‘Satan’s Little Helpers’ introduction

By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising…kill yourself. Thank you. Just planting seeds, planting seeds is all I’m doing. No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalisation for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. Now, back to the show.

Bill Hicks

One of the questions asked after the recent revelations on lobbying by MPs is whether it is as widespread as speculation might suggest. David Cameron has said repeated his remarks that he wanted to shine “the light of transparency” on lobbying so that politics “comes clean about who is buying power and influence,” while campaigners argue that the Conservatives should pledge to introduce a mandatory register of lobbyists so that the public can see who is lobbying whom, and “the extent to which national policies are being influenced by commercial forces.”[1] But those individuals who go by the name ‘Lobbyists’ are also sometimes  ‘Pollsters’ or ‘Political consultants’ or ‘Communications consultants’ or something else.  They have gone to great lengths to disguise themselves as part of their efforts to influence how we think about certain things and also to avoid scrutiny and oversight.  On behalf of their clients, they have disguised themselves as some unlikely organisations in what is an ultimately deceptive process.[2]

One variant of this, analysed here, is the survey as a form of lobbying politicians.  Below we will see that the ‘overseeing’ bodies that exist have no interest in looking at never mind rectifying the problem and that the same is true for the bureaucracy that insulates the Scottish Parliament from the people it is supposedly for—effectively both are protecting the status quo which directly involves MPs and MSPs many of whom run their own lobbying companies. The term ‘lobbying’, is used here to mean undue influence behind the scenes, buying privileged access and the manipulation of the democratic elements of the political process.  The concerns expressed here are that the public know very little about this development and that confusion reigns in how MPs (the particular focus is on MSPs) report these on-going contacts.  The present system as recorded in the register of interests is unconvincing and inadequate.  To gain an understanding of what is going on here we must also take into account how embedded into the political process the ‘pollsters’ are, how connected to press coverage they have become, what the implications of their role in privatising the decision-making processes of a supposedly open political system might be.

There’s a saying that ‘the best place to hide a tree is in a forest’ and it would seem the best place to plant lobbyist’s ‘questions’ is in a questionnaire format. A survey, for some reason, seems innocent enough, or is assumed to be controlled by scientific objectivity, a mere mathematical process: you are asked a series of questions and your answers are generalised to form a percentage of what section of the population share an attitude about some product or topic.  You may even believe that the companies who do this type of work are overseen by some sort of effective regulation. But what if the questions in surveys targeted at MPs have been purchased by private business, and structured (by the company) to yield specific outcomes: to gather market sensitive information and to gain access and influence for their clients.  And what of the opportunities afforded by reverse surveys, whereby the specifics of who the MP is, and what attitudes and opinions they hold can be quickly identified by a paying client — something more akin to the tricks of intelligence gathering. And what if MPs were being regularly paid by the ‘survey’ companies to take part in face-to-face interviews and that these survey companies are run by lobbyists: would this be against the rules of the game: are there rules in existence?

Vague, contradictory ideas about protecting the anonymity of their clients have extended into calls for secrecy when the polling companies conduct their surveys and no regulation seems to hold sway over the polling ‘industry’ to challenge it from the outside, it has been left (by politicians) to its own devices.  What is set out below is that MSPs, because of their role as decision-makers are routinely approached by polling companies who say they are conducting a survey, but an integral component of this takes the form of a business-directed lobbying process. This is openly described as having the purpose of influencing the decision-makers opinion, and it also circulates its findings back through the media MSPs read and are influenced by.  It has also been developed as a highly targeted form of privileged access to a range of specific decision-makers on issues crucial to the clients of the pollsters.  The questions asked are, as we shall see, indeed purchased by big business and shaped by the company towards specific ends: this is what the Pollsters say to advertise their service. Effectively these companies are gaining access to MPs, paying them for their time, with the funds passed on to either the political parties or nominated charities with the vague status of being from the pollster, on behalf of their clients or from the MSP: charities and political parties are being given money they do not really know the source of.  In some cases with particular MSPs the pollsters repeatedly come back for more information, but we do not really know what is being said here because the rules on disclosure of ‘member’s interest’ have not anticipated this development, which, I will contend later, was designed to get round any scrutiny that has arisen as features of lobbyist’s practices became public.

The public do not have access like this — when would an ordinary member of the electorate get that sort of access and information? Some of these surveys take two hours or more and are private and secretive. And is this what you now have to do to reach a MSP: give them £50 or £100 for their time?  These are weird precedents to set amidst all the fuss about expenses and the situation is redolent of the worse clichés and euphemisms of political graft: ‘a couple of tickets to the Policeman’s Ball’, ‘cab fare’, ‘give that to your favourite charity’ or ‘there’s plenty more where that came from.’

On many occasions, and here we test the bounds of credulity, the MPs claim to not even know who the ‘survey’ is being done for and why, but the language used here is evasive, unconvincing, confusing and inconsistent.  The companies that run the surveys are engaged in the political process on several levels and are run by, as we shall see, highly politicised directors.  MPs themselves also play this game and small access-peddling companies they have set up, such as George Foulkes’ GovNet, interpenetrate with, and make up a component of, this small rarely explored area of the political system.  These exploit and maintain a very privatised, but open to paying customers, system. We find too that the polling companies pay MPs to give talks to clients, or for writing in specialised magazines.  They work specifically for sections of the media and indeed boast of their influence on political and decision-making. If we complain that this subverts the democratic elements of the system we will also find that, this is not just some sort of poorly supervised back door, but that the very people running these polling companies also set up and run the organisations which are supposed to supervise surveying, leaving it in effect largely unperturbed by outside regulation from apathetic MPs.

Below we will examine whether these things are a reality by asking some simple questions ourselves, and trying to present the evidence fairly.  We have seen a succession of revelations concerning cash-for-questions, MPs expenses, ‘Lobbygate’ and many more and nothing much has changed in the way parliaments are run.  What has changed have been the economic conditions for the majority of people who live in the UK, they have become worse, with the gap between the rich and poor widening.  This gap is not a vacuum that exists like some chasm: it is a feature of a social structure maintained by the legion of Satan’s little helpers, it keeps political representatives at a permanent remove.

NEXT SECTION


[1] Andrew Porter, 2010, ‘David Cameron warns lobbying is next political scandal,’ The Telegraph, February 8.

[2] The various terms here represent the deliberate confusion of the methodology, limits and purposes of these types of activity and their Russian doll-like concealment in the larger ‘Public Relations’ companies.  Fake grass roots organisations, pseudo science, fake news organisations and pretend charities are all part of the weaponry of the PR world.  Christopher Simpson’s (1994) Science of Coercion Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960, gives an illuminating history: see http://www.globalresearch.ca/articles/SIM311A.html , while James Harding (2008) Alpha Dogs: How political spin became a global busines’, London: Atlantic Books, is a recent addition to the literature here.

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