Econintersect: Yesterday (December 6) The Independent reported that an undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that senior executives at London lobbying firm Bell Pottinger had been taped bragging about how they influence the top levels of the British government. Included in the boasting were comments about how the firm manipulated widely used internet tools such as Google and Wikipedia. Today (December 7) the Financial Times reported that Wikipedia announced that ten accounts associated with Bell Pottinger have been suspended pending an investigation.
From The Independent:
Reporters from the Bureau posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan – a brutal dictatorship responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour – and representatives of its cotton industry in a bid to discover what promises British lobbying and public relations firms were prepared to make when pitching to clients, what techniques they use, and how much of their work is open to public scrutiny.
In Uzbekistan, child labour is used in cotton fields to fulfil state quotas and the country also has a terrible human rights record: the think tank Freedom House put it on its 2011 list of the “Worst of the Worst” repressive regimes.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Reporting, ten London lobbying firms were contacted by the Uzbekistan imposters. The Independent reports that “two refused to take the business, several others did not reply, while five including Bell Pottinger appeared to be keen to work with the fictitious Uzbek representatives.”
The prime minister’s office has responded to the situation with denials that lobbyists influence government policies. From The Independent:
When The Independent contacted No 10 on Monday night, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister insisted that “it is simply not true that Bell Pottinger or indeed any other lobbying company has any influence on government policy” – leading to questions as to why large firms would spend hundreds of millions of pounds on lobbyists if they had no effect.
Later comments by official spokesmen have admitted that the government does talk to lobbyists. Here is an excerpt from The Independent about further spokesman statements:
“Of course, occasionally lobbyists talk to Government, the CBI often talks to the Department for Business or the Treasury and individual companies with interests talk to Government and raise concerns with us.
“We listen to their concerns and where we think they have legitimate concerns and we can help we try to do so.”
He added: “That’s what you would expect us to do. Most people would think if the Prime Minister is raising these issues with foreign governments with the intention of improving our trade relationships, that would be a good thing to do.”