ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

2 February 2002

PUNDITS, PUFF PIECES AND THE CORPORATE WORLD

1. Pundits, puff pieces and the corporate world - ngin
2. Pro-tobacco writer admits he should have declared an interest - BMJ
3. ...And the Enron pundits - Washington Post

***

1. More on Scruton and the IEA - ngin

What's particularly amusing in the BMJ article (item 2) below is the comment from the editorial director of the Institute of Economic Affairs that, "the news of Roger Scruton has made us realise that this kind of thing can happen to us too". In reality, the IEA's failure to give any indication that Scruton was in the pay of the tobacco industry when publishing his IEA pamphlet attacking the WHO over its policy on smoking, seems like a minor indiscretion compared to much else that is known about its intimates and their activities.

The Institute has played a significant role in the promotion of GM crops and in bogus attacks on organic farming. The US based anti-organic coalition, 'NoMoreScares.com', acknowledged editorial, writing and research support from "the London Institute for Economic Affairs."
http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/nomorescares.htm

In an IEA-headed press release ('Londoners demand regulation of potentially deadly organic food') to accompany the launch of their book 'Fearing Food', IEA staffers Roger Bate and Julian Morris wrote, "organic food may well present a danger to children, the elderly and the sick... such people should be discouraged from eating so-called 'organic' or 'natural' foods."

Bate, who with Morris co-directs of the IEA's Environment and Technology Programme, also wrote and presented the BBC 2 Counterblast programme attacking organic food. On the BBC website, Bate was also quoted, as Director of the European Sceince and Environment Forum, as saying, "...some researchers say that in many ways it's worse for you, worse for the environment and if embraced globally would condemn millions of people to starvation."
http://www.bbc.co.uk/knowledge/havewords/bbc2/bbc2archive/bbc2prog4/bbc2arg2.shtml

The European Science and Environment Forum claimed on its now defunct website that it was "a non-partisan group of scientists" who maintained its "independence" and "impartiality" by eschewing "outside funding". However, the Philip Morris archive has shown that this was very far from the case and that the organisation, in which the IEA's Julian Morris as well as Bate appears to have had a hand, was actually set up with money from Big Tobacco for the specific purpose of smuggling tobacco advocacy into a larger bundle of "sound science" issues, including attacking such problematic areas for US corporate interests as the "ban on growth hormone for livestock; ban on [genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone] to improve milk production; pesticide restrictions; ban on indoor smoking; restrictions on use of chlorine; ban on certain pharmaceutical products; restrictions on the use of biotechnology."
see:  'How Big Tobacco Helped Create "the Junkman"' in PR Watch, Volume 7, No. 3: http://www.prwatch.org

The whiff of Big Tobacco also seemed to hang about the IEA's launch of a piece of non peer-reviewed "research" denying the impact of second-hand smoking - an event which led the director of Action on Smoking and Health to call for careful inspection "for the fingerprints of a commercially-interested sponsor", noting "it must be legitimate to ask if [the researcher] or the IEA are benefiting directly or indirectly from tobacco industry money".
http://www.ash.org.uk/html/press/980420.html

Other IEA intimates, such as biotech supporter and IEA Media Fellow, Richard D North, also have a history of paid advocacy for corporations, as an article in the Ecologist makes clear: "He isn't merely happy to extol the wonders of multinational companies; he's happy to take their money too. Much of the research for his 1995 greenbashing book Life On A Modern Planet was funded by ICI. Shell paid him to pop over to Ogoniland in Nigeria in the wake of the murder of Ken SaroWiwa and write puffpieces in British papers about how responsible the oil company was being."
http://www.theecologist.org/Grim.htm

For his IEA working paper, The GMO Battle: Stories from the Troubled Beginning of the Biological Century, North acknowledged funding for the research from "various Canadian bio-tech companies", not that he felt that had influenced him in any way.
http://www.iea.org.uk/record.php?type=article&ID=36

Presumably such disclosures will be more common from now on from the IEA. Yet in some ways it seems odd it should be Roger Scruton who has forced any change of policy. Compared to many with IEA associations, Scruton seems less simply reducible to a made-to-order corporate warrior ready to defend every excess of globalisation and corporate power.

Responding to criticism in the British Medical Journal of his IEA pamphlet on the WHO and smoking, Scruton wrote, "The medical profession is, quite reasonably, opposed to the use of tobacco, and as a result sees no cause for alarm in an attempt to control this product by laws imposed on our legislatures from outside. Should the WTO use the powers vested in its treaty to impose GM products on this country, regardless of well-founded fears for the health of the people who reside here, it may be that even doctors will wake up to the fact that, in matters of such importance, it is national legislatures that ought to decide."
http://bmj.com/cgi/eletters/320/7247/1482#8149

For more on these issues see Organic Attack:
http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/organic.htm

***

2. Pro-tobacco writer admits he should have declared an interest

BMJ 2002;324:257 (2 February )
Zosia Kmietowicz, Annabel Ferriman, London
http://bmj.com/cgi/content/full/324/7332/257

Writer and philosopher Roger Scruton, who was discovered last week to be on the payroll of a large tobacco company, has admitted that he should have "declared an interest" when he wrote a pamphlet attacking the World Health Organization for its campaign against tobacco.

He told the BMJ "Our firm had a consultancy [with Japan Tobacco Industries] at that time. I was asked independently to do this [write the pamphlet]. I did not want to mix it up with the consultancy, but looking back I should have declared an interest."

As a result of Mr Scruton's fall from grace last week, when his financial connections to Japan Tobacco Industries were revealed, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the free-market think tank that published the pamphlet attacking the WHO has conceded that it needs an author's declaration policy.

Colin Robinson, the institute's editorial director and a professor of economics at the University of Surrey, said that the past few days had represented something of a steep learning curve for those in the field of social science academia.

"In the past we have relied on our authors to come forward with any competing interests, but that is going to change," said Professor Robinson. "In scientific publishing I suppose this sort of thing has been a problem before, but the news of Roger Scruton has made us realise that this kind of thing can happen to us too, and we are developing a policy to ensure it doesn't happen again."

In his pamphlet, WHO, What and Why, Mr Scruton attacked the WHO for tackling tobacco when in his view it should have been concentrating on vaccination campaigns and diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. His attack was immediately repeated in articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Times, and the Scotsman, in what looked like a concerted pro-tobacco campaign (BMJ 2000;320:1482)
http://bmj.com/cgi/ijlink?linkType=FULL&journalCode=bmj&resid=320/7247/1482

Clive Bates, director of the antismoking campaign group Action on Smoking and Health, criticised the institute over its poor track record and said that a policy for authors to declare their financial and other interests was long overdue.

The news that Mr Scruton, who used to be a professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London, had been receiving a monthly fee from Japan Tobacco Industries was revealed in the Guardian last week when it published a leaked email from him to the company (24 January, p1).

In the email, Mr Scruton, who had been receiving a monthly retainer fee of pounds 4500 ($6300), asked for a pound1000 a month pay rise to place more pro-smoking articles in prestigious newspapers and international magazines. He declared the amount to be "good value for money in a business largely conducted by shysters and sharks."

He said that he would aim to place an article every two months in one or other of the Wall Street Journal, the Times, the Telegraph, the Spectator, the Financial Times, the Economist, the Independent, and the New Statesman.

The email, which was sent last October in the name of Sophie, Mr Scruton's wife and business partner, reveals a far-reaching and ambitious public relations strategy to make smoking seem less harmful than it is and criticise government policies on advertising as an attack on civil liberties.

It says: "I personally would like to see more explicit mention of other products open to the same criticisms as tobacco and which ought to be of equal concern to the WHO. For example, fast-food of the McDonald's variety, which seems to be addictive, is aimed at the young, is a serious risk to health, with a worse effect on life-expectancy than cigarettes, and unlike cigarettes, has a seriously corrosive effect on social relations and family life."

Last week, following the revelations, the Financial Times ended Scruton's contract as a columnist.

Mr Scruton told the BMJ: "The pamphlet for the Institute of Economic Affairs arose out of my longstanding concerns about the way in which legislative powers are being transferred from sovereign bodies to unaccountable transnational institutions.

"The pamphlet is a review of arguments and not concerned to exonerate tobacco from the accusation that it is a risky product. In retrospect, however, I now see that I should have declared an interest."

To read the email and other background see http://www.ask.org.uk

***

3. [It's not only the Chairman of the UK's Press Complaints Commission who's coming under scrutiny...] ...And the Enron pundits

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post, Wednesday, January 30, 2002
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58606-2002Jan29.html

The debate about  campaign finance reform can be boiled down to one question: What exactly are corporations buying when they give millions of dollars to politicians?

Now, there's some heated talk about journalistic finance reform ­ that is, what are corporations buying when they lard their payrolls with prominent media folks? And should columnists and commentators be taking cash from companies such as Enron, about which they later find themselves delivering strong opinions?

The contretemps has exposed just how cozy the relationships are between some in the pundit class and the corporate world, in which $50,000 can change hands for what the average cubicle dweller would consider remarkably little work.

The journalists involved have, with varying degrees of candor, disclosed their Enron ties while writing about the collapse of America's seventh-largest corporation. But they find themselves facing the sort of hostile questions usually reserved for committee chairman who do legislative favors for big-time donors.

I've been critical of journalistic buckraking since the mid-1990s, when I wrote about a $30,000 speech that Sam Donaldson had given to an insurance group. The gilded trail of corporate honoraria quickly led to such luminaries as David Brinkley, Robert Novak, David Gergen, Cokie Roberts, Christopher Matthews, Larry King, Mark Shields, Fred Barnes, George Will and Michael Kinsley, who memorably said: "I didn't do it for years, but it became more socially acceptable." King likened it to "white-collar crime." Many refused to discuss it on grounds they weren't public officials.

The issue began to fade as a number of news organizations, including ABC and NBC, banned the practice. (The Washington Post had long barred honoraria from corporations or trade groups that lobby Congress.)

But now, for those who took Enron money, there's no place to hide, the burgeoning scandal having replaced the war as the Beltway's reigning obsession. And the journalists involved (with one exception) have whacked Kenneth Lay & Co. pretty hard.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who got $50,000 from an Enron advisory board before joining the Times, blamed the criticism on an "effort by conservatives to sling Enron muck toward their left." Unfortunately for this argument, most of the Enron journalists are free-marketeers on the right.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who received $25,000 to $50,000 for speechwriting help, told me: "I don't regret having done the work -- it was honest work, honestly done, hard work too, reported on my taxes, not hidden in any way. . . . But my feeling is: I have to talk about my experience in order to talk about Enron, and I have to talk about Enron because I have strong feelings about what they did."

Lawrence Kudlow of CNBC and National Review said that he should have disclosed earlier that he'd gotten $50,000 for consulting and research, but he also said that he's tougher on the energy company because he feels betrayed.

Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, who received $100,000 from the advisory board, sees nothing wrong with such work. His role was disclosed in a Standard piece by another Enron beneficiary, contributing editor Irwin Stelzer, who praised Lay and Enron for "leading the fight for competition."

Other than Stelzer, who failed to disclose the arrangement in articles for the British press, the other writers can boast that their criticism of Enron demonstrates they can't be swayed by mere money. Of course, had Enron not suffered a spectacular meltdown, we likely would not have known about most of these financial ties -- and still don't know about other such moonlighting.

The Enron pundits have put themselves in a weird box. If they recused themselves and wrote nothing, as some critics suggest, then the company would in effect have bought their silence. By writing on Enron, they risk the appearance of biting the hand that fed them just to flaunt
their journalistic courage.

Perhaps what rankles most is the notion that Enron was trying to do what it did with George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Joe Lieberman, Lawrence Lindsey, Ralph Reed and about half of official Washington -- making an investment that could pay off later on. What, after all, did the commentators do for Enron? "This was an advisory panel that had no function that I was aware of," Krugman told his newspaper. Exactly.

It's hard for journalists who work for big companies, write books and appear on television to avoid all conflicts these days. But many of these commentators wax indignant when politicians of all stripes appear to be doing the bidding of those who fill their campaign coffers. For media people to line up at the same corporate trough is just asking for trouble.
 

The writer covers the media for The Post. He is the author of four books for three publishers and hosts a weekly program on CNN.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

ngin bulletin archive

INDEX