Lobbying for Dictators: The Real Reason It's Scandalous

A high-powered U.K. lobbying firm was caught pitching its services to the government of Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

foust dec6 p.jpg
Uzbek soldiers in a corridor of high court building in Tashkent / Reuters

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has a blockbuster story about how U.K.-based lobbyists use their relationship with the British government to advance the interests of their clients. The horrors!

The basics of what they allege the firm Bell Pottinger did -- Search Engine Optimization, access to 10 Downing Street, targeted message placement -- is really just standard kit for a lobbying firm. These activities are not on their own necessarily nefarious, unless you think the very existence and practice of PR firms is nefarious (which, in fairness, some people do). But in this case, the outrage stems in part because of who this firm was going to employ its standard toolkit for:

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 case that sounds familiar, that is because it is precisely what Harper's journalist Ken Silverstein did with Turkmenistan and DC lobbyist firms four years ago.

Though Silverstein's 2007 investigative piece was very interesting for what it revealed about DC's rather disgusting underbelly, the piece could at times seem limited by a propensity for outrage over analysis.

The Bureau's investigation is similarly hobbled: it is very interesting for what it reveals of the sausage-making that is British politics, but ultimately limited by the outrage that, yes, PR and lobbying firms really do influence their respective governments for income.

It's true that lobbyists have a distorting effect on democratic governance. In the U.S., that is kind of by design, at least in theory: The Federalist #10 explicitly endorses the idea of private groups banding together to petition their government. In the original concept, so many citizens would be so busy petitioning their government that the total result overall would be equilibrium -- that is, the marketplace of lobbyists would lead to an optimal result.

That hasn't quite worked out in practice in the U.S., and despite the U.K.'s lack of foundational support for lobbying it hasn't worked out that way there, either. The distortion that lobbyists have on the government is certainly fair game for public scrutiny and even official investigation.

But it's easy to misdirect outrage. This lobbying firm appears to have been doing its job -- and lobbying firms work for a lot of sketchy groups, not just reporters posing as Uzbek government agents. The real scandal is that a lobbying firm can sell high-level government access to a well-monied client. That the client in this case happens to be an odious regime reviled for its human rights abuses is, in a sense, almost immaterial.

In the U.S., there are lobbyist, public relations, and even law firms for anyone: shady gangsters, evil corporations, corrupt tyrants, churches, NGOs, human rights activists and labor unions, farmers, and whatever else might come along. The effect of these high-powered firms is generally acknowledged but rarely discussed in explicit detail.

The Democracy ReportSo, yes, it is obnoxious of Bell Pottinger to gleefully sell access to an abusive government. But that is, at best, a symptom of a much bigger issue -- the very existence, position, power, and accepted presence of these sorts of firms on all manner of topics. Lobbying doesn't suddenly turn benign just because the client is good -- it is still distorting the ideal democratic society the anti-lobbyists seem to want.

If you really want to prevent lobbying on behalf of bad actors, you can't just expose the firms that do so -- the large amounts of money at stake mean the supply of lobbyists will never go low. You need to address the fundamental system of lobbying itself, which poses all sorts of uncomfortable questions about free speech, responsive government, and democracy. Outrage is easy. Actually addressing that outrage, and taking steps to reduce it, is far more difficult.