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.

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