Will Lessons be Learned on Either Side of the Pond?

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The British parliamentary inquiry into the phone hacking scandal by News of the World, the now shuttered tabloid published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., resulted in the parliamentary committee declaring Murdoch, “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.”

The report will no doubt have serious implications for the media mogul’s empire. But viewing the scandal from this side of the Atlantic, it seems it could, and should, impact lobbying regulations in the U.K. as well.

During the inquiry, more than 160 emails between News Corp.’s lobbyist, Frederic Michel, and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt came to light. Hunt was the official responsible for deciding whether News Corp. would be allowed to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting. Other media outlets vehemently opposed the takeover bid, which died when the phone hacking scandal broke. Were it not for the scandal, however, News Corp.’s undisclosed lobbying efforts might have secured approval of the buyout, with neither the public nor other interested parties aware of the close ties between Michel and Hunt.

Lobbying is a self-regulated industry in Britain with virtually no disclosure. Reform efforts have been underway for some time, but prior scandals in Britain have not been enough to push the effort across the finish line. Perhaps the Hunt/Michel email exchange will be enough to convince British lawmakers to pass a comprehensive disclosure law, like the one recommended by the House of Commons in 2009. Among other things, the report recommends that disclosure include, “information about contacts between lobbyists and decision makers—essentially, diary records and minutes of meetings.” The report goes on to elaborate that, “the aim would be to cover all meetings and conversations between decision makers and outside interests.”

While the U.S. has stronger lobbying disclosure than the U.K., our laws also fail to require disclosure of substantive interactions between decision-makers and paid lobbyists, and Sunlight has long supported legislative efforts to amend the Lobbying Disclosure Act to include such contact reporting. Had contact disclosure been in place in the U.K. before the News Corp. scandal, the public would have known of the intense pressure being put on Hunt to approve the bid, competitors might have lobbied harder to ensure they made their case, and Hunt might have sought out other opinions, if for no other reason than to ensure he appeared to have a balanced perspective before making any recommendation.

Sunlight just wrapped up a very successful Transparency Camp, which included dozens of transparency advocates from overseas. One lesson we took away was that we can learn from each other as we work to improve government transparency globally. The News Corp. email lobbying scandal is a teachable moment for those of us on both sides of the pond.

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