Category Archives: deceptive truths

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.

How Smart is Tim being?

Invariably I find myself examining the way in which large organisations seek to deceive us by using evasive and misleading language.

But there are occasions when senior executives speak directly and with clarity – and that, not least because it is so rare, can be just as revealing.

And it is particularly interesting when the senior figures of one organisation change the approach from the former to the latter.

Take what has happened this week at the Southern Health Authority when its chairman was questioned on the BBC about the decision to give a new job to the organisation’s chief executive Katrina Percy.

Ms Percy had been under pressure to resign since the publication of a highly critical report last December on Southern Health’s failure to investigate hundreds of death.

Initially Southern Health resorted to a long and evasive statement in which its lawyers and PR department used every trick in the book to evade responsibility. I highlighted this at the time –

Eventually the trust’s chairman was replaced but, despite robust criticism from relatives of those who died and politicians, Ms Percy remained in her job until last week; then she was moved to a new £240,000 a year job which had been specifically created for her.

What is particularly interesting is the way Smart, who took over as chair four months ago, responded to questions on Ms Percy’s new job.

And I should say here that Smart has worked in senior positions in the public and private sector for many years so knows what he is doing when he appears before a television camera – and he also many lawyers and PR executives to provide him with evasive answers to every possible question.

Look at this exchange with a BBC interviewer.

  1. Did the new job exist before Katrina (Percy) took it?

Smart. The work needed to be done.

  1. That is not a yes or no. Did the new job exist before Katrina took it?

Smart. No

  1. Did you advertise that job so other people could apply?

Smart. No

  1. Was Katrina the only candidate?

Smart. She is uniquely qualified for it.

  1. Was she the only candidate?

Smart. Yes

  1. To many people that is not the case. The case is that over the next few months the work that we have asked Karina to do needed to be done in any event.


There is enough corporate evasion in some of these answers to demonstrate that he had been well rehearsed by his minders.

These answers include phrases such as “the work needed to be done” and also saying that Percy was “uniquely qualified.” The latter remark is meaningless as the job was not advertised – you only find out if someone is uniquely qualified by testing them against other candidates.

But most interesting is the way he only went through the motions of corporate evasion and gave direct answers after only the slightest pressure.

Those of us who have listened to politicians and business leaders answer difficult questions over the years know that even the clearest answer is submerged in enough verbiage to disguise its true intent.

It may be that Smart has decided on a new strategy of openness – probably not. Or that he panicked and blundered – unlikely.

Or it could be that his direct answers are designed reflect his unhappiness at what has been done. His intervention has certainly ensured that Ms Percy will be under much greater pressure that before he gave the interview.

So it is at least worth a sporting bet that there may have been a division of opinion about whether to give Ms Percy her new job.

And there may be some interesting revelations to come about this decision was eventually taken.



British soft drinks industry caught out in deception

Congratulations to Mishal Hussain for catching out the British Soft Drinks Association’s Gavin Partington as he tried to mislead the public by using one of the oldest PR deception tricks in the book.

Partington, the director general of the BSDA, was appearing on the Today programme –  – to argue against the British government’s proposal to put a levy on sugary drinks.

This is virtually the only measure to survive from the government’s original plan to have a major crackdown on junk-food; the policy has now been reduced from a “game changing moment” to the “start of a conversation.”

During the interview with Hussain, in which he tried to represent his members, which include Coca Cola and PepsiCo as victims, Partington talked about research that proved his case; his initial statement did not mention that the BDSA had commissioned the research – indeed taken on its own would leave the impression that it had no involvement in it.

It was only when he was pressed that Partington was forced to admit the BDSA’s involvement.

The exchange went like this.

Partington said that the sugary drinks tax “will cost 4,000 job losses. This analysis is based on a rigorous academic study by Oxford Economics and we know from experience in Mexico that the tax there has simply resulted in a calorie reduction of six calories on an overall diet of 6,000 calaories.”

Hussain then asked: “Is that the report you commissioned.”

Partington: “We did indeed commission it and it is right that we should study and analyse the impact.”

Lest anyone think that Partington’s initial failure to mention the BDSA’s involvement was a slip of the tongue, they should look at the BDSA’s press release when the report was published. If there was a mention, it was so deep in the sub-text it escaped me.

Presenting commissioned reports as independent research is one of the oldest tricks in the corporate presentatation book. If you want to see another example, look at the way Energy UK, the gas industry’ trade association, presents research carried out on its behalf.

I should make clear that I am not saying here such research automatically lacks integrity – though it is very rare for such research to contradict publicly the interests of the person commissioning it.

All I do suggest is that for research to be credible the organisation commissioning it should identify itself prominently. It is equally wrong – however much companies and lobby groups may argue to the contrary – to label any commissioned research as independent.

The one certainty is that we are going to see and hear quite a lot of Partington as the debate on sugar taxes and junk-food intensifies.

And it is worth noting that he represents a trade association rather than a specific company. Over the last 15 years or so the number of trade associations has grown like topsy and their role has changed dramatically from a discreet representative of their industry to aggressive lobbyist.

In part this reflects the media demands but it is also very convenient for the companies. For people like Partington will never talk in specifics (he won’t for example talk about anything directly to do with an individual company). This enables an industry to appear open and also present its argument without really having to answer a direct question about what its companies do.

If you doubt how prevalent this has become, look at my analysis of this.


It is not for me to state here whether or not a sugar tax will contribute to the nation’s health. All I do know is that one should be extremely suspicious about the integrity of any industry that cowers behind its trade association and is anything less than totally open about the research it commissions.

Leadsom uses Trump-style tactics

When Andrea Leadsom told The Times that being a mother gave her the edge on her rival for the Tory party leadership, the childless Theresa May, the general reaction was to suggest that she had made a blunder which made it less likely that she would win.

That response could not be more wrong. Now that The Times has released the transcript and the tape of the interview it is clear that these were measured, calculated answers designed to generate the response they got.

Don’t forget that Leadsom is apparently receiving public relations advice from Lord Bell, who masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s most successful campaigns, and Nick Wood, one of the sharpest political PR men around Westminster. They would not have let her go into this interview without carefully planned answers on this subject.

Her comments clearly indicate that Donald Trump style campaigning – where you can get away with the most extreme, unpleasant and outlandish comments that more establishment candidates would not dare to – has arrived in British politics.

Let’s look at exactly what she said. She started by saying: “I am sure Theresa will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.”

She continued by saying that having children kept her focused. “It means you don’t want a downturn, but, never mind, ten years hence it will be all fine. My children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”

She then said: “I think when you are thinking about the issues that other people have you worry about your kids’ exam results, what direction their careers are taking, what we are going to eat on Sunday.”

Two points on this are decisive. First she did not have to make the second half of her statement. She could have closed off the answer by saying that parenthood made no difference to the relative abilities of herself and May to be leaders.

Second, her initial comment that it would be “horrible” to make the distinction between herself and Theresa has no value because she went to do precisely what she said would be “horrible.” It is best to see this as a clever phrasing to allow her to pretend righteous indignation when the story appeared.

So why did she do this?

First, there is the lesson from Donald Trump’s campaign to win the Republican nomination in the United States. His campaign was full of offensive remarks that his rivals were convinced would destroy his support. In fact they seemed to have the opposite effect.

His remarks ensured that he was always in the headlines and, being relatively unknown as a politician, made him the centre of the debate. He came over as a plain-speaking outsider, who represented real people. This is what Mrs Leadsom is trying to do – and making a few remarks about family life won’t do her campaign any harm.

You can be sure that her media-managers will be all too aware of how effective Trump’s campaign and be eager to see how it works in this country.

Second, the row that followed the article and the response of many senior Tories has helped reinforce her chosen image as the outsider. She accused The Times of gutter journalism, helping her to present it as part of an establishment attempt to stop her winning. Likewise those Tories who condemned her could be presented by implication as part of the same attempt to exclude her.

The success of this attempt to create a campaign of the outsider taking on the power of the Westminster elite was demonstrated by the first sentence in the lead story in today’s Sunday Times.

“The Tory establishment launched a concerted attempt to derail Andrea Leadsom’s leadership bid yesterday…..”

There could not be a better way of encapsulating her campaign had her media managers written the headline themselves. This was a triumph by Lord Bell and Mr Wood.

Third, this was a very effective way of deflecting attention away from the questions about her CV, which had dominated newspaper headlines for the previous 48 hours. An argument about her family life is much safer ground than one about her CV, which casts doubts on her integrity.

And finally, this it is a good issue for her in creating her persona with the Tory party members who will have the final vote on the leadership. There is still a significant number who are suspicious of women who do not have children and it will reinforce their determination to support her.

In the short term, this Trump-style strategy seems to have worked extremely. Mrs Leadsom can now present herself as the establishment-persecuted outsider who has a special reason to care about families.

And you can bet that her media advisers will sampling opinion to see how her remarks have gone down with Tory supporters to see if the gains from making strong comments that upset the party hierarchy outweigh the risks.

If they conclude this, watch out for some more of the same.



Is McEnroe really helping Sharapova’s drug defence


Were John McEnroe’s comments on Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test as supportive of her as much of the media appears to believe? A close reading of what he actually said suggests that, far from being helpful, he was – intentionally or otherwise – undermining her case.

The article in today’s Times of London was characteristic of those who decided he was backing Sharapova. The headline stated: ‘McEnroe defends Sharapova and says he would have taken drug’

In the first paragraph of the story, tennis correspondent Barry Flatman writes: ‘John McEnroe is not renowned for his compassion towards other competitors but the outspoken former player has defended Maria Sharapova after she admitted to taking a banned drug and said he would have used it.’

But, a careful look at what McEnroe says provides evidence that his ‘defence’ of her actions has done much more damage to her case than the comments of most of her critics.

Her case depends on a rigid adherence to a simple narrative; that she took meldonium occasionally under medical supervision to address heart problems and because of a family history of diabetes; and that she made a “huge mistake” in failing to realise that the drug had gone on to the banned list.

McEnroe’s words cast doubt on both elements of this narrative.

By saying it was acceptable to use a prescription drug as a performance enhancer even if it was developed for other medical uses, he is, at the very least, raising the possibility that she could have used the drug for this purpose.

Look at his words as he insisted he would have used the drug if it had been available in his playing days. “If a drug is legal? That is like a no-brainer. I mean, are you kidding?…. People have been looking since the beginning of time for an edge, and you’re constantly looking for these things in any shape or form.”

He is stating that it is acceptable to do things that her lawyers and public relations people are insisting she has not done.

Nor is McEnroe helpful when he comments on her argument that she was unaware of the change in rules. “It would be hard to believe that no-one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her, or Maria herself had no idea that this happened,” he said.

So far from supporting her narrative he has, intentionally or not, done an extremely good job in undermining it. And he has added credibility to those who don’t accept her version – as opposed to the legality – of her version of events.

Of course, it may be that, as her supporters hope, there is incontrovertible evidence that she only took these drugs for medical purposes.

But, even if that is the case, she still has to answer why she embarked on a public relations and legal strategy that only makes sense if she has something to hide.

Sharapova’s latest tricks to avoid drug charge

The battle to establish blame for Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test has intensified as the latest elements of her strategy become clear.

See my earlier blogs to understand the way she launched her counter-attack.

As her legal and public relations campaign gains momentum, the aim now is to define the precise question that will be asked by the public, her fellow tennis professionals, the tennis authorities and, most importantly, her sponsors.

The questions her public relations managers want to avoid are these: why was she using a drug for a decade that many others were clearly taking to enhance their performances? This of course was the reason it was banned. Should she not have been more careful when deciding to take such a controversial drug? Is the drug so important to her health that she will have to continue taking it?

She may be one of the few people not taking the drug for performance enhancing purposes – but it still raises the question why so many athletes at the peak of their fitness seemed to be suffering from illnesses that could only be treated with this drug.

In other words, while using the drug meldonoium until the start of this year was technically legal, did her motives stink?

She may have perfectly legitimate answers but it is clear that her minders want to divert attention away from this question.

Instead they want to drag the issue back to her initial defence which was that she was responsible for making a “huge mistake” which is much easier for them to argue with the tennis authorities.

The problem with sustaining this defence is that it is hugely implausible. As many commentators have noted, Sharapova has a strong team of advisers with expertise in public relations, every other aspect of her public image and of course her physical health.

It seems almost inconceivable that she and her team could allow such an error to occur.

And the strategy used in recent days shows that her team realised how weak this position was and that it needed to be backed up by a robust additional tactics.

Some of the elements of this strategy are in place. At its heart is the attempt to discredit everyone who might try to hold her to account.

Her latest Facebook statement is another masterpiece of public relations spin. She reiterates that her comments are all part of her open and honest strategy and she says she has no excuses.

However she also spends several paragraphs providing excuses for failing to be aware the drug was banned from the start of the year. “The communications? They were buried in newsletters, websites, or handouts,” she wrote.

“In order to be aware of this ‘warning’, you had to open an email with a subject line having nothing to do with anti-doping, click on a webpage, enter a password, enter a username, hunt, click, hunt, click, hunt, click, scroll and read.

“I guess some in the media can call that a warning. I think most people would call it too hard to find.”

As others examine the communications, we will discover how legitimate her complaint is – but for now it serves as a clever attempt to explain the “big mistake.”

A second element is to make a generalised attack on her critics – a well-known diversionary tactic used by any organisation under pressure.

She condemned “distorted and exaggerated” reporting; most interestingly she denied taking meldonium every day.

I have looked at a lot of the coverage and I don’t recall anyone saying she was taking the drug every day – but just in case someone did, one can say for certain that this was hardly one of the major allegations.

In fact the only person I remember citing the allegation was her lawyer John J Haggerty. He said he wanted to “disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case.”

It is very clever; deny an allegation that, if it was made at all, is totally absurd; create the impression that is a widely-made allegation by denying it several times. And then argue that this probably non-existent allegation is evidence of “distorted and exaggerated” reporting.

This passive aggressive defence (using an image of injured innocence and human eroor to soften a hard-nosed legal strategy) has been as effective as it possibly could be.

And I don’t know whether Sharapova used the drug in all innocence or was aware that it could give her a performance advantage if used in certain quantities.

But the way she is conducting her campaign – particularly the mix of PR spin and legal aggression – mean that I wouldn’t find her case convincing if I was in a jury hearing their evidence.

Why Maria Sharapova used such deceitful tactics

There is now more evidence of the ruthless skill with which Maria Sharapova’s press advisers staged her announcement that she had failed a drugs test.

Their aim was clear from the start; deliver a stage-managed performance of contrition and apology that would gain sympathy from the public and make it easy for her fellow professionals to support her – as many did, using words such as “courage,” “integrity” and “class.”

As an added bonus, a video of her performance could be put on her website which would help reinforce her message.

They reasoned that a sympathetic narrative would help their negotiations with the tennis authorities

So there were considerable gains to be made from staging this event.

But there was one real danger. The carefully constructed edifice might come tumbling down if well-informed journalists started asking her searching questions about mildronate/meldonium at the press conference.

The tactics to ensure this did not happen were very clever. First there were rumours that she was announcing her retirement – so media outlets would send a tennis specialist rather than an expert on drugs in sport.

Secondly the announcement had to be made as quickly as possible to ensure that no rumours dribbled out about failed drug tests and particularly her use of meldonium. Had this happened, well-briefed specialist journalists would have challenged her more effectively and aggressively than those at the event, whose questions were so banal they could remain on the video used on her website.

The importance of protecting Sharapova from cross-examination became clear within hours. By then questions were being asked about a range of issues including the number of times she had been warned; whether she was justified in using the drug for 10 years; who else had been using the drug; whether she was still using the drug for medical purposes; and why she was using a drug that had not been approved for use in the USA.

By then of course there was no Sharapova to provide answers. She might have been able to do so but it was a risk her handlers simply could not afford to take.

And I suspect the commitment to “openness and honesty” she made in her statement will not extend to another press conference with a better-prepared media.

Indeed it looks as if her strategy will now revert to a hard-nosed lawyer-driven approach where she will use every trick to minimise the consequences of her actions.

Her lawyer, John J Haggerty, has already refused to say where she acquired the meldonium, describing it as “an over-the-counter drug” which could be bought in many countries.

“I do want to disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case,” he said. “The dosage Maria was taking was substantially less than any dosage that has been linked with the performance-enhancing attributes of mildronate.” Haggerty said Sharapova’s medical records would be shared with the International Tennis Federation and would “make it clear that the medical treatment was necessary and recommended by her doctor”.

He insisted there was “no evidence whatsoever” she intended to cheat, which would rule out a four-year ban; and he argue there were “substantial mitigating factors” justified a ban of “significantly below” the next entry point of two years.

I have no idea how strong her case is: but I am now more certain that we should watch very carefully to see how she tries to balance a soft image and tough negotiation.

The cleverness of Maria Sharapova’s deception

You can say what you like about Maria Sharapova – but she does employ a very classy public relations team.

They ensured that she put over her pretty fragile defence against drug taking allegations as effectively as possible; and they did as much as possible to protect the Sharapova brand, which she no doubt hope will be a major money earner long after she has ceased to be a star tennis player.

Let’s take a careful look at team Sharapova’s tactics.

Make no mistake; everything she did at the press conference on March 7th was aimed at taking control of the agenda. Every image, word and gesture was carefully calculated – interesting too that a video of the press conference is on her website –

And it is worth contrasting her approach and that of others facing similar accusations.

First, Sharapova made the announcement herself in the full glare of a press conference, ensuring her chosen words were the ones that lead the reporting; on most occasions these types of story leak out, leaving the accused always on the defensive.

It was clever too because it appeared to have the openness of a press conference; but reporters did not have a chance to research the drug in question, so the few questions asked were banal in the extreme. For example, no-one asked if she was still taking the drug.

Secondly, note the amount of time and effort spent on getting her look correct. She wore a sober black top with long sleeves and black trousers.

What a contrast with her usual image. I cannot remember any similar outfit worn by her before. On formal occasions, she sometimes wears black but usually with a relatively short skirt, and most of the images of her include short skirts, crop tops and bare arms.

These photos of Sharapova went round the world, defining a new sober image that was reflected in her words.

Then we come to her statement which was a masterpiece of its own kind – brilliantly structured and worded to bring together a series of often conflicting messages.

This was a clear attempt to present herself as open, honest and contrite and ready to take responsibility. This is again new ground – many athletes in a similar position try to give the impression that anything that happened was not their fault.

Don’t though be distracted by the language she uses. Sharapova is also trying to say it is not her fault, but is doing so in a much cleverer way.

Look at her statement.

She starts by saying she has failed a drug test and takes “full responsibility.” To which one is meant to respond: ‘How refreshing that someone is taking responsibility rather than denying everything or passing the buck.’

However her initial remarks are followed by a series of mitigating circumstances designed to make us feel how noble she is to take responsibility when she is not responsible at all. She does this by mentioning rule changes (that the drug has only just been put on the banned list) and that she used the drug for serious health issues.

She then says how important it is to be open and honest, as she always has been in the past about many things. Yet, this begs the point that this statement was carefully structured and everything she has done in the past has helped to protect and promote her brand.

She then talks about responsibility and professionalism and admits that she made a “huge mistake.”

There are all kinds of different images floating round here. There is the need to take responsibility, which shows her in a good light but also this mention of a “huge mistake.” She is subtly denying that she is a drug cheat and also getting our sympathy by talking of a mistake – after all which one has not made a huge mistake in our lives.

Then she says she has let her fans down. But the subtext is that she has let them down by making a huge mistake, which is not really an admission of anything. This is a classic case of the non-apology apology.

And she concludes by saying she knows she faces consequences, adding a plea for another chance.

So, what do we have here? We have the image of a woman taking responsibility for what happened, apologising to her sport and her fans and accepting that there is a price to pay – and there is no doubt that these provided the best media sound-bites.

But there is a clear subtext; that she is human and made mistake due to a whole series of mitigating circumstances and therefore should receive another chance. In other words, she has done nothing really culpable.

In summary it is a very clever mix of the rhetoric of contrite guilt and the hard-nosed substance of innocence.

It is not for me to comment on her case – plenty of reporters will be asking more substantive question than they did at the press conference and sponsors will be deciding whether to follow the example of Nike and suspend her contract.

But don’t be fooled by the images and words Sharapova had used. They are but the first blows in a long campaign to preserve the commercial viability of brand Sharapova.

Southern Health’s integrity?

A review into Southern Health NHS Foundation has found that it failed to investigate more than 1,000 unexpected deaths and most other papers

The review, commissioned by NHS England and carried out by audit firm Mazars, was launched following the death of Connor Sparrowhawk at one of the trust’s treatment units in Oxford. He suffered an epileptic seizure and drowned in the bath – the coroner ruled the death had been preventable.

It is not for me to comment in this blog on the merits of the report but to look at the public relations techniques the Trust has used to respond – and to wonder whether their approach actually does their case more harm than good.

Southern Health’s statement – which has the smell of something drafted by the public relations department overseen by lawyers – is a classic response used by all bureaucracies facing similar challenges.

In some of my earlier blogs – under the bureaucratic evasion tag – I have traced the way these techniques are used. Here are two examples.

If you look at Southern Health’s statement (which is at the end of this blog) you will see that they follow the predictable path.

The strategy is always the same: stress the commitment to the highest standards; undermine the credibility of the report; say that improvements have already been implemented so the report is also out of date; and absolve individuals from responsibility by suggesting that the problem is to do with procedures.

Look at how the statement starts. In the first par, they say that “we want to avoid unnecessary anxiety amongst the people we support, their carers and families as their welfare is our priority.” It is a classic statement of the obvious that means nothing.

Then they move on to undermine the credibility of the report by saying that “there are serious concerns about the draft report’s interpretation of the evidence.”

This may or may not be true in this case – I would merely point out that this is also a hugely effective way of deflecting attention from the core comments of the report, and it would be more credible as a comment if it wasn’t used on almost every occasion.

The following paragraph is particularly interesting.

“We fully accept that our reporting processes following a patient death have not always been good enough. We have taken considerable measures to strengthen our investigation and learning from deaths including increased monitoring and scrutiny.”

Not another comment made by the Trust: “The outcome of the inquest evidenced that Connor’s death was preventable and, as a Trust, we have taken learning from this to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

This combines two public relations strategies. It accepts criticism of “reporting processes” – in other words accepting that procedures are flawed, but that individuals should have no responsibility.

And it says that “considerable measures” have been taken to improve matters – again a tried and tested response to make the report seem out of date.

Note too that the response is full of the vacuous “we.” It is not entirely clear who the “we” are.

There is no mention of any individual names in the response even though, according to at least one newspaper report, there was specific criticism of “a failure of leadership” under chief executive Katrina Perry.

Leadership is carried out by individuals not institutions yet the Trust’s response avoids any comment on personal responsibility or accountability.

The vacuous “we” is also a slight advance on the passive voice which is often used by management in this situation. Using the passive makes it easier to avoid linking an executive to an action – though using “we” with an active word can only be the most marginal of improvements.

I have no idea whether Southern Health’s defence is reasonable or credible. But I am certain that by using hack PR techniques and legalistic evasion makes their case sound less credible and plausible.


The Southern Health statement

Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust said: “We would not usually comment on a leaked draft report. However, we want to avoid unnecessary anxiety amongst the people we support, their carers and families as their welfare is our priority.

“There are serious concerns about the draft report’s interpretation of the evidence. We fully accept that our reporting processes following a patient death have not always been good enough. We have taken considerable measures to strengthen our investigation and learning from deaths including increased monitoring and scrutiny.

“The review has not assessed the quality of care provided by the Trust. Instead it looked at the way in which the Trust recorded and investigated deaths of people with whom we had one or more contacts in the preceding 12 months. In almost all cases referred to in the report, the Trust was not the main provider of care.

“We would stress the draft report contains no evidence of more deaths than expected in the last four years of people with mental health needs or learning disabilities for the size and age of the population we serve.

“When the final report is published by NHS England we will review the recommendations and make any further changes necessary to ensure the processes through which we report, investigate and learn from deaths are of the highest possible standard.

“If you are directly affected by this issue, call this NHS number: 0300 003 0025.”

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.