Opinion: Hot issue - Do campaign groups monopolise public debate?

In a speech on his recent visit to California, Prime Minister Tony Blair accused single-interest campaign groups of exercising a 'malign tyranny over public debate'. He stopped short of naming any specific pressure groups.

NO - SACHA DESHMUKH, managing director, AS Biss & Co public affairs consultancy

The Prime Minister's comments sound more like a weariness with healthy discussion rather than a real insight into where power lies in today's public debate.

Campaigners increasingly recognise the need to put forward strong, evidence-based arguments, and this has made it increasingly hard for the Government to dismiss the sector out of hand. In theory, the massive government communications budget should outgun campaigners every time. If nimble campaigners can sometimes outmanoeuvre departmental dinosaurs, it hardly amounts to monopolising debate.

Ultimately, it is ministers and Parliament that make decisions in our political system and who have to justify these positions to the public.

If the Prime Minister is saying that the public trusts campaign groups more than they trust him and his team, he should think harder about why that might be rather than complain.

Maybe some 'heal thyself' lessons are needed. Either way, in the complex lobbying environment in which we all work, to claim that anyone has a monopoly is just silly, and the Prime Minister has done himself no favours by doing so.

NO - LOUISE RICHARDS, chief executive, War on Want

It's laughable that Tony Blair should accuse NGOs of tyranny when it comes to public debate. This is the man who has driven through his personal agenda on the Middle East with total disregard for the opposition of fellow MPs, his own party and the majority of the British people.

Two million marched through London to protest the invasion of Iraq, yet Blair took us to war regardless. Thousands more have called for an immediate ceasefire to defend the lives of civilians in the Middle East, yet Blair has given a green light to continuing violence.

More radical NGOs such as War on Want have a responsibility to challenge the Government over issues of human rights, poverty and global justice.

Yet our success depends on the support of our campaigners and the general public alike. If we lose touch with public opinion, we forfeit our capacity to campaign, our funding and our ability to make any difference in what we do.

Blair's dictatorial leadership style has succeeded in alienating the British people and his own party. He should take a long, hard look in the mirror before criticising NGOs.

YES - IAN BEAUMONT, director of press, PR and public affairs, Bowel Cancer UK

Campaigning in the US has, it seems, gone the way of litigation and investigative reporting there - it has become more extreme, blame-centred and commercial, and has monopolised public debate. This is sad, when you think of America's history of tackling important issues such as slavery, racial and sexual discrimination, cancer and HIV/Aids, and when you consider the issues that it still has to face and the continuing impact of its behaviour on other countries, including our own.

Campaigning has to have a purpose and a potential resolution to be effective.

It is about communicating with those who can help you to bring about change or maintain the status quo, and about seeking to achieve your objectives without alienating others, including those you are supposed to be representing.

I hope our sense of fair play will see us through, but it would be sad if the UK succumbed to the US model, which can force people to take sides, even though there might be arguments for and against; and where, in many cases, campaign groups consist of people with fixed views confronting others with fixed opposing views, with no room for debate or change.

NO - ADE THOMAS, managing director, Green.tv

Single-issue campaign groups do exercise a strong pull over the terrain of social, cultural and environmental issues - that is their reason for being. The pressure they are able to exert, though, must be weighed up against the enormous financial pressure of the large corporations.

Single-issue campaign groups simply do not have the resources to compete fully when it comes to the battles of ideas. In fact, the large corporations can define the very terms of the debate, often to the point where the unacceptable is seen as acceptable.

In my area of interest, environmental issues, this is certainly the case.

The large corporations have defined the very terms upon which we live our lives: we travel far too much by car, take way too many trips by plane, consume the products of intensive agriculture and so on. To me, the commonplace is the ridiculous.

I hope that what we are seeing now is a new consensus of ideas in which the large corporations are convinced by the ideas of single-issue pressure groups and the pressure groups don't need to fight, but can work with the corporations.

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