Just How “Free” Is Free Speech When It’s Bought & Paid-For?

Michael St George ponders a secondary issue raised by the Gagging Bill

Back in the early part of 2010, barely a year after the full extent of the MPs’ expenses scandal had been exposed to a rightly furious public, David Cameron made a pledge. Lobbying, he declared, speaking, as he then was, as Leader of the Opposition, was the next political scandal waiting to happen. There was, he (correctly) insisted, “a far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”: and, once in Government, he was jolly well going to clean it up.

That pledge came out of what then seemed a encouraging condemnation of what he correctly termed “crony capitalism” – that perversion of true enterprise capitalism which inevitably becomes more likely under overly statist, interventionist, government: where discreet lobbying of politicians, whether for public subsidy, advantageous tax treatment, immunity from competition, or business-friendly regulation, yields more profitability than the onerous task of acccurately predicting and satisfying customer demand in a free market.

Fast forward to January 2014, and the passage though Parliament of the legislation designed to achieve it – the inelegantly-named Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. That it’s become known as the Gagging Bill, that it’s been  cautiously welcomed by the lobbying industry, but that it’s been greeted with dismay by political-campaigning “charities”, ought to raise some uncomfortable questions about the continued erosion of truly free speech.

Take the “charities” issue first. Among the many undesirable measures enacted by Gordon Brown but shamefully unrepealed by the Cameroon Coalition was the removal of previous restrictions on charities’ political campaigning if they wished to benefit from the favourable tax treatment that goes with charitable status.

The huge parallel state of Left-sympathetic quangos, fake charities & semi-autonomous state agencies which we now have, persistently seeking to elevate into the public consciousness problems for which higher taxes, more regulation and increased state control always seem to be the inevitable panacea, was the entirely predictable result. This has been well-documented and analysed, but Christopher Snowden’s paper for the IEA: “Sock Puppets – How The Government Lobbies Itself And Why” is arguably the best and most comprehensive exposé.

Yet the charidee-crats and quango-crats aren’t happy with the Bill. They say it will make it harder for them to campaign during election periods, because it seeks to slash their spending limits in individual constituencies and reduce their ability to conduct campaigns on policy issues they care about.

But this is where the problems start. Because the legislation doesn’t appear to make much distinction between what we could perhaps call genuine charitable campaigning – politically-neutral raising awareness nationally of breast cancer, say, or a local campaign to save a church or swimming pool – and the professional, intensely-political charidee-quango organisations using the “charity” label for naked politicking.

At the other end of the scale, the more professional lobbying industry – arguably more pernicious and insidious – treating the minister to lunch or a corporate box at Wimbledon, say, and using the opportunity to “get our point of view into the highest echelons of government” – seems to have got off relatively lightly.

The plans appear to require a statutory register only for “lobbying consultants” –  individuals and companies who specialise in lobbying on behalf of their clients. The inference is that in-house lobbyists would be entirely exempt: so that a lobbyist representing, say, a group of small businesses, would have to register, while a large multinational corporate directly employing a lobbyist on the payroll wouldn’t.

Moreover, any organisation providing lobbying services, such as a think-tank, law firm or accountancy firm, would not have to register either. Apparently, anyone determined to escape scrutiny would simply have to hire someone other than a lobbying consultancy to do so. This will surely make it harder for ethical lobbying firms who sign up to a code of conduct and want to be transparent, and easier for any with fewer scruples.

There’s surely something in common, though, between the professional lobbyists reportedly grateful for very light-touch regulation, and the primarily-political charidee-quangos irritated at having their activities curbed. Which is that in neither case is the recipient of their communication receiving what could genuinely described as free speech.

Our right of free speech is under attack as never before in peacetime. Mainstream broadcasters self-censor mere cartoons because they might be found “offensive” by a tiny minority of religio-totalitarian fanatics. Attempts are being made to criminalise as “hate-speech” criticism whose objects merely find it uncongenial.

Professional lobbying and specious policy advocacy by faux-charities don’t come anywhere near this as attacks on free speech go, obviously. But it does prompt the question – just how “free” is free speech when it’s been bought and paid-for?


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