Monthly Archives: August 2015

Port, Porto, Portugal 

Can there be anything better than a quality glass of port


The wedding season is in full swing, each occasion uniquely special and uplifting as it reflects the true personalities of the families involved.

It would be churlish to choose one of all these brilliant ahead of the rest but I have to admit I was particularly looking to the marriage in Portugal of my great friend Edward Ward and Larlie Symington, a member of one the great port-producing dynasties.

I would never be so vulgar or loose-lipped to document the details of a private wedding but needless to say I had a splendid time in the picturesque Douro valley – port was guzzled by the gallon and smiles were never far from faces!

I was travelling to Portugal with that loose-moraled journalist (or is that tautology?!) James Emmett. He is a man designed for Portugal – he arrived smacking his lips in lust for his first glass of port. Water…

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A smoking gun for academic integrity

The latest row over the credibility of evidence which says that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent safer than smoking tobacco shows yet again just how careful one has to be over the integrity of academic research.

The Lancet – – argues that this conclusion depends, at least in part, on a study that itself relies heavily on evidence produced by industry-funded scientists.

This allegation was seized on gleefully by the British press, with the Daily Mail proclaiming: “E-cigarette industry funded experts who ruled vaping is safe.”

Others turned on The Lancet, with the Spectator accusing the magazine’s editors of “shooting the messenger” rather than addressing the evidence provided by the research.

It is not for me to judge the credibility of the respective arguments – I am interested whether the research carried out by academics, consultants and think tanks is genuinely independent. If this had been the first instance where an academic had been too close to a commercial organisation, then one could back the Spectator’s view that this was “shooting the messenger.”

However, I have tracked a number of instances where links appear to be too close – and many more distinguished people than me are worried about this and the way in which lobbies distort the findings of research to suit their own interests.

One of my recent blogs summarises this –

The solution is not to set lots of compliance standards and force every researcher to produce lists of their commercial interests. That would simply provide extra work for compliance officers and that most-evil trade the lawyers.

The solution lies in our own hands. Whenever we see research, we should ask starting questions>

For example, do the universities have commercial sponsors, whose views just happen to coincide with the research findings? Do the researchers have a track record of supporting a particular view on a subject? Do the academics have a commercial company whose interests will benefit from the findings of the research?

Simply adopt this motto: Take nothing at face value.

How academic research gets distorted

David Aaronovitch is right to warn us in his Times column today about the “use of evidence by the committed to sway the uncommitted.”

He cites as an example the way selective use of academic research into sex workers in New Zealand is being used by both those supporting and opposing the decriminalisation of prostitution.

This is far from the only example he could have cited. More and more stories in the media are based on research by consultants and academic institutions (sometimes as many as five a day in a newspaper).

This is probably inevitable as these groups are obsessed with increasing their profile and have public relations departments ready to spin the research in the best way to win column inches or radio and TV minutes.

In his analysis of the argument about the safety of sex workers, Aaronovitch went back to the actual findings produced by the University of Canterbury to determine which of the two protagonists had the stronger case.

He is correct when he says we should all make a greater effort to look at the original evidence.

But, I think we need also to examine the interests and motives of the universities, think tanks and consultants who produce the research that generate headlines.

For example, do the universities have commercial sponsors, whose views just happen to coincide with the research findings? Do the researchers have a track record of supporting a particular view on a subject? Do the academics have a commercial company whose interests will benefit from the findings of the research?

So Aaronovitch should also have been asking questions about the track record of the University of Canterbury and those who carried out the research – though I would hasten to add that, having done so, I saw nothing to suggest that this piece of work was anything other than genuine research.

I am not suggesting that they have behaved improperly, only that we should make ourselves aware of all the interests of academics before we assess their research.

I have traced some of the links between academics and their other activities

We should adopt the same scepticism when we examine the evidence from “independent experts,” consultants and think tanks, cited by industries, particularly the energy sector, when they are trying to justify themselves.



I show that the independent experts are not quite as independent as they are presented. Look at some of the connections I illustrate and see if it raises doubts in your mind.

And have you ever read opinion research commissioned by an organisation that fails to deliver the results that suit the interests of the body that paid for it.

Scepticism is also needed when looking the think tanks that analyse international politics. When a report on for example the Middle East, from a think tank which boasts of its independence, it is always useful to look at the past employment of their senior executives and particularly to see who is on their advisory boards.

Think tanks on both sides of the Middle East debate like to disguise the identities of their backers but more often than not one can guess the conclusions of their analysis by looking at the views of these people

When we read a piece of apparently research, analysis or advocacy, we should ask questions and we should certainly not take their conclusions at face value.

So what should we do? Always be sceptical about any evidence cited in support of any case. The alarm bells should really ring when we hear the word “independent.” And be doubly suspicious of anyone who says “research proves” or “research shows” without citing any example.

Ultimately, as Aaronvotich says, we need to “to keep ourselves ferociously well informed and investigate all claims” though I suspect he is correct when he says most of us would rather go to the pictures.

Can we trust the IAAF this time?

Can we trust the word of the IAAF, the international governing body for athletics, when it says that it had started taking action against drug cheats before a series of critical articles were published in the London Sunday Times?

If you recall, the Sunday Times and the German television channel ARD have alleged that the IAAF did not follow up suspicious blood test results in major athletics’ championships and the London marathon.

The reports are based on the leak of blood test results from the IAAF’s database between 2001 and 2012. They show that one third of the medals in endurance races in the Olympic Games or world championships were won by athletes with suspicious blood readings, possibly owing to doping. The allegation is that this revealed an “extraordinary extent of cheating.”

Lord Coe, one of the candidates to head the organisation, and the IAAF responded with a classic public relations defence which I highlighted in a recent blog.

This strategy failed to stop of the criticism as more allegations appeared in the press and some athletes decided to release their test results.

Now, the IAAF has announced that it has provisionally suspended 28 athletes who competed at the 2005 and 2007 World Championships and returned “adverse findings” from retested samples.

Most significantly, the IAAF insists the retesting process was already underway before the Sunday Times/ARD allegations were published.

They may well be telling the truth – and it is important to state that this is a different testing to process to the one criticised by the Sunday Times and ARD.

But announcing that you have taken action and that the initiatives predated the criticism is also a classic public relations ruse used by virtually every organisation that finds itself in this position.

Indeed I highlighted it as a strategy in one of my early blogs some three months ago

and scarcely a week passes without it being used by some public or private sector body. It shows that the organisation is being pro-active, had identified the need for action before the critics and that it is in control.

The truth will no doubt emerge in the coming weeks. But, given the response of Lord Coe and the IAAF to the original revelations, it is wise to remain sceptical.

The perils of media partnership

The furore over the decision of Glasgow Rangers Football Club to ban the BBC reporter Chris McLaughlin and Times columnist Graham Spiers from reporting their matches seems to me to miss the point.

Politicians, foreign governments, commercial organisations, lawyers and PR executives have been trying to bully, intimidate and take sanctions against reporters as long as the media has existed.

The greater concern though is surely when media organisations become too close to those with whom they should have an arms-distance relationship.

My alarm bells ring when a media outlet is offered something on a variation of “unprecedented and exclusive access” by some company, organisation or government departmen. The price paid is invariably soft treatment.

Even more disturbing are the occasions when a media organisation refers to its “commercial partners” when they are talking about their advertisers. Even calling it a partnership is deeply unhealthy and can raise dangerous questions about the way stories are covered.

In fairness, neither Spears nor Professor Tim Luckhurst of Kent University seemed terribly worried about the impact of Rangers’s ban on journalists when they appeared on Radio 4’s Media Show last week.

In a modest way, Spears seemed to wear it as a badge of honour, in the way that most journalists frame legal letters and hang them in their toilets.

Indeed there can be few reporters – including the distinguished presenter of the Media Show Andrea Catherwood – who have not from time been charmed or bullied over lunch; accused of writing the “worst piece of journalism I have ever read” by the Prime Minister’s or party leader’s spokesperson; banned from a country; thrown out of a country; written a story that turns out to be true, but which is vehemently denied at the time: and threatened by lawyers and PR departments.

It is part of the web and waft of our lives – and it is always worth remembering that organisations only really turn their guns on you when something critical and accurate is written.

My concern is not when Glasgow Rangers tries to ban reporters, but when football clubs decide to establish exclusive relationships with a television channel or newspaper.

In June for example, when Newcastle announced Steve McClaren as their new manager, he was only allowed to speak to what the club called “preferred media partners” – a newspaper and a television channel. I commented on this in an earlier blog and went to examine they way in which the Telegraph Group refers to its “advertising partners.”

Royal Ascot is interesting too. The course boasts that its races are not sponsored. Yet there is plenty of promotion of what it describes as its commercial partners – clearly not a journalistic issue but it helps illustrate how fast and loose corporations can be with the language when it suits them.

This is all part of a strategy by those in power to blur the once clear divide between the media on one side and, on the other, those they report on.

Indeed the most interesting moment in last week’s Media Show was when Professor Luckhurst identified the way in which organisations use their own television channels. It is PR masquerading as reporting and it blurs the distinction between public relations and journalism.

The other concern is about “unprecedented access.” Radio Five Live has been a particular culprit here – even boasting about the unique access it has been given and I think this included visiting GCHQ. This is not a new phenomenon but instinctively I feel it is getting more pronounced.

I don’t want to claim too much of a moral high ground here. I have taken my share of scoops from friendly politicians, bankers and business leaders. It is also true too that every journalist gets too close to some of their sources and that contributing to sponsored sections in newspapers can give an overly flattering impression of a country.

But it is also true that for friend a public figure has in the media, there are plenty more hostile commentators. And that the coverage in sponsored sections is clearly defined. However even I am becoming concerned, as identified by my friend Mihir Bose, about the Telegraph’s regular Russian and Chinese sections.

When there are regular Chinese and Russian sponsored propaganda sections –as is the case in The Telegraph – there is a real danger that it will affect editorial coverage in the main newspaper.

So there are very clear warning signals. In the drive for survival, the commercial departments of our newspapers and television channels will become ever more powerful.

But we can keep our eyes and we can see the warning signs. And that means that we can at least, as readers and viewers, operate our own checks and balances.

A day in linen


There are relatively few occasions when one does not look incongruous in a linen suit. Last Friday morning on the district line at nine o’clock is definitely not one. Squeezed in amongst the bleary eyed masses stinking of last night’s jaegerbombs I stood out like a busy firefly minding his own business in an onyx Amazon night.

Three hours later I was under the effervescent English sun at Glorious Goodwood in a vast sea of linen clad brethren.

The day began with the usual shower and shave. However, I decided against my usual racing gear of grapefruit and red trousers and set off in a wholly different route. The linen suit framed a pink shirt and Paisley tie; bold blue and yellow dotted socks were slotted into my favourite tassled loafers.

Breakfast was a mountain of glorious protein on a plate in a pub washed down with Guinness. I took…

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Lord Coe’s deceptive response to athletes drug allegations

Don’t be deceived by the theatrically furious way Lord Coe has reacted to the reports in the London Sunday Times (ST) and the German television channel ARD that the IAAF did not follow up suspicious blood test results in major athletics’ championships.

The reports are based on the leak of blood test results from the IAAF’s database between 2001 and 2012. They show that one third of the medals in endurance races in the Olympic Games or world championships were won by athletes with suspicious blood readings, possibly owing to doping. The allegation is that this revealed an “extraordinary extent of cheating.”

There is a classic crisis PR response when faced by these sorts of allegations, particularly when they are accurate. These include 1.Try and change the terms of the debate. 2. Challenge the credentials of your critics. 3. Switch discussion on to the way the information has been acquired, hinting this has been done illegally. 4. Get your PR team and lawyers to write something long and convoluted.

This reaction is used by government departments, corporations, bureaucracies and almost every organisation when confronted with a hostile story, as I have documented in most of my earlier blogs.

In this case, the lead response was left to Lord Coe.

  1. He tried to change the terms of the debate (using a lot of pretend wrath) and he used the expertise of an executive well versed in the black arts; he used to be chairman – and is still on the board – of Chime, one of Britain’s leading PR companies.

He declared that the reports were “a declaration of war on my sport. There is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug-testing that warrants this kind of attack. We should not be cowering. We should come out fighting.

“Nobody should underestimate the anger at the way our sport has been portrayed. The fight-back has to start here. We cannot be portrayed as a sport that is in any way dragging our heels.”

This sounds like real indignation but this disguises the fact that he was operating extremely cleverly to change the debate. Until that point, the lines were clearly drawn; The Sunday Times and ARD had the moral high ground as they were examining doping allegations.

Coe responds by saying those who accept the ST/ARD report are anti athletics. So, according to him, you are either for us or against us – and if you don’t reject the ST/ARD conclusions, you are betraying your sport.

It is a subtle way to brand the ST and ARD as anti athletics when they are in fact anti-doping in athletics.

Note also the use of pseudo-militaristic language in the call for a fight-back. That means it is not enough for athletes and fans to be neutral about the reports. So, unless you join the condemnation, you are also betraying athletics.

  1. The second strategy is to play the man rather than the ball. Coe was scathing about the two expert analysts used by the ST/ARD, Robin Parisotto and Michael Ashenden. “These co-called experts – give me a break.” He mentioned the names of the IAAF experts and said: “I know who I would believe.”

Again this is a classic PR strategy when you are in a hole and have no other option. You try to demean and denigrate the messenger, rather than provide proper analysis of the specific points they make.

  1. For the third element, which is to condemn the way the information has been acquired and used, has been adopted by the IAAF in its statement

This stated that the “IAAF condemns in the strongest possible terms the distribution, sharing, and publication of private and confidential medical data that was obtained from the IAAF without consent. The IAAF retains the right to take any action necessary to protect the rights of the IAAF and its athletes.”

Note too the comments of Professor Giuseppe d’Onofrio, one of the world’s leading haematologists working as an expert in the field of the Athlete Biological Passport, commented: “Ethically, I deplore public comments coming from colleagues on blood data that has been obtained and processed outside of the strict regulatory framework established by WADA which is designed to ensure a complete and fair review of ABP profiles. There is no space for shortcuts, simplistic approaches or sensationalism when athletes’ careers and reputations are at stake.”

This is again a classic counter to a difficult story – it is an attempt to deflect attention away from the substance of the revelations. We see this all the time, particularly when there are leaks from any government department or corporate organisation. The emphasis is always on the leak inquiry and the betrayal by the leaker rather than any policies or malpractices that have been exposed.

4. Finally, there is the way in which the substance of the response is presented. In this case, we see all typical elements as the statement has the length and convoluted incoherence used by lawyers who want to deceive. The document flops all over the place, mixing hysteria and pedantry. This is again the usual PR/legal approach when it is necessary to create confusion. What they said actually makes their case seem less plausible.

Now I don’t have any expertise in assessing the legitimacy of the ST/ARD reporting. But I do have some expertise in journalism and watching PR companies.

The Sunday Times has a long tradition in exposing sporting corruption – particularly in exposing doping in cycling. And it received similar vilification when it did so.

So anything it reports has to be taken seriously.

It may be that they are wrong on this occasion. But if that is the case, one would expect a point by point statesmanlike rebuttal.

Instead they responded by using every PR trick in the book – and they will probably involve the lawyers, if they have not done so already.

I suggest the following is a good principle to adopt; when any organisation reaches for the dirty section of the PR book and/or its lawyers, its credibility is profoundly diminished.