UK tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail, has decided to raise the issue of Google’s influence on the UK government, after uncovering the fact that Conservative Party ministers have held meetings with Google an average of once a month since the General Election two years ago. There have been 23 meetings between Tory ministers and Google since June 2010, with Prime Minister David Cameron meeting Google three times and George Osborne – who as Chancellor of the Exchequer is supposed to meet with business leaders – four times in two years.
The story needs to be a seen in a wider context. The Conservatives have recently come under fire for having too close a relationship to another powerful entity, News Corporation (as did the Labour party during its tenure). A huge inquiry into Press standards has in large part focused on the ties between Rupert Murdoch’s media giant and the Conservatives.
But what the report buries way down in the article, is the number of times the newspaper itself has met with the Government. A Google spokesperson told us: “It’s absolutely right that governments speak with companies about issues that affect their citizens. The British Government makes the list of those meetings publicly available – including the Daily Mail’s 34 meetings over the same period.” In other words, the Daily Mail has met with the Government almost one and a half times a month (on average) since they entered office – that’s quite a bit more than Google has. It’s likely those were high-level meetings, not editorial ones.
That said, the issue does raise the question of Google’s closeness to the UK government and its ability to grab the ear of the Government on a number of topics. It’s the kind of access a lot of companies would be envious of.
Culture minister Ed Vaizey has met the firm seven times. Culture Secretary boss Jeremy Hunt has held four meetings. In David Cameron’s first months as party leader in 2006 and 2007 (though not yet Prime Minister), he spoke to the annual Google Zeitgeist conference.
Three senior figures have moved between the Tories and Google in the last few years. Rachel Whetstone is Global head of communications and public policy at Google and is married to David Cameron’s former chief of staff, Steve Hilton. Naomi Gummer was formerly adviser to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, but is now a public policy adviser to Google. Amy Fisher Was a press officer for Google, and is now a special adviser to the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman.
On Hilton, the right wing Daily Mail newspaper has rarely missed an opportunity to attack his more radical attempts to shake up government thinking about technology and its effect on society. But it’s more likely that the Conservatives – in part driven by Hilton’s thinking – have realised that the world has moved away from the green-screen, big-IT projects which used to fill the coffers of the likes of EDS and others, towards embracing a more open standards approach. On the ground this has fed into attempts to open up government data, and led also the innovative project known as Gov.uk, which is taking a startup approach to government online, employing many of the UK’s best engineers and tech stars.
It’s also quite something to see a sentence describing Hilton as the “shaven-headed son of Hungarian immigrants” – a phrase which betrays the Mail’s antipathy to alternative thinking.
In March it was announced that Mr. Hilton was going to take an academic post at Stanford University in California to be near his wife who works at Google. He plans to return next year, though it’s not yet clear whether he will re-join the government.
Of course, back in the real world, these West Wing-like moves of advisers between big business and governments go on literally all the time. We don’t currently have the equivalent figures for meetings with Microsoft or Cisco, or Facebook, IBM or other companies, but I’d be amazed if there were not similar factoids waiting to scurry forth if someone someone decided to lift a few rocks. Indeed, Microsoft, Cisco and many other large tech companies have appeared several times at the government’s ‘Tech City’ meetings.
So quite why the Daily Mail has decided to home in on this issue is a little bit of a mystery. It may be that the story was placed as an attack by the Labour Party. Their health IT scheme to store patients’ records failed spectacularly just before they left office, so they would have smarted at the suggestion by Cameron that a company like Google could probably do a better job.
The newspaper quotes Helen Goodman, Labour’s media spokesman, who says “Of course it is important for ministers to listen to business, but a meeting with Google every month does look like the sort of privileged access that small businesses can only dream of.” Unfortunately, she neglects to mention the numerous tiny tech startups that have been invited to Number 10 Downing Street over the last couple of years as part of the government’s Tech City initiative, and its purchase of an entire building – Campus London – in East London which is housing small tech startups that have have nothing to do with Google. (As disclosure, I’m co-founder of a co-working space that’s a tenant in that building, but frankly, I’d point this out even if it wasn’t).
Then again, Google doesn’t help its own cause. In Europe it does not have a great record on tax. As Goodman points out: “Ministers must disclose what they discussed. Did they challenge Google over their repellent tax avoidance, which was uncovered by the Daily Mail?”
It’s here that criticism could land a big punch. Google has been oft criticised for paying tax on less than a quarter of its UK income. In 2010 it generated £2.1 billion in the UK but with its international operations based Ireland, where corporation tax is much lower than the UK, it escapes a great deal of tax.
And Google hasn’t always helped its own cause.
Last month Google executive Naomi Gummer, until recently a Conservative minister’s political adviser, caused a furore in the press when she implied (not unreasonably?) that it was the job of parents to stop children seeing adult content online, not Internet companies. Currently a debate rages in the UK about creating an ‘off switch’ at ISP level to block porn, allowing parents baffled by content settings or Net Nanny software to simply order a ‘clean’ version of the Internet direct from their ISP.
A Conservative Party spokesman told the Mail: “All these meetings have been properly declared and it is normal for relevant ministers to meet with a company of this size.”
Ultimately the Mail’s story does raise questions of perceptions over-all but as a major UK tech player, it would be extremely odd for it not to meet with whoever was in power fairly regularly. Neither Facebook not Twitter, for instance, have anything like the huge engineering bases and offices Google has in the UK. Do we want our politicians to remain in a worldview of tech dominated by the desktop and ‘licenses’ or one where developers, startups and apps can thrive? I’d hazard not.