In July 1934, the Special Committee on Un-American Activitiesreported that Carl Byoir and Associates, one of the founding firms of American public relations, were receiving $6,000 a month to spin for the new Nazi government of Germany. Byoir’s distribution of anti-Semitic literature and the sheer scale of the money involved scandalised congressmen, whose earnings of $9,000 a year paled in comparison. In 1938, the US Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) which required “public disclosure by persons engaging in propaganda activities and other activities for or on behalf of foreign governments, foreign political parties, and other foreign principals.” FARA has given us a fascinating snapshot of historic lobbying. In 1942, Britain spent more than the rest of the world combined on lobbying and propaganda activities in the US –—a huge $1,350,000.
What Americans have known for 70 years, Britons are still to discover. The activities of foreign governments and their proxies in the UK are entirely unregulated. As a free speech charity, you may not expect Index on Censorship to be particularly concerned about lobbyists — a group of people whose job it is to argue a point. Yet their work is critically undermining the work of international organisations that campaign for human rights, by airbrushing the worst excesses of autocratic regimes.
Whilst we treat MPs to the occasional cup of tea, foreign governments are paying for British MPs to enjoy five-star accommodation on trips euphemistically called “fact-finding missions”. The same regimes hire parliamentarians whom the electorate have booted out, on large salaries, to lobby their former colleagues. NGOs cannot compete. The six-figure salaries regularly used by lobbying firms to gain access to parliamentarians across Europe are impossible for us to match. The degeneracy of the lobbying trade is often staggering. Since we began our campaign on this issue, we’ve been approached behind the scenes; one young lobbyist told us that the worse the client, the more fun it becomes. Lobbying is often dull work, dealing with the minutiae of lightbulb regulations: at least working for a foreign regime is intellectually challenging. Another told us that one lobbying firm was prepared to take on Gadaffi’s regime as a client. That is, until the go-between wanted a cut of the contract in cash, in a suitcase.
Whereas once authoritarian regimes would have used their foreign ministries to spin their message, these governments now want the best PR and lobbying teams money can buy. London is at the centre of this trade, with, in recent years, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Mubarak’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others leading their lobbying operations from our capital. Whereas Potomac Square Group, a US lobbying firm working for the autocratic government of Bahrain, has to declare their monthly $20,000 retainer, London’s Bell Pottinger’s contract (in part suspended) does not. The US firm also has to declare the correspondence it has with US politicians — while lobbyists working on behalf of autocratic foreign governments can persuade our MPs without declaring a thing. Recently, Index pointed out that all but one of the main sponsors of a Parliamentary Early Day Motion praising Azerbaijan’s independence (with no mention of the country’s poor human rights record) had enjoyed a trip to the country including accommodation in luxury hotels costing £3,500.
The opaque lobbying of MPs on behalf of foreign governments is corrupting our politics. While in opposition, both Coalition partners made welcome noises on regulating lobbying – but campaigners weren’t inspired with confidence when the civil servant in charge of regulating the industry tweeted that she hoped one of the campaigns, Unlock Democracy, “would die. I am prepared to help it along.” While she met with representatives of the lobbying industry on four separate occasions, she refused to meet campaigners calling for reform. The political reform minister Mark Harper’s assertions that all parties are being treated equally is harder to swallow in light of the recent “cash for access” allegations. And the government’s consultation on a statutory register of lobbyists doesn’t even consider the option of FARA-style regulations. If the Coalition seriously wants to clean up British politics, and stop London’s reputation as the international capital of spin for despots, it needs to implement its own FARA.
Michael Harris is head of advocacy for Index on Censorship. This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph