Monthly Archives: October 2016

Is there any independent academic integrity left?

The stories have been dripping out one by one. But, taken together, they demonstrate the way in which big business is successfully subverting the way in which it is regulated and the evidence on which that regulation is based.

Today, for example, Joanna Blythman highlights the way in which Big Food has manoeuvred so that it can effectively regulate itself https://twitter.com/JoannaBlythman/status/786101474145239046

And The Times published a story explaining how the tobacco giants funded studies into vaping.

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/tobacco-giants-fund-vaping-studies-kl32vtt9h

But these are only the most recent examples. A few days ago a story in Medical News Today revealed the big soda companies had been funding almost 100 national health organisations at the same time as they were campaigning against legislation designed to reduce soda intake.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313363.php

Last month an article in the New York Times reports on research which argues that “the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html

Before that there was the controversy over the dispute over the benefits or otherwise of statins – particularly the role of the drug industry in funding Sir Rory Collins who supports the use of statins.

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/can-we-trust-sir-rory-collins-on-statins/

And then there was the way the Soft Drinks Association’s Gavin Partington was brilliantly caught out by Mishal Hussain on the Today programme. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07p152r

He cited research which he said proved the case against the British government’s proposal to put a levy on sugary drinks. Hussain forced him to admit that this research had been commissioned by his organisation.

For further example, please look at my earlier blogs on academic integrity, including

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/a-smoking-gun-for-academic-integrity/

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/how-academic-research-gets-distorted/

I am sure I have missed many further examples of these potential clashes of interest.

But there is more than enough evidence now to show that we can no longer take as read the integrity of academic research.

Indeed it is perhaps not just the products we consume that should carry detailed labelling. It is time to impose the same disclosure obligations on all academics, particularly when they claim their research is “independent”

Bankers’ contemptuous response to defrauded jockeys

 

It is always reassuring when large organisations are unable to kick a story into the long grass, particularly when they use the oldest public relations tricks in the book.

The banking industry has failed dismally to end coverage of the revelation that some £200,000 had been stolen from jockeys in the UK. The money was withdrawn over the counter from cashiers, possibly using fraudulent documents. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37555025

In fact the banking industry’s response has had the opposite effect. Broadcasters and print journalists are now asking: If jockeys are being advised to abandon their High Street bank accounts, are any other bank customers safe.

It is almost certain to lead to some uncomfortable revelations about the scale of the problem.

Much of the credit for keeping the story in the public eye – it is now on the second day of widespread coverage, including a full page story in The Times – is due to Paul Struthers.

A veteran of racing and public relations who is now chief executive of the Professional Jockeys Association, he has played a blinder for his members, speaking brilliantly and deploying intelligent and eloquent jockeys who have been victims.

But, the banks have only themselves to blame.

Rather than seeing this as a banking challenge, they approached the story as a public relations problem, using tactics beloved of all large organisations on the defensive.

The first aim is ensure that no individual from a company appears on the media to answer direct questions.

As more than one bank was involved in the alleged frauds, the banks could hide behind one of their joint organisations – Financial Fraud Action (FFA).

This is a tried and tested trick because industry wide bodies can’t talk about the actions of individual members – so any comments tend to be generalisations that are hard to challenge.

The next trick is to avoid appearing in person. A statement cannot be questioned or directly challenged.

So when Radio5 Live produced an item on the subject, the FFA did not appear directly – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07xf326#play

The FFA’s statement was a classic of corporate deception.

“Banks take fraud extremely seriously and stopped most of all the attempted fraud last year. Fraudsters may try to use stolen or false documents to commit their crimes. Banks do have systems in place to prevent this.

The spate of crimes targeting jockeys suggests fraudsters may have gained access to data relating to these victims.

It is important that any organisation holding personal data take steps to ensure it is safeguarded.”

 

It is amazing how many corporate statements start with “we are taking xyz very seriously.” The fact that they are using this hack sentence from the beginner’s PR handbook actually shows they are not taking the subject seriously at all.

The next step – found in virtually every corporate statement – is to state that the problem is under control. So this statement says that “banks have systems in place.”

Then there is the subtle use of tenses. The statement says that “fraudsters may try to use stolen….” and that “the spate of crimes targeting jockeys suggests fraudsters may have gained access…..”

Using the word “may” makes it possible to leave ideas with the audience – in this case suggesting others may be responsible for the theft of information – while remaining unaccountable if the claim turns out to be inaccurate.

A third element of these statements is that they are drafted to ensure no institution or senior executive is identified or takes responsibility.

Finally these statements invariably end with a portentous general comment which adds up to nothing substantive. The comment that “it is important that any organisation holding personal data take steps to ensure it is safeguarded” is a meaningless truism.

If you have read my blogs, the use of these techniques will be no surprise. https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/valueless-statements/

All too often the technique works. But fortunately, in this case, the rather cleverer tactics of Mr Struthers are ensuring that the banks are losing control of the debate.