The problem isn’t lobbyists, it’s the system
There’s an interesting discourse around the exposure of Bell Pottinger’s shameful behaviour, which shows excellent work from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. On the one side stand the majority of us, ordinary people and those who believe in the power of democracy. On the other there’s a small elite group of people who will be just as annoyed by this article. But their annoyance stems from the ‘shoddy’ work of ‘unprofessional so-called journalists’ who dare to question their right to ride roughshod over democracy.
Let’s not kid ourselves, this is how things are done. The Independent’s story isn’t news to many of us (although the hidden camara footage shocks perhaps because of how arrogant and unprincipled these people are). In the US intense lobbing is business as usual and the UK isn’t far behind. In fact if you want to read a really good expose on the anti-democratic activities of lobbyists, I recommend Nicky Hager’s excellent book on the anatomy of a New Zealand anti-environmental PR campaign, Secrets and Lies. All this in the world’s least corrupt country!
The Bell Pottingers of this world get away with this kind of behaviour because of the rise of neo-liberalism, its concommitant normative technocracy and the destruction of community and its resultant shattering into a culture of individualism. In a society that values economics over people the outcome is almost pre-ordained.
This isn’t a black and white, old school mates, big business and dodgy dictators snow job either. It’s exactly how the NGO sector tries to operate too. It’s just that they’re not as good at it. We accept lobbying in this way because its shrouded in some concept of public good. Bell Pottinger’s behaviour cannot ever be acceptable ever on any level. But ultimately these are all examples of a broken system. Fundamentally undemocratic processes at the heart of government, manipulated not necesarily for or by people hellbent on power (although some of them clearly are), it’s as much a response to our changing society.
The way to fix this is two-fold. First of all, we have to regulate lobbying (as the Tories keep promising but also keep failing to do; clearly they feel less of a need now they are in power). But this is only fixing the symptom, a bit of inner tube and a jubilee clip over a leaking pipe. We also have to work on the cause of the disease, which is democratic drift and the huge fall in public trust. This problem will only be be solved when we make democracy work for everyone, the risk is that outrageous behviour like that we see in The Independent will turn people away.
So when you settle back into your seat, popcorn in hand, to enjoy Meryl Streep’s latest performance, just remember what Thatcher’s legacy really is…