Review: A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics

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A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain By Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell
A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain By Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell

This thorough and well-researched book goes beyond lobbying and extends its scope to what the authors describe as ‘Britain’s influence industry,’ a business they value at £2bn.

It is compelling writing and a rich source of examples of public relations (PR) and lobbying activity, many of which are both original and contemporary.

Tamasin Cave is a director of Spinwatch, the not-for-profit group which scrutinises corporate public relations and lobbying efforts, and Andy Rowell its co-founder.

Spinwatch’s concerns about the takeover of Britain’s public agenda by corporate interests permeate the book, which also draws on eight years of monitoring and research work the organisation has undertaken.

Despite this orientation of the authors against corporate public relations, the book maintains a reasonable balance and avoids a hectoring tone.

A Quiet Word begins by reprising the exposure of Rupert Murdoch’s lobbying operations as a result of the Leveson inquiry in the UK, including his personal closeness with Prime Ministers Blair and Brown. The conclusion on Murdoch is that ‘he, alone, is one of Britain’s fiercest lobbyists.’

The detailed case study of what Leveson himself described as a ‘formidable and relentless’ lobbying onslaught which was paradoxically largely covert is superbly presented. An impressive level of detail is pulled together to form a unified narrative on News International’s lobbying work from a mix of sources which PR students and practitioners will find useful.

The precise tone to the research extends to individual lobbyists, corporate PR firms and think tanks, including Lord Bell (of Bell Pottinger), Lord Gummer (late of Shandwick and Chairman of Huntsworth) and Roland Rudd (founder of RLM Finsbury).

There is a particularly useful section on the growth of state-level lobbying and public relations operations, with the authors asserting that ‘London lobbyists lead the world in the business of massaging the reputations of overseas governments, some with dreadful human rights records.’

This line of business has helped to double the size of many London-based lobbying and PR firms over the last decade and yet the large fees are merely a ‘rounding error’ for national budgets of Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Russia and others who employ them.

Similarly, the work on the role of think tanks in lobbying and PR campaigns is thoughtful, detailed and useful to anyone with an interest in this area. The book is worth buying for the case study on the successful Taxpayers Alliance (TPA) alone, along with the offshoot campaigns its key staff went on to organise, including NOtoAV.

According to Cave and Rowell, TPA and other successful lobby groups and think tanks are using campaign techniques which ‘date back nearly a hundred years to Bernays. Rather than participating in rational public debate, what these lobbyists seek to do is tap into people’s emotion in order to control debate.’

The authors of A Quiet Word set out to ‘map lobbying” and have done this and more, by recognising the intersection between public policy, public opinion and the media, observing that: ‘lobbyists like to distance themselves from public relations. Although this distinction is largely one of semantics. Both professions have at their core the need to shape the message that they want their audience to hear.’

The emphasis on lobbying in the title should not put off those readers with broader public relations interests as this book addresses corporate PR in a comprehensive way. The chapter Distort: Lobbyists Manipulate the Media covers ground which will be familiar to readers of Nick Davies’ 2008 book, Flat Earth News, but has fresh insights and material.

The role of lawyers ‘working in tandem with PR companies to kill off stories’ is explored as well as the use of social media attacks – primarily using Twitter – which are ‘invariably set up by a PR organisation,’ according to the BBC Panorama editor who is quoted.

At the samle time as suppressing stories, lobbyists continue to use mainstream media to promote corporations, policies and ideas on behalf of what the book describes as the ‘corporate superclass.’ Despite the intimacy inferred by Quiet Word title in relation to lobbying, media relations remains important because ‘politicians are avid media consumers. So lobbyists use the press to speak to politicians loudly.’

The authors are consistent throughout the book in calling for transparency and openness in the influence industries of PR and lobbying. But they are equally clear that ‘there is no conspiracy…..what glamour lobbying has comes largely from it being kept secret.’

This is an important and up to date work of rare quality in its depth and breadth of research. It will be useful to all students of public relations, media, public affairs and politics, as well as interested practitioners.

Despite a campaigning agenda, the authors maintain a fair and proportionate tone throughout, concluding that when lobbying and PR is forced to be more transparent, “the reality, in the main, will be more mundane than is popularly imagined.”