Monthly Archives: January 2017

Always distrust a consultant, an academic or a think-tanker

Yet another story reveals just how sceptical one has to be when listening to research produced and opinions deployed by consultants, academics and think tanks.

And also the need to ask questions when a famous name – particularly a semi-retired one – is presented as the author of an article that is not linked to their professional responsibilities.

Yesterday’s Sunday Times has stated that the think tank, Henry Jackson Society – – was being paid “about £10,000 a month by Japan to wage a propaganda campaign against China.”

As part of that campaign, the former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind was approached by the HJS to put his name to an article published in the Daily Telegraph last August, headlined “How China could switch off Britain’s lights in a crisis if we let them build Hinkley C” –

I have written on a number of occasions about the need to be very cautious about research and analysis which purports to be independent and is often cited in support of their positions as such by the biggest commercial and political organisations, including governments.

All too often there is a commercial/professional link of some sort between organisation and the consultant producing the research.

I produce evidence in these blogs

In fairness to the HJS, it is one of the few consultants/academics/think tanks not to flaunt the word independent in its aims and values. It makes no pretence of being anything other than an advocate of an interventionist pro-western foreign policy.

No-one looking at its web site could be in any doubt where the think tank is coming from –

However, there was no suggestion in the article that the origins of the idea might have come from an organisation with a commercial interest in promoting the interests of Japan. Indeed Sir Malcolm says he was not aware of HJS’s financial relationship with the Japanese embassy. Nor could I see the mention of Japan as a client on HJS’s website – though I could be mistaken on this.

Moreover, HJS executives are invariably represented as independent experts when they appear on broadcasting outlets like the BBC. Perhaps the time has come for the BBC to identify them more directly.

The Sunday Times story is a reminder of just how critical we need to be when looking at the often overlapping world of think tanks, consultants and academics. Whenever their findings are cited to support a particular case, it is worth looking them up and examining carefully their political and commercial interests.

The article also lifts the lid a little on that murky world in which the name attached to an article bears no relationship to the actual author – a concept known as “ghosting.”

There can be no objection in principle to ghosting. No cabinet minister can have time to write all the articles written in their name for the national and local press, nor indeed to have the skills to switch from writing for the most populist of tabloids like The Sun to the most heavyweight broadsheets like the Financial Times.

And no non-journalist can be expected to pick up the peculiar style required to write for the Daily Mail.

There is a perfectly legitimate trade of ghost-writing. Special advisers write speeches and articles which appear in their boss’s names. And almost every article written by celebrities, from sports stars to celebrity chefs and accident victims, will be re-engineered to fit the house style of the paper they appear in.

The key point here is that the views expressed are an accurate reflection of the beliefs of the person signing the article.

It becomes much less acceptable where distinguished people attach their names to articles expressing views they do not care deeply about. They give credibility to a view they do not necessarily share.

I have no idea if Sir Malcolm shares the views he expressed in the Telegraph article or whether he accepted payment. But it does seem clear that he neither had the idea for the article nor wrote it.

I learnt where my red line was some years ago. I was approached by the Hinduja Brothers and, when I met them, they asked me to write a book, expressing some rather eccentric but essentially harmless views about the world – I can’t remember the details.

The meeting proceeded happily and I concluded by saying I would be delighted to ghost the book in exchange for the usual sum of money. They looked at me in surprise. The money was no problem, but they expected the book to appear in my name and that there was to be no suggestion it was their idea.

Others may have been happy to do this – but I could not.

So the Sunday Times article reminds of two things.

  1. Always be sceptical of anything produced by academics, consultants or think tanks.
  2. Unless it is someone writing about their direct responsibilities, never take at face value articles written by famous names and ask whether they wrote it and believed it or whether they were attaching their name to it for money or other reasons.

More than wallies with brollies


ITV’s finest in a touch of Cheltenham mizzle


Me in a Fontwell park monsoon


ITV’s return to racing was a damp and soggy affair – though that can be blamed on the Cheltenham weather rather than the quality of their broadcasting.

They did at least demonstrate their desire to attract a new audience without alienating those like me who have been watching for years. The mix of old and new presenters offer a decent combination of humour and knowledge.

And no doubt there will be more incremental changes as they introduce more changes. So it is probably not fair to deliver a final judgement for some months.

However, ITV has had plenty of time to prepare and yesterday’s effort was like the curate’s egg – good in parts. Professional camera work, excellent commentary, well-balanced team of presenters and informative features; but no plan B for the presenters when it rained and dreadful graphics.

On the positive side, the editorial direction of the cameras during the races seemed more disciplined – there were fewer of those ego-tripping angles that characterised the last years of Channel 4’s coverage. I found it easier to follow the horses in the races without having to cope with the Channel 4 director’s search for a novel pretty angle.

I will though never be convinced of the head-on camera as the foreshortening effect makes it much harder to read what is happening.

The commentators were excellent – but then they all are – as was the decision use an analyst during the race.

They say the old tricks are the best ones and this one is a real blast from the past – those with decent memories will recall Lord Oaksey in particular doing this when ITV last broadcast racing many years ago.

The mini features on jockeys and trainers were interesting (though I have no idea why they needed to be accompanied by dire elevator muzac) for both regular and new viewers.

And the attempts to explain the betting ring were also welcome. Those of us who regularly go to the rails and other bookmakers forget how daunting the serried ranks of pitches and complex odds can look to the newcomer.

But there were some areas that were less successful. In principle it is great to have the presenters on the course rather than in the studio.

But surely it is not beyond the wit and wisdom of outside broadcast producers to realise that mid-winter in Britain can be cold and wet. They cleverly introduced their own weather forecaster but then failed to take any notice of her forecasts!!

Yesterday there appeared to be no plan B, leaving the presenters shuddering uncomfortably under a couple of large umbrellas.

They would have looked a lot better in fedoras or trilbies but no doubt the channel’s fashion gurus decreed this to be too traditional.

As a fedora and trilby wearer of many I know that the reason they survive on a racecourse (worn by men and women alike) is not fashion but because they are much more practical than umbrellas, which are a complete disaster.

Hats keep out the rain, ensure a warm head in the cold and act as a sun visor on the few days of the year when this is necessary.

In contrast, an unfurled umbrella is a lethal weapon in a crowd as well as being anti-social as it cuts off the view for other spectators. A furled one is irritating – you need two hands to use binoculars, as well as to hold a hip flask, betting slip or race card.

For the television viewer, the sight of these men under umbrellas may have been marginally amusing as it made them look like “wallies with brollies.”

A more immediate problem was the decision to use the wrong type face and font size for the results, race-card and betting odds. Whatever Channel 4 may or may not have done, it was at least possible to read the information sitting a reasonable distance from the screen.

This was simply not possible yesterday. It defies belief that the graphic designers were too lazy to check what their images would look like on normal sized television screens. This mistake can though be easily rectified.

I can’t say that I look forward to seeing an improved performance next Saturday. But that is only because I will be at Sandown Park, watching the racing live – and wearing a fedora, whatever the weather.