Influential PR firm Charlotte Street Partners is lobbying on behalf of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper titles in Scotland, The Ferret has learned.
The revelation has sparked concerns about the extent of Murdoch’s influence at Holyrood and calls for greater openness and transparency around lobbying in Scotland.
Charlotte Street Partners does not publish lists of clients. But since February the Edinburgh-registered outfit has been representing News Scotland, publishers of The Scottish Sun, The Times and Sunday Times in Scotland.
The relationship between Charlotte Street Partners and Rupert Murdoch’s Scottish titles was criticised by campaigners and politicians.
“The Murdoch press has long played politics with Scotland. This latest discovery by the Ferret raises serious concerns about opaque lobbying firms and their entrenched links to unaccountable power,” said Justin Schlosberg, chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
This latest discovery by the Ferret raises serious concerns about opaque lobbying firms and their entrenched links to unaccountable power Justin Schlosberg, Media Reform Coalition
Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “Charlotte Street Partners epitomise the emerging ‘New Establishment’ in Scotland, with its cosy links and associations between lobbyists, their – often secretive and unknown- clients and Government.”
Charlotte Street Partners, which has offices in Edinburgh and London, boasts unparalleled connections across the Scottish political spectrum.
The “strategic communications company” was founded in 2013 by former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson and Malcolm Robertson, son of ex-Labour Nato secretary general Lord Robertson. The consultancy is chaired by banking scion Sir Angus Grossart and among the directors is Roland Rudd, founder and chairman of Finsbury communications and brother of Conservative home secretary, Amber Rudd.
Past Charlotte Street Partners clients include Cluff Natural Resources, a company accused of ‘guilt-tripping’ Scottish ministers in an effort to push through undersea coal gasification in the Firth of Forth, Irn-Bru maker AG Barr and mobile-phone mast firm, Wireless Infrastructure Group.
However, Charlotte Street Partners is not a member of the Association of Professional Political Consultants or the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, both of which operate voluntary client registers.
Wilson, a former communications chief at RBS, is currently heading Nicola Sturgeon’s Growth Commission, set up as part of the SNP’s listening exercise on independence.
Kevin Pringle, formerly SNP press chief, joined Charlotte Street Partners in 2015. He also writes a weekly political column for the Sunday Times.
I have substantial concerns about lobbying and PR firms like Charlotte Street Partners who do not publicly name their clients Andy Wightman, Scottish Greens MSP
Scottish Greens MSP Andy Wightman expressed concern about Charlotte Street Partners’ link-up with News Scotland.
“I have substantial concerns about lobbying and PR firms like Charlotte Street Partners who do not publicly name their clients, especially when some of those partners are newspaper columnists and now appear to be taking on the newspapers they write for as a client,” said Wightman, who lists all his lobbying interactions on his online transparency register.
Under the Scottish Parliament’s code of conduct journalists are barred from acting as lobbyists.
Ex-BBC Scotland head of news John Boothman worked briefly for Charlotte Street Partners as head of media training but left last summer after taking a position as political correspondent at the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times.
The Scottish Parliament does not hold data on who daily media passes are allocated to, but did confirm that no Charlotte Street Partners executives hold permanent media passes.
In 2016, Holyrood passed a lobbying act that aimed to increase the level of transparency in the Scottish Parliament. A register of lobbyists is due to be introduced by spring of next year, and will include details of paid lobbying consultants as well as a code of conduct for lobbyists.
The Scottish Government’s new lobbying register has “fundamental flaws with its design that means it falls short of best practice for ensuring transparency in politics,” said Rachel Davies Teka, head of advocacy at Transparency International UK.
“There are lots of ways in which you will be able continue lobbying without having to register. If you are determined to hide your client you can,” said Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal and a former lobbyist for the education sector.
McAlpine would like to see more transparency campaigners on the new Scottish Parliament working group on lobbying that is currently being assembled. At present, the 12-person team will comprise three representatives from public affairs and consultancy bodies, three from businesses, one person with a focus on transparency, one journalist and one legal expert.
McAlpine also called on Charlotte Street Partners to publish a full list of the consultancy’s clients.
“They are the dark place that people go when they don’t want people to know what they are doing. They have set out their stall as the people you go to if you want to do things in secret. That should scare the bejesus out of Nicola Sturgeon,” he said.
Rupert Murdoch is currently in the process seeking to take control of BSkyB. Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond had extensive contacts with the newspaper magnate when Murdoch was previously attempting a takeover of the broadcaster. The move fell through in 2011 amid angry reaction to revelations of phone hacking by News International journalists.
Neil Findlay MSP – who lodged the initial proposal for a Members’ bill on lobbying in 2012 – said that News Scotland’s hiring of Charlotte Street Partners as consultants showed that the links between Rupert Murdoch and the Scottish Government “could well be growing stronger by the day”.
“Knowing News International, no less, are being represented by, and employing Charlotte Street Partners, shows clearly how powerful networks operate in systems that are insufficiently open and transparent,” Findlay added.
This is about promoting the quality journalism of The Times Scotland and Sunday Times Scotland more widely across the media, and assisting News Scotland build relationships within the business community Malcolm Robertson, director Charlotte Street Partners
Murdoch’s lobbying of Westminster intensified ahead of the recent government consultation on the Leveson Inquiry and the announcement by Murdoch’s renewed bid to take over Sky.
Between April 2015 and September 2016, senior News Corp executives met with government ministers or their special advisers on 22 separate occasions. Eighteen involved meetings or gatherings with either the Prime Minister, Chancellor or Culture Secretary, and, out of those, Rupert Murdoch was himself present on at least eight occasions.
“For far too long the Murdochs have been granted unparalleled access to the most senior UK government ministers, in spite of having presided over what we now know was widespread criminality in their newsrooms going back decades. The culture of ‘doing business’ with the Murdochs at the highest levels of both the Scottish and UK governments must now change, once and for all,’ Justin Schlosberg, chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
Earlier this year, the Scottish Government announced that it had no plans to introduce reform of press regulation, which is devolved to Holyrood.
Charlotte Street Partners director Malcolm Robertson said:
“Charlotte Street Partners has been working transparently on behalf of News Scotland since February – for example, publicising the strong growth of the titles in recent National Readership Survey and ABC circulation reports.
“This is about promoting the quality journalism of The Times Scotland and Sunday Times Scotland more widely across the media, and assisting News Scotland build relationships within the business community. It does not involve government relations or public affairs work.”