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A week of distortion and no-one to defend us

Distortions, lies, manipulations – another week in corporate PR, another week with no-one ready to fight back on behalf of the wider population.

Everyone agrees that ‘lobbying’ is an essential part of a healthy democracy. The problem is that a lot of ‘everyone’ doesn’t know what lobbying actually is. The idea is that lobbying provides a basis on which key parts of society can inject ideas, views and analyses into politics which help politicians to make a better decision. The problem is that this is true in the same way it is true that ‘banks are great institutions set up to look after your money’. Which is to say its not.

This week has been bugging me more than most, with a string of commercial lobbying-and-PR campaigns that have been particularly mendacious. It kicked off on Monday morning with yet one more punt by the bus companies on reductions in the subsidy they get for ‘allowing’ pensioners to take up otherwise empty seats on half-full busses for which the company has already been given a generous subsidy (and the ticket sales from a generally captive market, often with no competitor). The bus companies want to convert this from being ‘poor rich bus companies allowed to leach slightly less out of the public’s pocket’ into ‘evil politicians want to stop pensioners from getting the bus’. And people believe it – I had an exchange with a local activist over a complaint I made about our local bus service and she thought the buses were struggling for cash.

You’d get that impression if you read the Scottish press. If you read the specialist press, it looks quite different. If you read the business pages (few people do) you’d know that, for example, Stagecoach’s profits increased from £120m to £190m last year. In the middle of a global recession affecting all its markets. Some of this profit comes from US interests but Stagecoach’s primary business, its founding purpose, is transferring public subsidy into private profit. If you read the Herald, the story is ‘poor pensioners’. But if you read the Financial Times the story is ‘profit warnings as lucrative Stagecoach public subsidies may be cut’ (these stories appeared within days of each other). It is a parallel universe – you plebs are to know that the Scottish Government hates pensioners, but the financial elite are to know that Stagecoach is fighting to make sure it keeps enormous profits made from the taxpayer.

Tuesday gets a bit crazier again – this time it’s the car lobby. In perhaps the most amazing contortion of reality for, oh, a week or two, the car lobby claims that a Scottish Government move to create a penalty charge for people convicted of breaking the law to be used to aid victims of crime is ‘a tax on car drivers’ who are an ‘easy target’. This argument (‘quickly – look over there because if you think this through you’ll laugh in our faces‘) is based on the idea that criminal motorists tend to have higher incomes than other criminals so will always end up paying the penalties where a delinquent kid might get away with it because he or she is skint. They dropped the qualifying adjective ‘criminal’ of course. In there world, drivers who break the law and are fined represent, on aggregate, a tax on all motorists. Not just a tax on motorists who choose to break the law but all motorists.

If only some teenage tearaways had thought up this campaign (and had the budget). Suddenly arresting someone for vandalism would be to ‘tax our children’. It’s a widely applicable principle. Prosecuting a restaurant for poising customers would become a ‘tax on food’. In fact, the entire criminal justice system would be nothing more than one giant conspiracy to rob the citizens of the nation.

This would be laughable. If someone locally hadn’t recited this line back to me verbatim like it made sense.

But when there is corporate distortion, banks are never far away. I think I’ll just quote this one directly from today’s Herald:

Giving evidence to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, Mr [HSBC Chair Douglas] Flint defended banks’ practices of paying top employees a bonus that can be many multiples of their basic salary. He said: “I think used properly it is very powerful for the good.” Since the financial crisis, the banking industry has faced accusations that the lure of high bonuses encourages staff to take large risks. However, Mr Flint said that paying a bonus meant the bank could demand its staff act in accordance with certain values, as well as meet performance standards, before qualifying for the bulk of their expected pay.

Eh? Seriously? Your employees are so feral that the only way you can get them to ‘act in accordance with certain values’ is to pay them obscene amounts on top of their salary so you can threaten not to give them it (but never actually do it)? Is this because you have appointed psychopaths to senior positions in your organisations? Is it because you are so grossly incompetent as managers and leaders that you can’t get your staff to not break the law any other way? Is this just one more mendacious attempt to insult our intelligence? Or is it all three?

At least in the case of the banks no-one believes them any more. Frankly, I have little to add to Iain McWhirter’s excellent, furious column in today’s Herald – other than that I wish he’d named a few more names. But in many other cases people just don’t understand what’s going on. The week would have been made complete if the pharmaceuticals industry had wheeled out one more dying child prompted to say ‘please give me this expensive medicine’ – did none of you wonder how all these dying children have such impressively professional PR? Or did you wonder why ugly, middle-aged men seldom ask for expensive medicine to save their lives? Perhaps you think this stuff ‘just happens’?

The purpose of corporate lobbying, in many more cases than not, is to distort and lie, to cover up and manipulate. As we have seen above, what they tell their shareholders and what they tell the taxpayer is often so diametrically opposed you’d think it would be obvious. But – the rub – that’s why they pay a fortune for the PR services.

If this was a functioning democracy, someone would be able to refute these stories as part of the story. You know, at the ver least paragraph three would say ‘but the Reregulate the Busses pressure group accused the bus operators of distorting the true picture and hiding their own profits’ or ‘however the Speeding Isn’t Funny campaign accused the car lobby of campaigning to protect criminals from justice’. Yes, groups like these exist, but without PR budgets the chances are extremely slim that they will (a) have the information to know the other side is mounting a campaign stunt on any given day information you need to be able to prepare a strategy (b) be able to respond quickly and effectively to re-spin the story or (c) have the long-term presence and ‘credibility’ that newspapers demand before they would print the comments anyway.

You know that line ‘the greatest trick the devil played was to make us believe he doesn’t exist’? Well, the greatest trick the PR industry has played is making us believe that we are all ‘media savvy’. They have made us all believe we are too clever to fall for their tricks. Irony on top of irony, they not only know this isn’t true, they spend billions every year to make absolutely sure it isn’t true. I deliver a media training course sometimes. Part of that involves sitting people down with a newspaper and asking them to identify the source of each story in it (is this corporate PR, is this investigative journalism, is this a leak and so on). I’ve hardly known anyone who can do this. Everyone seems to think the bulk of newspapers are put together on the basis of investigative journalism. They aren’t.

In the olden days the elite used to protect their power with swords. Now they use media releases. The outcome is much the same.

Robin McAlpine