Sleaze, Lies and Lobbygate

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Review of 'The Best Democracy Money Can Buy', Greg Palast, Pluto £18.99

This is a fascinating collection of essays from the 'Observer' and 'Newsnight' journalist who in recent years has done an impressive job of exposing the lies and hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. It is a tragedy therefore that Palast has attacked those who have criticised the war in Afghanistan.

The first and best part of this book, 'Jim Crow in Cyberspace', tells the story of how the Republicans fixed the last US presidential election. Palast shows that around 50,000 black and hispanic voters were purged from the voting roll, but also reveals the spineless behaviour of the US press that effectively refused to investigate this fraud until Bush had been declared the winner.

Palast's targets range from the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund to oil and drug multinationals and the media companies, with New Labour getting its fair share of attention. More important perhaps was Palast's early exposure of 'Lobbygate'. It is good to remember the New Labour lobbyists who, immediately after the 1997 election, were brazenly offering access to ministers in return for hard cash. But as Palast writes, 'The real story was about Tony Blair and his inner circle,' and 'New Labour's obsessional pursuit of the affection of the captains of industry and the media.'

Among the stories the lobbyists revealed to Palast were: a government offer to Rupert Murdoch's News International to amend competition and union rights legislation--the quid pro quo was pro-Blair coverage; Tesco holding secret meetings with John Prescott, following an £11 million donation to the Dome; the supermarkets' exemption from a proposed car parking tax (value to Tesco £20million); and Enron using confidential government information and access to Downing Street to reverse a government plan to block its building of new gas-fired power stations. 'We had not stumbled on a tawdry little fix or two. It was systemic,' Palast notes.

This was, and continues to be, the real story but it is salutary for campaigning journalists to be reminded that the 1998 Lobbygate scandal claimed the professional lives of a few over-enthusiastic youthful Blairites, while the Blair programme pressed on regardless.

This is important. Independent investigative journalism that tries to expose the crimes of the powerful is essential, but on its own it has limits. One of Palast's constant refrains in the book is that the dirt he uncovers is only published when it can no longer have an immediate impact on events.

That doesn't devalue his investigations, rather it shows the need for more than journalism. Good journalism is about manufacturing bullets but it needs to be complemented by mass movements prepared to fire them.