Members of the Daily Telegraph team aren’t feeling too happy with the world this morning. Why? Because Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have been cleared of breaking parliamentary rules on paid lobbying.
Both Sir Malcolm and Mr Straw had been the subjects of joint undercover ‘stings’ by the Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches programme earlier in the year. They were recorded claiming they could use their positions to benefit a fictitious Chinese company in return for payment. But the committee scrutinising such allegations and incidents cleared them both. Not only that, the committee criticised both the Telegraph and Dispatches for inaccurately reporting the accusations, damaging the reputations of both parliamentarians.
The entire incident raises questions. Is it appropriate for media outlets to undertake undercover reporting aimed at catching out individuals or groups? And is the process of judging the behaviour of parliamentarians fit for purpose, given that an element of the process is parliamentarians scrutinising themselves?
What is encouraging, however, is that the incident is not being used to bash the public affairs industry.
That’s not to suggest the public affairs industry has always been a paragon of virtue. They have been examples of consultancies caught promising the earth to individuals they thought were prospective clients, only to find out they were actually journalists. But, at the same time, despite David Cameron’s insistence several years ago that ‘lobbying was the next great scandal,’ many of the controversies of recent years have not involved professional lobbyists.
Part of the problem has been that the public affairs industry – despite being in the communications business – has never been great at its own publicity. And as a result the public still equates lobbyists with the image of stuffy types in an old boys’ club somewhere, with cigar smoke lingering around the ceiling. Or, more bluntly, that lobbying is about who you know.
The reality is far different, and it’s worth underlining that – irrespective of the rights or wrongs of this latest incident – the public affairs industry has come a long way from that antiquated business model. It’s now about what you know rather than who you know. Granted, knowing who to go to is important. But if you can’t make a case or present evident, you aren’t going to get very far.
Let’s just hope this latest incident isn’t used as another opportunity to bash the public affairs industry, or to distract from behaviour in parliament. Because it’s not what we’re all about.