Coverage of the cash-for-access dÃ©bÃ¢cle has highlighted the effect of The Observer’s allegations on the Government and those lobbyists involved in the affair. By contrast, very little coverage has looked at the effect on business, by which I mean the industries that contract lobbying and political intelligence services.
This is understandable, since newspaper readers are far more interested in how they are governed rather than in how businesses are run. We hold that the Government is accountable to us all, while businesses are only accountable to their shareholders.
There are some interesting exceptions to this principle – most notably the “fat cat” furore of the past couple of years, but that was undoubtedly politically-driven as the last general election was approaching. Generally, businesses are left alone to employ whatever consultancy services they deem appropriate.
But we should wonder where such businesses are left now that the Government’s lifeboats have been rowed away from the sinking ship of political lobbying.
Before exploring that, I should issue a health warning and a ground rule. In my day job I am active in related areas and consequently, I will offer no comment on my firm or anybody else’s.
But there is, clearly, a market for political consultancy – indeed, it’s a subdivision of the communications part of the marketing mix – so businesses are entitled to ask what they can expect to receive for the fees they pay.
The answer, unsurprisingly, is access. Just as a company will pay an advertising agency seven-figure sums to access target markets for its products and services, so it will also pay fees to agents who can access target audiences that have the power to influence its prosperity. Legislators and regulators are bound to be a high priority for large companies and active trade associations.
This communications resource is as old as Parliament itself – or even older, if you trace its progenitor to the barons who lobbied King John into signing the Magna Carta – and when it works well, connects Planet Westminster usefully to the real world. Companies pay for it, everyone benefits and that would seem to be an acceptable situation.
The principle of access can be extended into other areas of companies’ communications activity. Public relations people constantly sell access to the media – companies presumably don’t employ them for their ignorance and lack of contact. It’s worth asking, therefore, what’s the difference between saying “I’ll make a call to the Chancellor’s office” and “I’ll make a call to the editor’s office”?
One might offer the answer that the latter is a service that is unlikely to land you in a scandal, precisely because the media have a vested interest in the efficient workings of such a system. The more serious answer is that the media aren’t elected representatives who are paid by and preside over taxpayers’ money. It follows that companies can expect to pay to influence the media, but not the Government.
This raises two important commercial points. The first is that this is the most media-aware and media-sensitive Government in Westminster’s history. Political access and influence can be exerted on it as never before through the media. So there is a level of public accountability that applies to the media as well as to Government – during the lifetime of this Parliament, it will become increasingly difficult for the media to test the Government’s accountability without assessing its own.
Secondly, it’s a bit rich for politicians of any party to pretend that access is not one of the principal resources for sale in public affairs at the supply end of the equation. It is what politicians want companies to buy. How else could one possibly explain the steady stream of invitations to companies to subscribe thousands of pounds for tables at political fundraising events, on the promise that an important member of Government or aspirant minister will be present to listen to commercial concerns raised by such generous sponsors?
The supposed dividing line is between access and influence. But again, apply the same principle to what companies pay for in their media relations activity. Are we really to believe that access to journalists is being sold without the prospect of influence? More realistically, what companies expect to be sold is access, the opportunity to influence, but emphatically not control.
And this is, perhaps, where the main commercial lesson lies in this episode. Weak governments, like weak newspapers, can be controlled by commercial interests. It used to be said that the second most powerful person in imperial Russia was the last person the Tsar had spoken to. Influence can be exerted through the respect in which the person proffering advice is held – more often in politics it’s to do with the weakness of the recipient.
One hopes that corporate Britain is not to be cast in an influential role by weak government. That’s a responsibility that falls to those on the receiving end on Planet Westminster. But companies have a responsibility too. The wise litigant pays for the best advocate to argue his case – he doesn’t try to buy the judge.