then working for the lobbying and communications firm Bell Pottinger. “Do you have an interest in South African business and politics?” I replied: “Keen but need to know in advance who’s your client(s)?” Bass wrote back: “Probably better if we tell you more over a drink, or lunch.” So began my introduction to the dark world of influence-peddling.
Over a £60 bottle of Nyetimber sparkling wine in the Gilbert Scott bar at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, London, Bass and his colleague Victoria Geoghegan dangled a juicy story: a chance to travel to South Africa to talk to business leaders and politicians for The Sunday Times Magazine. There was only one problem: they would not say who they were working for or why their clients were so keen to open boardroom doors to me, from Pretoria to Cape Town.
“They prefer to remain anonymous,” Bass said. I declined the invitation.
Good job too. Bass and Geoghegan had been hired by the Johannesburg-based business magnates Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta to come up with a plan to distract attention from their corrupt relationship with Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s leader at the time. Bass and Geoghegan aimed to create the impression that the Guptas and Zuma were victims of a smear campaign by racist white business interests who did not wish to see Asian-owned businesses or the ANC government succeed. They recruited business leaders who would spread the — entirely bogus — narrative.
Lobbying — influencing decision-makers either directly or via other participants such as the media — is a big global business, and London is at its centre. Almost 100,000 people work in the sector, which is worth more than £20bn, analysts estimate. Of those 100,000, a third focus on government relations, brand management and reputation management.
Lobbying is riven with conflict of interest and prone to abuse. In recent weeks, The Sunday Times has exposed how George Pascoe-Watson, the chairman of Portland, a London-based communications outfit, secretly served as an adviser in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) during the pandemic. Pascoe-Watson took part in daily calls with Lord Bethell and Baroness Harding, the two heads of the UK’s NHS Test and Trace system. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was on several calls.
Pascoe-Watson’s role, which lasted from April until October, was never publicly declared, although he has insisted that he declared his position to the DHSC. Days after formally completing his role, he was able to disclose to clients that “decision-makers have told me personally” that London’s recently announced tier 2 restrictions would remain in place until at least next year. Portland later wrote to clients to provide detailed information on the debate raging in No 10 about the possibility of a second national lockdown. It was three days before the news became public. Pascoe-Watson has said none of the information shared with clients was connected to the test and trace calls in which he participated.
The Gilbert Scott bar where John Arlidge met Bass and Geoghegan
Lobbying is legal and, some argue, serves a useful purpose. “Everyone, every company, every institution, is entitled to and should try to get close to power and influence and to get their point of view across to lawmakers, media and the general public,” says Alastair McCapra, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
Getting your point across can make the difference between good and bad government decision-making, McCapra adds. He points to Rishi Sunak’s much-praised furlough and financial support schemes for businesses hit by lockdown restrictions. “Those schemes that have saved millions of jobs and livelihoods came about because MPs and ministers listened to people with detailed, specific knowledge of particular sectors. Representatives of hospitality firms, manufacturers, travel companies — you name it — all lobbied on behalf of their sector. What about this? Have you thought about that? You need that to have an informed democratic process and good outcomes.”
But there’s a familiar problem: money. “Companies and individuals are prepared to offer money like you would not believe to get lobbyists to do things they shouldn’t,” says Oliver Bullough, the author of Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World & How to Take It Back.
It was a £1.2m a year retainer, plus generous expenses, that tempted Bell Pottinger to work for the Guptas.
Conflicts of interest, such as Pascoe-Watson’s role at the DHSC, risk corrupting the political process and decision-making, says Peter Geoghegan, the author of Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics (and no relation of Victoria, he stresses). He criticises the “revolving door” between government and the private sector, with former MPs turning lobbyists and vice versa.
“This kind of in-out, in-out access comes at a price: not for the lobbyist but for taxpayers, who can find themselves picking up the tab for bad decisions made by ministers at the urging of their former colleagues,” he says.
A National Audit Office report revealed last week that companies that had links to ministers, often via lobbyists, were fast-tracked contracts to supply PPE — personal protective equipment — at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, with little due diligence. More than half of the £18bn spent on pandemic-related contracts was awarded without competitive tender, the watchdog found. Not enough was done by ministers and other government officials to address potential conflicts of interest, it warned.
In other cases, lobbying — usually accompanied by hefty donations to political parties and “good causes” — can allow crooks to “launder” their reputations and transform themselves into what look to the untrained eye to be pillars of the Establishment. Tom Burgis, an investigative journalist and the author of Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World, points out that “Boris Johnson and his party count among their major donors figures who grew rich in ex-Soviet kleptocracies”.
Sometimes nation states get in on the act. In Moneyland, Bullough reports how the European Azerbaijan Society, run by the son of an Azerbaijan government minister, “spent tens of thousands of pounds flying [British] members of parliament to Baku, putting them in top-class hotels and showing them around. When those MPs came back, they almost invariably spoke favourably about Azerbaijan in the House of Commons, which seemed strange, since this former Soviet republic is a hereditary dictatorship [that] jails journalists who reveal the business dealings of the country’s ruling family”.
The power of lobbying can damage the political system in other ways too. Instead of staying and fighting to revive the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats after he lost his Sheffield seat in the 2017 election, Sir Nick Clegg, the former Lib Dem leader and former deputy prime minister, quit the UK. He became a spokesman for Facebook, a company many condemn for its impact on democracy and good government because it provides a platform for and encourages political extremism. Why did he move from London to Silicon Valley? Money, most say. He is estimated to earn more than £1m a year, plus bonuses. The former MPs Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna, once rising stars who found themselves unable to remain in the Labour Party during the Corbyn era, have quit politics for the PR firm Edelman.
Most of the time, lobbyists get away with plying their trade in the shadows. Regulation is narrow and there is no central register of lobbyists and few requirements to keep a public register of clients or fees. For every scandal that is exposed, thousands more go undetected. But sometimes lobbyists are so badly exposed that they are forced to fall on their sword. That’s what happened to David Bass and Victoria Geoghegan after I met them in the bar of the Gilbert Scott.
When news emerged of their attempts to portray the Guptas as victims of racism, rather than the two men who looted South African state coffers with the connivance of Zuma, Bell Pottinger found itself accused of stirring up racism in South Africa. Clients of every moral hue deserted the firm and it collapsed into bankruptcy. After he lost his job, Bass emailed me to say: “I am hoping we can continue our working relationship. I wondered whether I could interest you in breakfast or lunch?”