‘Satan’s Little Helpers’ (2) Direct Payment: Direct Knowledge

Before examining these polling organisations in some detail we will examine one specific case of how a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) records their dealings with the pollsters and what connection the two might have.  Jackie Baillie’s page on the Scottish Parliament’s site[1] was the first places that I noticed the presence of the pollsters and the peculiar explanation for what they were doing, and the financial transactions.  Here some context is needed concerning her role in the Labour party’s response to the SNP’s proposals referred to in the quotations below.

Politicians cannot continue to ignore the evidence and stand by while the damage caused by cheap alcohol affects our children, our relationships, our jobs and our communities.

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians of London

Scottish Labour considered the SNP’s proposals for minimum unit pricing very carefully, but it has become clear that they are untried, untested and possibly incompetent.

Jackie Baillie[2]

Baillie’s predicament was outlined as a ‘test of principle on [the] issue of minimum alcohol pricing,’ by the mainstream press.[3] This noted that Baillie’s constituency includes the Chivas whisky plant which employs 600 people, and that as regards the alcohol lobby she had ‘doubtless been in receipt of their powerful opposition.’  Baillie was concerned that the parliament had not properly ‘estimated the cost of minimum pricing of alcohol to the Scotch Whisky industry.’  It is unlikely that having such apparent sway over her, the alcohol industry could not predict her behaviour to a certitude; but one area left untouched by the examination of the pressures she has to bear was the influence of the supermarkets, namely ASDA, who were also affected by the moves towards minimum pricing. The two sectors (the alcohol industry and supermarkets) are becoming increasingly linked. Simon Litherland, Diageo’s managing director for Great Britain, has argued that the majority of growth in the market is to be found in retail. As a result, the company was putting greater effort into developing pre-mix cans to be drunk at home. The drinks companies and supermarkets are advised by the polling companies in their guise as PR companies.[4]

So it would be of concern were the supermarkets to be found communicating with Baillie in some roundabout way, and also of concern if they were to be found paying her in any way.

Baillie’s August 2009[5] questions in parliament relating to alcohol are a key date here and were asked after a survey consultation ended in June 2009.  Her registry of interest page mentions several surveys she’s been part of.  On 4 August 2008, one such survey was conducted by Populus Limited[6] described as ‘a market research company’ who:

…undertook this survey on behalf of a UK supermarket although I was not aware of the client until the end of the interview.

The entry states that she received ‘no direct payment or expenses,’ but money changed hands.  Populus are said to have donated £50 to the Enable charity, which Baillie operates, on 31 October 2008.  It is not stated whether this was on behalf of the client or Populus acting alone.  However Enable is also a charity ASDA has donated to according to Baillie’s site. This states that on the 8 January 2008 ASDA made a donation of £1,000; on 15 December 2008 ASDA provided a donation of £500.

There is a shift of emphasis as details move into the gifts section: on Christmas 2003, ASDA provided sponsorship of £618.51; on Christmas 2004, ASDA provided sponsorship of £600 (approximately) and also in Christmas 2005; on December 2007 ASDA made a donation of £1,000.  Baillie’s site also notes some confusion as to what status this money has:

Following receipt of a further donation from Asda Dumbarton this interest is now ceased as it has been registered as sponsorship. [Registered 3 February 2008, Amended interest 17 December 2008, Ceased interest 17 December 2008].

That is approximately £4, 300, not counting the donation that became sponsorship.  So it is fairly reasonable to surmise that Populus’ survey might have contained questions or have been undertaken on behalf of ASDA, it is certainly a ‘UK supermarket,’ but this is unclear from Baillie’s statements: despite the web page being a place where these incentives and their purposes and who was behind them should be made clear.  But the details obfuscate, and a contributory factor to the confusion is the money exchange procedure.  From this uncertainty questions rise: what is the nature of these surveys, how can we tell if they are as innocent as one might think, are they a commonplace within the Scottish Parliament, are they a replacement for more discredited forms of lobbying?  But first we must pay attention to the rest of the evidence from Baillie’s site.

It is undated, but shortly after this Populus survey, Baillie took part in an interview carried out by Ipsos MORI Scotland, where again it is stated she ‘received no direct payment or expenses.’[7] But again money changed hands.  Baillie adds that this time: ‘the clients were identified’ to her during the course of the interview (but again it is not revealed to us who they were).  Baillie’s register also states that a range of MSPs had also been ‘interviewed.’  Here the common interview elements of a survey offer the opportunity of close personal contact with an MSP on behalf of a business client, with poor recording of the activity.  Ipsos Mori also donated £100 to Enable. Baillie notes that the cheque was ‘received in my office on 23 October 2008 and then forwarded to the Enable Alexandria branch.’  But the point can be made that some sort of reluctance towards, or ambiguity about this money seems to be emerging and the process seems to extend beyond just Baillie.

Arguably it is not just the clients that MSPs should be aware of, it is the nature of the survey company in terms of who they are and what else they do.  It could be pointed out that Ipsos MORI carried out the Central Office of Information and Home Office report ‘Selling Alcohol Responsibly,’ eventually published on 24 September 2009, one illustration of how embedded in the decision-making process the pollsters are.[8]

Then, in May 2009, she ‘took part in an interview’ carried out by a third pollster, ComRes.[9] This time she ‘was not directly aware of the clients,’ which could mean she was indirectly aware and is not unequivocal enough to mean she was not aware. Here again she states she ‘received no direct payment or expenses.’ The money is provided indirectly with ComRes then donating £50 to the Enable, with a cheque being received on 12 May 2009.  Who is paying, what they are paying for, who they are paying, why they are paying are all somewhat up in the air here.  But note the successive repetition of the methodology and Baillie’s concomitant repetition of ‘unawareness:’ this seems purblind.

We must also ask why Baillie had no curiosity about who she is dealing with although they are dolling out money on a regular basis.  That is surprising. Unlike most people in the UK, MSPs would seem to have the luxury of others making their donations to charity for them, but clearly some negotiation about the recipient of the funds is entered into.  We see this because in June 2009 she took part in another interview carried out by ComRes, and states she ‘received no direct payment or expenses’ and ‘was not directly aware of the clients,’ even although the previous ‘survey’ was only a few days before.  ComRes then “agreed to donate £50 to the Dumbarton & District Pipe Band”, (emphasis added) so presumably this agreement was the result of some negotiation about the recipient yet the source of the money remained unknown and unexplored.[10]

Then on 3 July 2009 Baillie took part in a telephone interview carried out by Populus and again, received no direct payment or expenses but has come to understand that Populus undertook this survey ‘on behalf of a number of companies,’ but she ‘was not directly aware of the clients until the end of the interview.’ Populus then made a donation to ‘CHAS at Robin House directly.’

Before proceeding we should note that the wording of the Scottish Parliament’s rules on the ‘Prohibition of paid advocacy’[11] uses the phrase “any means, in consideration of any payment or benefit in kind.”  Neither should MSPs “advocate or initiate any cause or matter on behalf of any person” or “urge any other member to advocate or initiate any cause or matter on behalf of any person.” The phrase “any means” is to be construed as “the doing of anything by a member in the capacity of a member, whether or not in any proceedings of the Parliament” and “any payment or benefit in kind” means any payment or benefit in kind.  It would seem that MSPs think that this does not relate to surveys techniques on behalf of mystery clients, and we will examine this in more detail, with a more widespread sample of MSPs, once we conclude on Baillie and examine who runs these polling companies.

The Public Relations Consultants Association, and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Government Affairs Group set out a minimal, code of conduct that they think should be followed by those who lobby government. Its four principles are:

(1) Transparency and Openness — essentially that lobbyists must state on whose interests they are acting, and must not use a false identity.

(2) Accuracy and Honesty — lobbyists are here urged to give accurate information and to not make misleading claims.

(3) Integrity — lobbyists should never bribe public officials, and should protect officials from any potential conflicts of interest.

(4) Propriety — lobbyists should abide by the rules set by official institutions, and should not encourage public officials to break those rules.[12]

All these rules could be said to have been broken with the survey lobbying, together with those of the Parliament.

So let us go over this again in summary form.  Three companies, Populus, Ipsos MORI and ComRes repeatedly gain direct access to Baillie (on some occasions coming back to her) concerning companies who wish to remain anonymous but who will indirectly provide payment for the service she rendered and information she provided.  Baillie is entirely uncurious, but is open enough to answer specific questions at length i.e. for an hour or more, the details of which we know next to nothing.  Quasi-anonymous companies involved in hiring these polling companies provided indirect payment and this may or may not be connected to her stance on issues related to alcohol pricing.  We are also left wondering why the companies who pay for the surveys pay for them.

But Jackie Baillie knows all about the ruses of lobbyists and indeed was involved in the Standards Committee 1st Report back in 1999, which was a sparked by an Observer investigation, where journalists more or less conducted a similar process.  Indeed after hearing the evidence, the Committee decided to call for various documents from Baillie and others and the inquiry also tried to clarify receipt of telephone calls.[13]

The Times (October 2009) stated that the SNP government’s plans to adopt a minimum price for alcohol appeared “doomed” even after Labour’s appointment of Baillie as a new shadow health secretary, who was known to be strongly against the SNPs proposals on alcohol pricing because her “constituency includes a big whisky firm”.[14] This added that Labour had been in private discussions for some weeks with Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP Health Secretary, in an attempt to find common ground on the legislation when Labour’s side of these talks had involved Cathy Jamieson.

In 2008, the Sunday Times, said of Baillie:

There’s no standard like a double standard. Jackie Baillie, Labour’s chief of staff at Holyrood and slavish lieutenant to Wendy Alexander, is using freedom of information to ask for details of every e-mail sent and every phone number dialled by the first minister’s team of special advisers over several months last year. She has also been trying to shame the press into making fewer freedom of information requests about her boss by asking questions about the cost to the parliament.[15]

So we can legitimately ask Baillie to put such requests into practice in a less hypocritical way here, in relation to the confusion of the matters raised above: with little expense other than to that which obscures the truth she could once more become a model of probity.

It seems the lobbyists have learned from the imposture of the journalists.  They are having their little go at disguise.  But the rules are the rules: any means any.  Some MSPs may divert the cash to their local party, but that is still a donation and localised to benefit the local MSP.  Any means any.

The confluence of activity between public affairs companies, the pollsters, PR companies and their media outlets are not areas MSPs are unaware of.  It is the public who do not have a firm grasp of the behind the scenes manoeuvring and exchange of money because they are not being told about it.  This confusion is convenient to the point of being designed. We should note too that the pollsters also try to be the voice of the public with their constant reports on what they imagine the public to be thinking on various political issues or voting intentions.

NEXT SECTION


[1] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msp/memberspages/jackie_baillie/roi.htm

[2] Judith Duffy, 2009, ‘Boozing Scots put ‘heavy toll’ on NHS’, Express, December 3.

[3] Magnus Linklater, 2009, ‘Jackie Baillie faces test of principle on issue of minimum alcohol pricing. the Times, October 29, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article6894753.ece

[4] Alex Brownsell, 2010, ‘The off-trade switch’ Marketing, March 3.  This quotes ComRes’ Andrew Hawkins, who it states was working on the Fuller’s account advising drinks companies.

[5] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/pqa/wa-09/wa0803.htm

[6] Of Northburgh House, 10 Northburgh Street, London, EC1V 0AT.

[7] Of 4 Wemyss Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6DH.

[8] http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/alcohol-code-of-practice/ipsos-mori-alcohol-report2835.pdf?view=Binary

[9] Formerly CommunicateResearch, of 152 Morrison Street, The Exchange, Edinburgh, EH3 8EB.

[10] John McFall, Baillie’s associate in Scotland, was also interviewed by ComRes, (from their London base).  A ‘fee of £50’ was donated to charity and registered 11 November 2009, together with a fee of £75, also donated to charity, and registered on 11 November 2009.

McFall was also interviewed by Jonathan Shingleton’s Business Planning & Research Ltd (BPRI) founded in 1986 and sold to the WPP Group in 2003.  A fee of £75 donated to charity and registered on 11 November 2009 and a fee of £75 donated to charity and registered 16 November 2009.  McFall was also interviewed by Ipsos MORI and his fee of £150 donated to charity (this was also registered 11 November 2009).  The fees purposes are stated as ‘Completion of Parliamentary Telephone Survey.’  Several of McFall’s ‘speeches’ such as that (undated) to Bell Pottinger Public Affairs Limited, also come with fees of £400 donated to charity.  Some of these speeches are said to be arranged by PR firms, such as the speech to European Banking Regulation Roundtable arranged by City & Financial, or that delivered to the ‘Understanding Modern Government Conference’, arranged by GovNet Communications; at times the record reports a simple ‘Survey for Prudential’, with again a fee of £60 was donated to an unspecified charity.  I offer some details on GovNet later.

[11] Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006 http://www.opsi.gov.uk/legislation/scotland/acts2006/asp_20060012_en_1#pb2-l1g14

[12] See: Conor McGrath (2009) ‘Transparency, Access and Influence: Regulating Lobbying in the UK’, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1450819

[13] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/committees/historic/standards/reports-99/str01ap3.htm The report of the committee found that: “it seems that Jackie conducted herself in a manner in which we would all hope to conduct ourselves when accepting or declining invitations.”  Indeed everyone was found to have acted like everyone else in the Parliament. The Observer’s allegations were that a lobbying company was offering privileged access to ministers. See: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/committees/historic/standards/or-99/st0802.htm

[14] Angus Macleod, 2009, ‘SNP left high and dry as Labour rejects minimum alcohol pricing’, October 29, The Times.

[15] The Sunday Times, 2008, ‘Wendy’s henchwoman puts press to shame with questions,’ April 20.

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