An undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, published in the Independent today and on the Bureau's website, shows how political lobbyists boast about their links with politicians and the way they can counter negative coverage given to notorious regimes.
The Independent says that four years ago the US investigative journalist Ken Silverstein approached Washington lobbyists posing as an agent for the authoritarian government of Turkmenistan. He exposed how the firms vied for the right to remake the dictatorship's image, promising access to members of Congress and positive media coverage.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism felt a similar operation in the UK would be equally revealing, and would demonstrate the need for a statutory register. To this end reporters from the Bureau posed as clients from a country bordering Turkmenistan as well as Uzbekistan.
The Bureau set up a fictional organisation: the "Azimov Group", described as a team of British and eastern European investors, with close links to the Uzbekistan government, concerned with exporting cotton textiles. It set up a website, which listed a London office address, mobile number and email address.One lobbyist told the undercover reporters: "Even if they type [into Google] 'Uzbeck child labour', some of the first results are sites talking about what you guys are doing to improve that'."
One of the country's largest lobbying companies boasted about its access to the Government and how it uses "black arts" to bury bad coverage and influence public opinion.
The Independent says in a leader: "Before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron warned that lobbying would be "the next big scandal". In Government, his promised crackdown has been repeatedly delayed. There can be no more excuses.
"There is, of course, a valid role for lobbyists. But the extent to which access is bought and sold, and the lack of transparency as to who is influencing whom, and on behalf of whom else, is a travesty. Britain has many first-rate services to sell to the world. Political contacts and image-massaging for obnoxious regimes must not be among them."
- The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is a non-profit organisation based at City University.