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Time to bring the lobbying industry under control

Two young women recently glued themselves to the door of one of the UK’s biggest PR firms, Bell Pottinger. They had good reason to protest. An undercover operation had recorded PR executives boasting, in response to a request to help the vile Uzbekistan dictatorship, that they had access to the PM and Foreign Secretary and that they could use their dark arts to swamp negative images of human rights violations and child labour. They also explained that they could manipulate Google searches, fix Wikipedia material, generate pretend-independent blogs, and put favourable articles in the mainstream press.

This deliberate dissemination of lies, misrepresentation and deception, used in support of some of the nastiest persons, companies or governments around, is a typical part of the UK public relations industry which is the second largest in the world and worth £7.5bn. It is shocking that such a sordid and squalid operation can be so large, so influential and so profitable, and shows sadly just how amoral are some of the activities tolerated by our money-obsessed, anything-goes contemporary culture. It is no surprise that Tim Bell was knighted by Thatcher in 1990, presumably for services to the ‘dark arts’.

Bell-Pottinger have promoted the soft, warm side of the dictators of Chile, Sri Lanka, Belarus, Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, as well as the polluting oil company Trafigura and the fracking company Cuadrilla which after being repulsed at Balcombe and having caused two minor earthquakes near Blackpool now wants to drill 6 more sites in Lancashire. Given Bell’s close connections with the Tory party and given the farcical machinations of the government’s so-called Lobbying Bill (aka Gagging Bill), it’s clear that Cameron-Osborne will do nothing whatever to restrain or halt this systematic peddling of untruths. But we not only need a statutory register for lobbyists (this time aimed at the real culprits, the big corporate donors to the Tory party, not at charities or the trade unions), but also a new law regulating the PR industry.

There should be a statutory code requiring them to tell the truth about their clients and not to perpetrate an image of them which is demonstrably false or selective. Where this was breached, the penalty would be that they would be required to publish in the same media that they had already used a corrective account as agreed with any offended party (or where disputed, as determined within 3 days by a tribunal). Where this practice of deliberate lying or misrepresentation persisted, they should be fined, depending on the seriousness, at a percentage of the PR company’s turnover. In extreme cases the directors of the PR firm should be disqualified from continuing to operate in this sector on the serious grounds that they were bringing the public life of this country into disrepute.

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