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State-funded primary school spent £244,000 on libel case against father of former teacher

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A state-funded South London primary school which has repeatedly been praised by Education Secretary Michael Gove has admitted incurring over £387,000 in  legal costs since 2008.

The bulk of the costs, disclosed by Durand Academy under the Freedom of Information Act*, relate to a libel case against Jeff Newell, the father of a former teacher at the school, over comments he had made about the school’s headteacher and senior management team.  Durand  records legal fees of £244,675 in relation to this libel case.

The school states that “Mr Newell made a full and unreserved apology. All costs that could be recouped, given Mr Newell’s financial situation, were paid to Durand”. Details of the amount covered by Mr Newell are not given.

The latest FOI disclosure comes on top of an admission by Durand Academy last year that it had paid nearly £200,000 to a PR firm, “Political Lobbying and Media Relations”.

The new figures do not include the as-yet-undisclosed amount that Durand has spent funding an ongoing libel complaint against Lambeth Council and its chief auditor over three emails which raised concerns about the school’s management. Index on Censorship last year estimated that this case may already have cost over £100,000.

But Durand does disclose the legal fees totalling £81,876 that it spent persuading the Department for Education to grant it FMSiS  financial best practice accreditation**. According to court documents from the Lambeth libel case, the school employed the law firm Carter Ruck to represent them in this effort. Durand also hired Carter Ruck in the Jeff Newell libel case, and the ongoing case against Lambeth council.

In a landmark ruling in the early 1990s, the House of Lords determined that there was “no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel… to admit such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech”.

As a public body, Durand Academy therefore cannot sue for libel in its own right. Yet individual staff and governors can take action over allegations made about the school, so long as they can make the case that they were personally defamed within the discussion. Durand is one of a number of public authorities who have chosen to fund such personal libel actions by their employees in recent years.

(*See here for my original FOI request, made in June 2011, with a chaser message sent in November. The school’s disclosure follows a complaint to the Information Commission the following month after Durand continued to ignore the request.)

(**The remaining disclosed legal costs were: £28,340 incurred in relation to a 2008-09 hearing at the General Teaching Council, £19,163  on planning/property, and £13,487 spent on converting the school to an Academy.)

Durand Academy’s full FOI disclosure can be read here

Written by Richard Wilson

January 27, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Judiciary kept in the dark as Burundi opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije is “investigated” by Tanzania’s Foreign Ministry

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This doesn’t seem to augur well for the prospects of a fair trial…

From Tanzania Daily News

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Eliezer Feleshi, on Wednesday said he had not yet received the file from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation concerning the case against the Burundian opposition party leader, Alexis Sinduhije, in order to open a case in court.

“The case is not yet mature, because, if it was, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have sent the file to us to open the case.

“The DPP is not concerned with investigative affairs, this case is currently being handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Mr Felishi told the ‘Daily News’ yesterday over the phone.

Speaking to this newspaper, Sinduhije’s counsel, Habas Nyange, said that he was not aware of the fate of his client. “I am just like you journalists, I have been coming to Kisutu Resident Magistrates’ Court waiting for my client but to no avail.

“I cannot talk to my client properly as I can only talk to him more freely once he is taken to court yet I’m not being informed when he will be brought to court – so he could even be brought to court without my knowledge and then remanded, it is a very difficult situation,” complained Nyange.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 20, 2012 at 7:12 am

“we have done absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever” – #BellPottinger chief Tim Bell on the #Wikipedia editing scandal

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The FT has an amusing report about this week’s meeting between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and staff of Bell Pottinger, the shamed lobbying firm that was caught “factory-farming” the online encyclopedia on an industrial scale.

Despite his firm being exposed using multiple fake identities to whitewash embarrassing information about its clients, Chairman Tim Bell (who also happens to be a Conservative member of the House of Lords), is said to have insisted that “As far as I am concerned, we have done absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever”.

Echoing fellow Tory Lord and Press Complaints Commission Chair David Hunt, Tim Bell reportedly bemoaned the lack of a “regulatory body” for people to complain to about online content that they were unhappy with.

Bell’s ethical stance is certainly interesting. While he sees nothing wrong with his colleagues’ misleading behaviour on Wikipedia, he was reportedly outraged when the Bureau of Investigative journalism used subterfuge to expose his company’s dubious business practices, condemning the deception as “underhand, unethical and improper” – and reporting the journalists concerned to David Hunt’s Press Complaints Commission.

Back in 2008, however, Bell was insisting that “I don’t see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values”.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 15, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Permission To Speak: Conservative Lord suggests that government “may end up regulating” the blogosphere

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Last month Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, a Conservative Member of the House of Lords, and the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement”.

Hunt was also reported to have said that bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the tabloid press, and that “At the moment, it is like the Wild West out there. We need to appoint a sheriff.”

In response, I wrote to David Hunt via http://www.writetothem.com with ten questions about his idea.

Here’s what I asked:

1. Despite the recent growth of the internet, many more people still read books than read blogs. Some of the things that are written in books are inaccurate and misleading. Thousands of new books are published in the UK each year. Yet other than the law of libel – which is equally applicable to blogs – there is currently no formal mechanism for challenging inaccuracies published in books. In order to be consistent, will the Press Complaints Commission therefore be seeking to “kitemark” books – or book publishers? If not, why single out blogs and blogging?

2. It has been suggested that you believe inaccurate reporting by bloggers to pose a “greater challenge” than inaccurate coverage by the tabloid press. Can you provide some specific examples of inaccurate reporting by bloggers that you believe might substantiate this claim?

3. In 2010 I reported the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article in which it made a series of false claims downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. [see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/27/asbestos-press-watchdog-pcc]. The newspaper eventually agreed to print a correction. Can you provide an example of a similarly toxic false health claim made by a blogger?

4. Can you provide an example of a blog whose reporting is consistently less accurate than, for example, that of the Daily Mail?

5. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all organisations that publish a blog (eg. Cancer Research UK [http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/] or Topshop [http://insideout.topshop.com/]) or only to individual blogs that are deemed “political”?

6. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to political blogs published by Members of Parliament – for example Nadine Dorries MP [http://blog.dorries.org/] and Tom Watson MP? [http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/]

7. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all blogs read in the UK (ie. including US-based blogs such as BoingBoing [http://boingboing.net], and the US edition of the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=US]) or only to blogs written by people living in the UK?

8. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to publicly visible postings and “groups” on Facebook, and to postings on microblogging sites such as Twitter?

9. Many political blogs are highly critical of the habits and standards of commercial newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Telegraph. Given that the Press Complaints Commission would receive the bulk of its funding from such sources even under the alternative arrangements you are proposing, would this not create a serious conflict of interest, undermining the credibility of any attempt by the PCC to “regulate” political bloggers?

10. Many political blogs are highly critical of the Conservative Party and its donors, and of the wider political establishment in which the three main political parties operate. Given that both you and your predecessor are Conservative members of the House of Lords, does this not also create a serious conflict of interest, and undermine the perceived neutrality and objectivity of any PCC “kitemarking” scheme for political bloggers?

I’m pleased to say that I’ve now received a reply. It came, somewhat incongruously, on paper, through the post (I will be responding in detail via my 50-mile-long network of Semaphore towers), so this is lovingly hand-typed from the original:

Dear Mr Wilson,

Thank you for your letter dated 19th December. I am pleased that you were interested in my recent interview.

As you will have seen from my reported comments any future plan for online media would be to invite bloggers who write on current affairs to volunteer to be regulated by the new system of self-regulation. This logically follows because such blogs are news-like and similar in content to newspapers and magazines.

All media and publications will make mistakes on accuracy from time to time. The important thing is that content is regulated by an agreed code of practice and that errors can be corrected speedily and with due prominence.

With regard to my reported comment that bloggers were a “greater challenge”. This was a passing remark made in an interview which has been amplified. I was not discussing standards in blogs, but rather the structural issue that they represent an area of free speech, which government may want to regulate, or may end up regulating. The point I was making was that work needs to be done to stave off statutory regulation for everyone, including blogs. This is the challenge.

Demonstrating adherence to such a set of standards and to an effective self-regulatory system would of course mean that publications could convey to their readers that they could trust what they read and would mean that readers could recognise the intentions of the editors of that publication whether in print or online. That is why I suggested some kind of “kitemark” would convey a gold standard for those publications that carried it.

I hope the above information helps you understand the voluntary nature of the system I have suggested. Of course the key to the success of such a proposal is designing a new regulatory regime that is seen to be effective and which publishers will want to be part of and buy into.

Yours sincerely,

[signed]

The Right Hon The Lord Hunt of Wirral MBE

Readers will note that David Hunt has sidestepped a number of my questions but let’s focus on what he does say. Hunt’s starting point seems to be that there is a substantial danger that the UK government may decide to impose compulsory regulation on bloggers – and that creating a voluntary scheme of “self-regulation”, run by the Press Complaints Commission (or whatever replaces it), might therefore be an effective way of heading this off.

Now I don’t doubt that a large section of the UK political establishment would love to start imposing further controls on what we say and do online – although it is sobering to see this being discussed as a serious possibility by a Conservative member of the House of Lords.  But the idea that the best way to prevent this is to start accepting “voluntary” regulation of bloggers seems self-defeating.

It’s worth remembering that UK bloggers have never operated in a regulation-free-zone. Bloggers can be – and have been – sued for libel if they write something about somebody that that person finds objectionable. We can, in principle, be sued for breaches of privacy or copyright infringement, arrested for contempt of court if we ignore a gagging order, or subject to police action under lackadaisically-drafted “harrassment” laws. We are subject to the Cancer Act, and the Advertising Standards Agency.

So any new regulations the government decided to impose would be additional to these limits.

A better starting point, it seems to me, would be to insist that the UK government has no business trying to “regulate” the blogosphere beyond the constraints that already exist. Rather than simply accepting the regulation of political speech as a grim inevitability, and then voluntarily embracing PCC oversight in the hope of retaining some measure of liberty, it would surely make more sense to turn the tables and demand that our politicians adhere to the “standards” we expect of them – one of these being a clear understanding on their part that our freedom of speech is not up for negotiation.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 11, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Burden of proof: Should evidence determine policy?

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My latest piece for the New Humanist

A growing number of activists are calling for science to play a larger role in policy. But will it work? Richard Wilson asks the experts

In the latter days of the last Labour government, then Home Office minister Vernon Coaker introduced a law designed to enable the prosecution of those who paid for sexual services. The government had published a lengthy report, “Tackling Demand for Prostitution”, arguing that evidence showed such a change could reduce the violence and exploitation suffered by commercial sex workers.

In the House, Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris raised concerns that the evidence in the report had not yet been published – and could therefore not be properly scrutinised. Harris cited the fact that the Royal College of Nursing had expressed concern that further criminalisation could actually be counterproductive, driving victims of sexual exploitation further underground, and away from where they might seek help. There was, Harris argued, a need to examine more thoroughly the evidence on which the proposed legislation was based. “We are looking at publishing the evidence,” replied the Minister, but “in the end, you pick the evidence which backs your argument.”

To those familiar with the scientific method this cherry-picking of data to support a preconceived hypothesis is a hallmark of quackery. Watching the debate, “mouth agape”, was Harris’s Parliamentary researcher, and biology graduate, Imran Khan. Khan was astonished that a government minister could think about, or talk about, scientific evidence in this way. He is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a lobby group for science and technology education, and cites this tale as a textbook example of “policy-based evidence-making” – when evidence is chosen only to support or defend an already decided policy. Khan is one of a growing cadre of scientifically literate activists who see it as their job to root out this kind of back-to-front thinking, and to promote instead “evidence-based policy-making”, where rigorous, reputable and, crucially, publicly available evidence plays more than merely a fig leaf role in public policy. These include prominent public figures like Khan’s old boss Harris, who writes the Political Science blog for the Guardian, science writer and scourge of the chiropractors Simon Singh, and the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist Dr Ben Goldacre.

Read more at the New Humanist

 

Written by Richard Wilson

January 6, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Ten questions for the Press Complaints Commission and David Hunt

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Earlier this week, Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement. Blogs who promise to abide by the new code will get a ‘kitemark’ of approval.”

This follows a Guardian interview last month in which Hunt appeared to argue that inaccurate reporting by  bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the (now well publicised) excesses of the tabloid press.

This seemed like a surprising thing to say given the shocking details that have been emerging from the Leveson inquiry, and my initial reaction was very much in line with that of the “Broken Barnet” blog.

But I was also curious to find out more about the motivation and rationale behind the idea, and the extent to which it has (or hasn’t) been properly thought through.

So I’ve written to David Hunt, C/O his office in the House of Lords, with a series of questions. If I get any kind of response I’ll be posting it here.

Dear David Hunt,

I was intrigued by reports that you are hoping to introduce a “kitemarking” scheme for bloggers. As a writer who has a blog and closely follows a number of others, I have some questions about this idea that I’m hoping you might be able to answer?

1. Despite the recent growth of the internet, many more people still read books than read blogs. Some of the things that are written in books are inaccurate and misleading. Thousands of new books are published in the UK each year. Yet other than the law of libel – which is equally applicable to blogs – there is currently no formal mechanism for challenging inaccuracies published in books. In order to be consistent, will the Press Complaints Commission therefore be seeking to “kitemark” books – or book publishers? If not, why single out blogs and blogging?

2. It has been suggested that you believe inaccurate reporting by bloggers to pose a “greater challenge” than inaccurate coverage by the tabloid press. Can you provide some specific examples of inaccurate reporting by bloggers that you believe might substantiate this claim?

3. In 2010 I reported the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article in which it made a series of false claims downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. [see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/27/asbestos-press-watchdog-pcc]. The newspaper eventually agreed to print a correction. Can you provide an example of a similarly toxic false health claim made by a blogger?

4. Can you provide an example of a blog whose reporting is consistently less accurate than, for example, that of the Daily Mail?

5. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all organisations that publish a blog (eg. Cancer Research UK [http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/] or Topshop [http://insideout.topshop.com/]) or only to individual blogs that are deemed “political”?

6. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to political blogs published by Members of Parliament – for example Nadine Dorries MP [http://blog.dorries.org/] and Tom Watson MP? [http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/]

7. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all blogs read in the UK (ie. including US-based blogs such as BoingBoing [http://boingboing.net], and the US edition of the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=US]) or only to blogs written by people living in the UK?

8. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to publicly visible postings and “groups” on Facebook, and to postings on microblogging sites such as Twitter?

9. Many political blogs are highly critical of the habits and standards of commercial newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Telegraph. Given that the Press Complaints Commission would receive the bulk of its funding from such sources even under the alternative arrangements you are proposing, would this not create a serious conflict of interest, undermining the credibility of any attempt by the PCC to “regulate” political bloggers?

10. Many political blogs are highly critical of the Conservative Party and its donors, and of the wider political establishment in which the three main political parties operate. Given that both you and your predecessor are Conservative members of the House of Lords, does this not also create a serious conflict of interest, and undermine the perceived neutrality and objectivity of any PCC “kitemarking” scheme for political bloggers?

I will be publishing these questions on my blog. If you are able to respond then I would be happy to include your answers in full. You would also be welcome to add a comment to the blogpost itself, which can be found at http://richardwilsonauthor.wordpress.com.

Best regards,

Richard Wilson

Written by Richard Wilson

December 19, 2011 at 7:00 am

Paul Kagame’s “cheerleader in chief”. Guest post by “Rwanda Nkunda”

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This is a guest post by Rwanda Nkunda. You can find more of their work via the blog “Cry for freedom in Rwanda”.

Tony Blair is on an official visit to Rwanda. This is probably the seventh visit since his departure from Downing Street in 2007.

The visits are part of his Africa Governance Initiative; although, he is also an official adviser to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. As noted by the Independent, the two share a close but bizarre relationship in which Mr. Blair functions as Mr. Kagame’s “cheerleader-in-chief”.

How the former leader of one of the world’s most powerful democracies became the publicist for a notorious “predator of the press” is a subject that remains closely guarded. The many explanations that emerge are wild guesses that tend to be borderline conspiracy theories–the sort that blames the western world for all evil in this world.

My focus here is less on how the two became involved with each other, but more on the substantive outcome of what we might consider to be Mr. Blair’s advice.

What is becoming a bit more apparent is that Mr. Kagame seeks to use Mr. Blair as a cover up for his past and present failures. Indeed, the relationship seeks to extend credibility and legitimacy to a brutal dictatorship; which frequently uses murder as a political tactic?. As such, Mr. Blair has become the benign face that promises enticing reforms while Mr. Kagame continues with business as usual.

The precise nature of the relationship seems very unclear. What we know is that Mr. Blair is frequently shuttled around the world in Mr. Kagame’s private jets and gets celebrity treatment whenever in Kigali. For a man who was once one of the most powerful figures in the world, the appetite to feel important or regain a glorious past might be the weakness that Mr. Kagame is exploiting.

To be sure, the regime has the capacity to dismiss some of the killings that the opposition attributes to Mr. Kagame. However the capacity to do so does not depend on Mr. Kagame’s innocence or lack thereof. It is simply that, when Kagame’s critics get murdered, there is little that gets done in terms of investigations. Moreover, and naturally, the regime never admits responsibility for such crimes.

It is deemed more convenient for them to deny and deceive, hoping that the “naïve” westerners will fall prey to their antics and continue to pump aid money. Yet, despite the many human rights concerns that have been raised, including massive irregularities in the 2010 presidential elections, Britain has doubled aid money to Rwanda to become the country’s leading donor.

The whitewashing does not always seem to work in the regime’s favor. In fact, if recent media reports are any indication of western perception, Mr. Kagame is slowly being revealed for what he is. For many of us though, the truth has always been clear. The nature of the killings that target opposition members has always left Mr. Kagame’s fingerprints showing.

The fact that Mr. Kagame tolerates no dissent has never been a secret. The Economist has for instance argued that Mr. Kagame “allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe”. What is rather more surprising is that many people around the world appear too quick to forget that Mr. Kagame is essentially a military dictator. Otherwise, the world would be holding him to a much higher standard, if it remembered his questionable military past.

President Kagame’s speeches, at least those delivered in Kinyarwanda, are often filled with vile and threatening language. There is nothing inspiring about them. His diction is that of a man without patience who is always seeking to bully his way. He regularly refers to opposition figures as “human waste” and promises to crush them without mercy.

When such killings do happen, it is little wonder that the opposition identifies Mr. Kagame as the prime suspect. Indeed, Rwandans have a proverb that says, “akaba ku mutima gasesekarira kumunwa” translating into (“that which is at the heart reveals through the mouth”). As we saw with the recent events in Libya, what a president says can inspire or destroy a nation!

Even if Mr. Kagame refutes all the allegations, his past is heavily tainted with greater crimes. Rwanda has invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo three times and has supported rogue militias including the CNDP whose leaders Laurent Nkunda and Bosco Ntaganda are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. Moreover, various United Nations have accused Mr. Kagame of pillaging and stealing DRC’s mineral wealth.

As if the crimes above were not enough, Mr. Kagame has also been accused of committing a possible genocide against members of the rival Hutu ethnic group between 1996 and 1997. This is important because genocide is the crime of crimes. Moreover, Mr. Kagame often rides on his high horse claiming that he ended the Rwandan genocide. As such, if these crimes are referred to the ICC, the usual moral card that Kagame plays against the west might not count anymore. The evidence behind these allegations is very strong, hence the very reason why Rwandans believe that Kagame is a mass murderer.

In the meantime, Mr. Blair and Kagame seem to be winning. Mr. Blair seems to have won over the bulk?of British’s political class, whether conservatives or liberals, on Mr. Kagame’s side.

Since 2007, conservatives have been sending their MPs to Rwanda through project Umubano for volunteer work. While their good intentions are commendable it begs the question of whether the British parliamentarians would be comfortable to extend such missions to other oppressive countries such as Burma, North Korea or Zimbabwe. Doing so in Rwanda, sends the wrong message and weakens the resolve of those who are struggling to plant democracy.

Ultimately, as it seems, “crushing” independent voices is Mr. Kagame’s biggest fantasy. The question that needs asking is, should Britain be helping him to achieve this macabre goal?

Written by Richard Wilson

December 18, 2011 at 8:27 pm

“Richard Wilson’s blog” has been kitemarked

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Via "Love and Garbage"

I’m honoured to announce that this is the second ever UK blog to be recognised as an official, government-approved, kitemarked-and-licensed communicative online blognode (GAKALCOB).

The scheme was launched earlier this evening when “Love and Garbage” became the first to achieve this coveted status:

This official kitemark confirms that this blog has passed the stringent tests of self-regulation imposed by the independent regulator (namely a guarantee that when asked I will forget whether or not any of the things I have written on here are questionable, unethical, or immoral – and if they don’t ask if stuff I write is illegal or has been obtained in an illegal way I won’t have to answer that question). Let this assurance guarantee to you, my dear reader, that everything you read on here is of a quality at least as high as that you see in national newspapers.

Be assured that my chairing of the loveandgarbage Code of conduct committee where I assess if the loveandgarbage blog has breached any ethical moral or legal issues is a guarantee that I, and the licensing body, takes self-regulation very seriously indeed.

I’m delighted to be following “Love and Garbage”‘s lead, and to assure my readers that I will be following this code almost as assiduously as he will.

More background on this noble enterprise here.

GAKALCOB Kitemarking complaints procedure:

Should you believe that any aspect of this blog breaches the GAKALCOB Kitemarking Code, you may first complain to me, in writing, via the postal address given at the bottom of the page. Should you not receive a response within 365 working days, or should you wish to appeal my automated-rejection of your complaint, you may complain to the GAKALCOB regulator at the following address:

Lord Hunt of Wirral

House of Lords,

London, SW1A 0PW

Your call is important to us. Please continue to hold. Calls may be monitored for training purposes. Resistance is futile.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm

The only way is ethics #BellPottinger

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“I don’t see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values”

- ‘Lord’ Bell in 2008, after taking on a contract to buff the image of the Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenka

“the methods used by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalists are underhand, unethical and improper”

- ‘Lord’ Bell in 2011, after his company was caught by undercover reporters bragging about its influence over the UK government, and its use of “dark arts” to bury bad coverage.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 13, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

Tagged with

Bell Pottinger cuts health information on skin cancer, replaces it with details of their client’s “telemedicine solution”

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Thanks to the tireless Tim Ireland, the world now knows that the PR/lobbying firm Bell Pottinger have for years been factory-farming Wikipedia – ie. astroturfing on an industrial scale.

One of the more prolific accounts identified in Wikipedia’s subsequent investigation is IP address 109.231.203.194, and its list of edits makes interesting reading. The person or people behind this account were particularly busy with the Wikipedia entry on Melanoma (a type of cancer that most commonly appears on the skin). Their first edit, on September 2nd this year, was to add the following text:

Online screening

A recent telemedicine solution has been developed that allows people to screen moles online in under 24 hours – reducing the burden of needless anxiety on those with benign lesions, and unnecessary consultations with healthcare professionals. The service was launched in September 2010[1] by a company called Moletest and uses a unique ‘computational vision’ to assess photographic images of lesions (melanocytic nevus) against known case results – providing a ‘traffic light’ based evaluation where green is a ‘normal’ lesion, amber a ‘borderline’ lesion with potentially unpredictable biological behaviour, and red a potentially ‘cancerous’ one. The process is overseen by a panel of professional dermatolagists and has the potential to revolutionalise melanoma screening and detection, in the same way that smear testing did for cervical cancer in women.

It turns out that the company Moletest is or was a client of “De Facto Communications”, which describes itself as “Part of Bell Pottinger Health – the healthcare and pharmaceutical arm of the UK’s No.1 PR group” .

Soon afterwards, the Bell Pottinger account added near-identical text to the entry on Melanocytic nevus (skin lesions more commonly referred to as “moles”).

But in this case they went one step further – actually removing a whole tranche of text that gave details of how people concerned about a possible skin cancer might check themselves for symptoms. Here’s what they cut:

A basic reference chart used for consumers to spot suspicious moles is found in the mnemonic A-B-C-D, used by institutions such as the American Academy of Dermatology and the National Cancer Institute. The letters stand for Asymmetry, Border, Color, and Diameter.[5][16] Sometimes, the letter E (for Elevation or Evolving) is added. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, if a mole starts changing in size, color, shape or, especially, if the border of a mole develops ragged edges or becomes larger than a pencil eraser, it would be an appropriate time to consult with a physician. Other warning signs include a mole, even if smaller than a pencil eraser, that is different than the others and begins to crust over, bleed, itch, or becomes inflamed. The changes may indicate developing melanomas. The matter can become clinically complicated because mole removal depends on which types of cancer, if any, come into suspicion.

A recent and novel method of melanoma detection is the “Ugly Duckling Sign”[17][18] It is simple, easy to teach, and highly effective in detecting melanoma. Simply, correlation of common characteristics of a person’s skin lesion is made. Lesions which greatly deviate from the common characteristics are labeled as an “Ugly Duckling”, and further professional exam is required. The “Little Red Riding Hood” sign,[18] suggests that individuals with fair skin and light colored hair might have difficult-to-diagnose melanomas. Extra care and caution should be rendered when examining such individuals as they might have multiple melanomas and severely dysplastic nevi. A dermatoscope must be used to detect “ugly ducklings”, as many melanomas in these individuals resemble non-melanomas or are considered to be “wolves in sheep clothing”.[19] These fair skinned individuals often have lightly pigmented or amelanotic melanomas which will not present easy-to-observe color changes and variation in colors. The borders of these amelanotic melanomas are often indistinct, making visual identification without a dermatoscope very difficult.

People with a personal or family history of skin cancer or of dysplastic nevus syndrome (multiple atypical moles) should see a dermatologist at least once a year to be sure they are not developing melanoma.

The changes to both entries were cancelled just over an hour later by an eagle-eyed Wikipedia editor – the site’s editing rules stipulate that “Wikipedia is not …a vehicle for propaganda, advertising and showcasing”.

But it nonetheless seem striking that anyone would think it was a good idea to delete a fairly detailed account of how people might check for potential skin cancer symptoms and replace it with a puffy advertorial for a company that charges for online screening.

Bell Pottinger really do seem to be in a class of their own…

Written by Richard Wilson

December 11, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

Tagged with

Pinochet, Bell Pottinger, and “reconciliation”

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It turns out that long before they started shilling for the Belarus dictatorship and writing speeches for Sri Lankan war criminals, Bell Pottinger were paid apologists for the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, lobbying hard to help the General evade justice after he was arrested in the UK on torture charges in 1998.

From The New Internationalist

Business people associated with Chile’s Augusto Pinochet Foundation are bankrolling the campaign in defense of Pinochet. Bell Pottinger, the public-relations firm headed by longtime Conservative PR guru Sir Tim Bell, worked under a $310,000 contract with the Chilean Reconciliation Movement, a pro-Pinochet organization operating in Britain…

Bell Pottinger has sent 14 postcards, in the name of the Chilean Reconciliation Movement, to 5,000 British ‘opinion makers’ (including the heads of the top 2,000 corporations, the members of the Houses of Commons and Lords, and the major news media). The buzzword of ‘reconciliation’ appears frequently, and several of the cards argue that Chileans are entitled to and have in their majority chosen reconciliation over ‘recrimination’ and revenge. But the content of the postcards is hardly conciliatory. Clanging relentlessly through the campaign is the claim that in 1973 the elected Chilean Government was raising paramilitary forces in order to establish a communist dictatorship – this is their justification for the military’s violent seizure of power and dictatorial rule.

Tim Bell’s public-relations expertise was also employed for a televised meeting between Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher in the house where the ex-dictator is confined. The meeting was arranged by Robin Harris, a senior advisor to Thatcher. Harris has also produced and sent to over 5,000 UK ‘opinion formers’ (the same 5,000 as the postcards, perhaps?) a paper entitled ‘A Tale of Two Chileans: Pinochet and Allende’. Harris’s paper rehearses the same accusation as the postcards – President Allende had planned a ‘self-coup’ with dictatorial aims. Over half of the paper’s footnotes cite a document produced by the dictatorship with CIA assistance shortly after the military coup. Harris also promises shortly an appendix detailing ‘Plan Z,’ the fictitious plot under which Allende and his associates were to eliminate an extensive list of enemies including prominent members of the armed forces.

The apologists of the dictatorship accuse the Left of crimes in fact perpetrated by the Right. On the lurid accusations of ‘Plan Z’, there were two current or former commanders-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces assassinated during the 1970s, but they were not assassinated by the Popular Unity. General Rene Schneider was murdered in 1970 during a failed kidnapping by right-wing military conspirators who planned to blame the crime on the Left in hopes of scuttling Allende’s victory at the polls. General Carlos Prats was assassinated in 1974, after his exile to Argentina, by agents of the military dictatorship. Both were despised by the Right for their ‘constitutionalist’ scruples…

The current campaign is not the first project in which the public-relations industry has served Pinochet and company. In fact, the military dictatorship directly employed numerous PR firms to polish its image over its 17 years. Starting in 1974, a US organization called the American-Chilean Council began work with the aim, in its own words, ‘to expose the misinformation, gross exaggerations and downright lies [about the Chilean dictatorship] being fed to the American public through the Left/liberal establishment’. Four years later the American-Chilean Council was revealed, in a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department, to be working in the pay of the dictatorship, basically as a front for the public relations firm of Marvin Liebman Inc…

Written by Richard Wilson

December 8, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Naming and shaming the journalists & editors who demonise people with disabilities

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There was a sickening article in today’s Observer from Ian Birrell on the real-life effects of the recent media coverage on people living on disability benefit:

“Polls have found substantial increases in the number of disabled people experiencing aggression and abuse, with evidence that the attitudes of the rest of society towards them are worsening. Many disabled people were already scared to go out after dark or travel on public transport such is their justified fear of encountering hostility.

…Unfortunately, much blame rests on the shoulders of the media and certain parts of government. There has been a new dialogue over disability, characterised by the constant drip-drip of stories implying vast numbers of disability claimants are bogus, that benefits are doled out without proper checks and taxpayers fund free cars for thousands of children with minor behavioural disorders.

Many emanate from the Department for Work and Pensions, which has twisted facts, manipulated statistics and distorted data to win support for its drive to cut costs and crack down on benefit fraud. This cascade of spurious claims and scandalously spun stories ends up demonising the disabled. It does no credit to Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state, who proclaims himself a compassionate Conservative. Ministers say they cannot be blamed for the actions of the media, but they know how the game is played.

Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in articles about “cheats”, “scroungers” and “skivers” in the media. Not just tabloids, but broadsheets and broadcasters. A recent Glasgow Media Group study revealed a near-tripling of these words in papers, alongside a reduction in reports on discrimination and sympathetic stories about disabled people. Focus groups found people suggesting seven in 10 claimants were fraudulent; in reality, levels of fraud for disability benefits are 0.5%, much lower than for other benefits – and less than the level of errors made by officials.

…It is grossly irresponsible for journalists and politicians to collude in this manner to create a climate encouraging hatred, hostility and abuse towards people for whom life is already so difficult. This would be true at any time, but especially at a time of such uncertainty, when people are fearful of the future and looking for others to blame for their misfortune. Those with disabilities should not be made scapegoats for other people’s sins.”

The picture Ian Birrell describes seems eerily similar to the way the more toxic elements of the media chose to portray refugees and asylum seekers during the early 1990s. Given the results of that campaign, it’s disturbing to think what life will be like for disabled people in ten years time if the current media campaign of demonisation is successful.

But the difference between then and now is that the internet allows us very easily to track false and misleading media coverage, and draw attention to the activities of repeat offenders.

A quick search of the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph websites seems to support Ian Birrell’s argument (by contrast, compare the Independent, Mirror and Guardian).

When the overwhelming majority of stories that contain the phrase “disability benefit” portray the claimants in such a negative light, and focus relentlessly on the tiny minority engaged in wrongdoing, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that the editor of the paper in question has a political agenda.

When the collective audience of the newspapers engaged in this campaign is so large, it’s easy to see how the public are getting such an inaccurate picture.

Whether through out-and-out misrepresentation or through an extreme form of “selection bias“, the reporters and editors who are distorting public perceptions of disability are having a direct impact on innocent people’s lives.

With a few notable exceptions, UK journalists who make false and misleading claims have generally able to  evade the consequences of their actions, damaging other people’s lives without ever “becoming the story” themselves.

It struck me that one way of trying to address this issue might be to start documenting the UK media’s “drip drip” campaign of demonisation, highlighting the most egregious examples, and naming and shaming the editors and journalists responsible.

I’m interested in how widespread this problem is, and whether it will turn out to be just a passing phase or a sustained campaign, in the classic mould, with the potential to do serious damage to the status of a minority group. If you come across examples of press coverage that exemplify the problems that Ian Birrell has highlighted, please do leave a comment. I’ll also be keeping an eye out myself, and will update this page with the most extreme examples I find.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Spoof news magazine editor Fraser Nelson gets fooled again

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Fraser Nelson, editor of Andrew Neil’s ironic spoof news mag The Spectator, has a track record of being taken in by cranks and pseudoscientists. A little while back he took it upon himself to promote an AIDS denialist film, House of Numbers, apparently in the belief that its makers had intelligent and useful things to say, and ran an op-ed piece dismissing HIV science as “the AIDS religion”. (see here for the original text)

Now The Guardian reports that Nelson has gone one step further, putting the notorious Swedish water-divining enthusiast and “magnetometry” mystic Nils Axel Mörner on The Spectator’s front cover, and leading his readers to believe that the guy is an authority on the effects of climate change on sea levels.

From The Guardian

Nelson’s “find” is a man some of us found years ago and have seen as a source of wild entertainment ever since. He’s called Nils-Axel Mörner, and among his claims to fame are that he possesses paranormal abilities to find water and metal using a dowsing rod, and that he has discovered “the Hong Kong of the [ancient] Greeks” in Sweden.

The celebrated debunker of cobblers James Randi challenged Mörner to demonstrate his expertise with a dowsing rod, but he “consistently refused to be tested”. He did however, allow his paranormal abilities to be examined on Swedish television, using a test that Mörner himself devised: dowsing for a packet of sugar concealed under one of 10 cups. Needless to say, he failed, blaming, as such people so often do, “interference” and “influences”.

In 2007, Mörner and his collaborator, a homeopath and amateur archaeologist called Bob Lind, were reprimanded by the Scania County archaeologist in Sweden for damaging an Iron Age cemetery during their quest to demonstrate the “Bronze Age calendar alignments”, which would somehow help to show that this local graveyard was in fact an ancient Hellenic trading centre.

Reviewing such claims, the archaeologist and chair of the Swedish Skeptics Society, Martin Rundkvist, comments that if Nils-Axel Mörner is associated with a project, it’s “a solid guarantee for high-grade woo.”

Now Mörner turns up on the front cover of the Spectator, under the headline “The Sea Level Scam: the rise and rise of a global scare story”. His wild assertions are published in the magazine without qualification or challenge. Far from it: they are proclaimed in the headline as “The truth about sea levels”. Yet they are as far from the truth as his claims about dowsing and archaeology.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 3, 2011 at 12:58 am

Melissa Benn on “Free Schools” [sic]

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From www.MelissaBenn.com

The model goes something like this: a set of new schools, apparently dedicated to radically improved education of the poor, is set up in competition to existing public provision. Heavily backed by corporate or philanthropic interests, with some working on a “for profit” basis, they are reliant on high-stakes results, strict discipline, a punitive approach to teachers and unions, and tend to have more control over their admissions, higher rates of exclusion, and to take fewer students with special needs or those for whom English is not their first language.

Meanwhile, public (state) schools, many suffering toxic spending cuts, drowning in often unjustified public and political criticism, must continue to educate anyone who comes through their gates, making the alternative new model look shinier still. Yet many still provide an outstanding education, particularly in deprived areas. Sound familiar?

 

Written by Richard Wilson

November 29, 2011 at 10:23 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Belligerent Burzynski rep gets on the wrong side of Rhys Morgan

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Rhys Morgan is a 17-year-old sceptic from Wales who exposes pseudo-science in his spare time. Marc Stephens* is a representative of the controversial Burzynski clinic who has been sending threatening messages to bloggers who point out the lack of evidence for the clinic’s “miracle cure” claims.

Today, Marc Stephens found out what happens when you get on the wrong side of Rhys Morgan.

In a detailed article, Morgan revealed that Stephens had sent him a series of threatening messages over a blog post he had published way back in August. Alongside the standard-issue libel threats common to those of his ilk, Stephens had threatened to complain to Rhys Morgan’s school, and, even more bizarrely, emailed him Google Maps screenshots of his house, in an apparent attempt to intimidate him.

Morgan initially took the blog post down while he sought legal advice and tried to clarify what, specifically, he had said that Marc Stephens took to be libellous. Morgan then carefully explained to Stephens that the pre-action protocol for defamation requires complainants to specify the precise words to which they are taking exception. Vague, generalised demands, without a clear explanation of the actual basis for the libel claim, are not sufficient.

Eventually, Rhys Morgan gave up trying to get Marc Stephens to provide this information, restored his original blogpost, and published the abusive threats that he had been receiving. News quickly spread through Twitter and other social media – adding to the already-quite-substantial outrage about the Burzynski clinic and its supporters, and ensuring that yet more people heard the criticisms that Marc Stephens had been trying so hard to suppress.

While the UK media has been characteristically slow in picking this up – presumably the Murdoch press are too preoccupied with their own problems and the Guardian Media Group still frozen in the headlights after the Observer got sucked into the  controversybloggers all over the world have been ensuring that this story continues to grow.

*Not to be confused with Mark Stephens

Written by Richard Wilson

November 28, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Bloggers react as leading quackbuster is threatened with libel over exposé of charlatan cancer claims

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Help defend free speech and call time on the libel abusers – sign the petition for libel reform.

I’ve seen some pretty vexatious libel threats over the years, but the abusive message sent to quackbuster Andy Lewis over his measured exposé of the “Burzynski clinic” and its ‘miracle cure’ claims stands out as particularly unpleasant.

I have a lot of respect for Andy’s work and it saddens me that someone would choose to respond to him in this way.

Our dysfunctional libel laws encourage this kind of bullying and urgently need reform. In the meantime, people who make vexatious libel threats in the hope of suppressing legitimate criticism need to learn that this will often have precisely the opposite effect.

Professor David Colquhoun has more background on this story, and comments: “We need a Streisand effect to face down these pathetic bullies. It’s the ‘I am Spartacus’ principle.”

I agree. I am therefore reproducing Andy Lewis’s blog post here in full and would encourage anyone who is concerned about this issue to do the same.

From Quackometer.net

The False Hope of the Burzynski Clinic

November 21, 2011

By Le Canard Noir

It’s a powerful media myth that special American cancer clinics can provide miracle cures for cancer when the NHS cannot.

burzynski

Yesterday’s Observer contained a full page, heart breaking story of a 4-year old girl, Billie Bainbridge, who has a inoperable and rare form of brain cancer, Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. The only option for this aggressive cancer on the NHS is radiotherapy which may reduce symptoms for a few months. Two year survival is less than 10%. It is difficult to think of anything more devastating for a young family.

But the family of Billie do not want to give up – quite understandably. And they are trying to raise £200,000 to send Billie to the Burzynski Clinic in Texas that claims success with many forms of cancer. To help in this aim, comedian Peter Kay announced on Channel Four last night that he was holding fund-raising gigs this week to help Billie get the treatment that may save her life. As he said, “I just couldn’t not do it”. Enlisted to help raise the funds in many ways are a group of performers, including Badly Drawn Boy, Michael Bublé, Cheryl Cole, Gorillaz and Radiohead.

The fund raising web site, The Billie Butterfly Fund, describes the family’s hope in the Burzynski clinic. We are told that Billie has already travelled to America for preliminary treatment and that now she “has been accepted for pioneering Antineoplaston Therapy at the Burzynski Clinic in Texas which has been conducting FDA (US Government) clinical trials”.

Antineoplaston therapy specifically targets cancer cells without harming healthy cells. Each patient has a personalised treatment plan determined by medical history and extensive analysis. Typically treatment lasts for 8-12 months.

In order to be ‘accepted into the trial’, the family need £200,000. But there is hope,

Although there is no cure for Billie’s type of brain tumour, the treatment in America has improved survival rates in similar cases to Billie’s. It is conducted under the control of the responsible US Government agency. Most importantly it offers the real prospect of improving Billie’s chances of beating this dreadful disease.

It’s a compelling media story – a dying young girl, an NHS unable or unwilling to respond, generous celebrities and a hugely expensive and pioneering cancer clinic in the United States.  But scrape away at the surface story and there is something much darker – and that story needs to be told and myths dissipated.

The Burzynski Clinic is at best described as ‘controversial’. There are many warning signs given out by the clinic that are typical of cancer quackery, and so great caution is required.

Let me list some of my concerns,

  • Burzynski is a ‘lone genius’. Great scientific medical cures rarely stem from single individuals. They are the result of collaboration and teams. Such breakthroughs need to be assessed by peers to ensure that the researcher is not mistaken or overstating their case.
  • Burzynski is claiming he has found the ‘cause of cancer’ and his antineoplaston therapy is its cure. Cancer is a name given to many different diseases. There is not a single cause and treatments need to be targeted as specific forms. It is a common quack claim that they have found the ‘single cause’ and they have a ‘unique cure’.
  • The ‘cure’ – Antineoplastons – which were extracted from urine (yes – its the piss treatment) – has no good independent peer-reviewed RCT evidence suggesting it is effective.
  • Consequently, the treatment is not approved by US regulators. However, it is approved if treatment is part of a trial.
  • The Burzynski clinic charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to enrol themselves in a trial.
  • These trials of this ‘new and pioneering treatment’ have been going on for decades – since 1977. No end appears to be in sight.
  • The website Quackwatch has raised concerns about the origin of Burzynski’s claimed PhD.

So, there are many reasons to question this treatment and to wonder if it is anything more than the misguided obsession of lone doctor who might best be describes as a maverick.

Many people appear to have had deep concerns about the practices of this clinic. Dr Stanislaw Burzynski has been on trial for cancer fraud. He is not a stranger to the court room. In a trial in 1997, he was acquitted after a hung  jury was unable to convict. An anti-health fraud organisation, NCAHF reported that interviews with the juror’s suggested they felt he “was guilty as charged of violating court orders not to distribute his unapproved “Antineoplastons” in interstate commerce”, but that due to the strong emotions of some of his patients, who believed in him, some jury members felt unable to convict, despite the judges warning to ignore such emotions.

Support for Burzynski appears to be very strong amongst some of his patients. But as NCAHF say, “Trial by placard waving emotion is a form of mob rule.” Burzynski, his supporters and the media are able to cherry pick those cases that appear to have done well with his treatments. Living patients can be strong advocates.

But those who die are silent. Earlier this month, an Irish newspaper reported the tragic story of Zoe Lehane-lavarde who also had a media campaign running to raise money for treatment at the Burzynski Clinic. The report says that Zoe ‘responded well to treatment’ at the clinic. She died, aged 18 months, a few weeks ago.

The case reports that are relied upon to show successful treatment are by their very nature one sided. They ignore the voices of the failures. That is why properly controlled trials are so important, independently peer reviewed. They are sadly lacking with this therapy. We cannot know if the ‘successes’ are small or large in number, or if the successes are due to the new treatment or some other factor. Cancer affects people in many ways. Some live for many years despite many others dying quickly.

Dr Stanislaw Burzynski faces more problems. It appears that the Texas State Medical Board are holding a hearing next April to revoke his medical license. The response from his supporters is huge with campaigns to write letters to Governer Rick Perry. There has also been a movie made in order to support him as he goes on trial – Burzynski the Movie – which you can buy or rent – yes buy or rent – on Amazon, Netflix or Lovefilm. I hope none of the money from his patients has been used to make such propaganda.

I fully anticipate getting lots of comments from his supporters here. Do a twitter search for #burzynski to see the passion. It also appears that threatening letters are being sent out (text here) to bloggers who question his treatment. That is not the action of someone who seeks the truth but of someone who wants to silence debate. Such attempts to silence cannot be seen to be in the best interests of patients but look more like the attempts to protect commercial interests.

The Observer should not have published an article that was so uncritical of such a questionable treatment. (You can write to the readers’ editor at reader@observer.co.uk). Such articles will encourage others to go down this misguided path. You may argue that such a treatment gives the family hope, even if it is not effective. It may do. But it looks as if this will be a false hope – and false hopes rob people of real choices. The Bainbridge family are in the grip of utter tragedy as the mother is also suffering from cancer. There are undoubtedly many ways that £200,000 could help them, but putting a little girl through dubious, risky and unpleasant treatment, that is exceedingly unlikely to help,  is not one of them.

The treatment is not without its consequences. The article in the Observer describes what is going on,

Billie has already started the clinical trial. She went to Texas for a month, six weeks ago. She was able to come back and bring the treatment with her. She has a backpack with the treatment in it and a Hickman line going into her chest which administers this liquid every four hours. She has not been eating since she has been on the treatment so she also has to be fed through a tube – milkshakes and protein drinks.

False hope takes away opportunities for families to be together and to prepare for the future, no matter how desperately sad that is. It may make the lives of those treated more unpleasant and scary. (Antineoplaston therapy is not without dangerous side-effects). It exploits the goodwill of others and enriches those that are either deluded, misguided or fraudulent. It may leave a tragedy-struck family in financial ruin afterwards. Giving false hope may be more about appeasing the guilt and helplessness of ourselves rather than an act of kindness to the sick.

The Observer article talks about how Billie’s uncle has had his ‘cynicism melted away’ by the generous acts of people like Peter Kay. It appears to me that the success of the Burzynski clinic does not depend so much on published robust evidence (he has had decades to produce this) but on human kindness and goodwill. The blogger Orac describes how the Burzinski clinic has been relying on “harnessing the generosity of strangers” for years.

Orac sums it up,

The bottom line is that Dr. Burzynski is not a miracle worker. He is not a doctor who sees something that mainstream science has not and who therefore has a cure for many cancers that mainstream medicine scoffs at. He is not a bold visionary. Rather, he appears to be a man pursuing pseudoscience.

I understand how Peter Kay must feel when he says “I just couldn’t not do it”. We are compelled to help in such tragic circumstances. But I fear that in this case, such help will do more harm than good as others are drawn down this path. As always, people take claims on face value – a clinic that claims to help when others won’t or can’t. There are places that celebrities can go to to help ensure the science is sound, such as the charity Sense About Science, who welcome enquiries of this sort from people being asked to endorse claims.

Peter Kay is right to raise money for this family. And good luck to him. But it would be a dreadful wrong for this money to end up in the hands of someone whose actions cannot be distinguished from mere exploitation of the desperate. That money could make a big difference to this family. It could allow both mother and daughter to be looked after in comfort, without worrying about mortgages or jobs. It will allow them to be together. It will not perform miracles. And nor will it make the pain go away. But such a simple gift will indeed be an act against cynicism and false hope.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 27, 2011 at 1:15 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Slaying the super-injunction dragon and dismantling the secret courts

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Today I was one of four bloggers giving evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Privacy and injunctions. Also on the panel were David Allen Green (Jack of Kent / New Statesman), Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) and Jamie East (Holy Moly).

Trafigura

My main focus in the discussion was the notorious Trafigura super-injunction which I helped to unravel back in 2009, by posting a “banned” Parliamentary Question on Twitter.

A super-injunction is a gagging order that both prohibits the publication of a specific piece of information, and forbids any mention of the gagging order’s existence.

Trafigura’s super-injunction banned any reference in the UK media to a leaked company memo known as the “Minton Report”. When,  in October 2009, the MP Paul Farrelly raised the issue in Parliament, Trafigura’s controversial lawyers, Carter Ruck, tried to prevent the press from reporting Farrelly’s question.

This had come at the end of a year that also saw a draconian libel ruling against the science writer Simon Singh.  The year before, Ben Goldacre and the Guardian had successfully defended a vexatious libel case by the AIDS-denialist quack Matthias Rath – yet the newspaper nonetheless lost hundreds of thousands of pounds in unrecovered costs. I myself had spent time fighting off an unfounded libel claim over Don’t Get Fooled Again, and had seen up close the chilling effect that such threats could have.

To me and many others who took action the same evening, Trafigura’s super-injunction felt like the last straw after a series of attacks on freedom of speech. The bid by Carter Ruck to ban the reporting of Parliament seemed like imperial over-reach by a “reputation management” company far too used to getting its way from pliant High Court judges. It seemed extraordinary that a judge sitting in an English court – on a handsome salary funded by ordinary taxpayers – might allow such an effort.

The situation also seemed absurd. The “banned” Parliamentary Question had been published by Parliament on its own website. The Minton report itself had been available on Wikileaks for over a month. Yet anyone who repeated the same information themselves could face prosecution for Contempt of Court.

Secret courts and freedom of speech

But the fundamental problem was the very idea of a secret court hearing to ban the free exchange of information. When a court case is heard in secret, the public has no way of checking whether the judgements made in their name are decent, honest, and fair. Because we don’t even know that the case is going on, we have no way of holding the court to account if – as is inevitable from time to time, given human nature – a judge makes a decision through corruption, cronyism or incompetence rather than through the fair application of the law. Public scrutiny is an essential safety valve in any democracy, and it seems extraordinary that our political class would seek to dispense with it so lightly. This is not a new idea.

Likewise, any constraint on freedom of expression risks being abused by those seeking to cover up evidence of corruption or incompetence, as we have seen time and again with UK libel law.

We might nonetheless accept this risk in certain narrow circumstances. We might agree that some categories of information should in principle, in all or most cases, be kept confidential. Some examples might be:

- Children’s medical records

- The name and address of a person under a witness protection programme

- Information likely to be prejudicial to a criminal trial

We might accept that the courts have a role in enforcing this.  But even in these cases, court decisions have to be open and public if we are to minimise the risk of abuse. And for a government official to extend such restrictions to information which merely has the potential to embarrass a large and powerful corporation seems, frankly, reckless.

“How does undermining the rule of law aid the public interest?”

Two years after Trafigura it feels as if progress has been made. There seems to be a general acceptance (other than from Carter Ruck and Trafigura, obviously) that Carter Ruck’s attempt to gag the reporting of Parliament was misguided. There is also a recognition that the current system of privacy and “confidence” injunctions is in a mess, and needs reform.

But it looks as if there’s a way to go yet. Prior to today’s meeting, the panelists were sent a list of somewhat loaded questions, including:

“Most of you have blogged about injunctions; some of you appeared to know or think you were breaching injunctions whilst you were blogging. What were your motivations for doing this? What made you think you wouldn’t be prosecuted?”

“Do you think that you are able to judge the appropriateness of an injunction when you haven’t heard the full case (compared with a judge who has)?”

“What is your definition of the public interest? How does undermining the rule of law aid the public interest?”

In one form or another, all of these questions came up during the session. I clarified to the Committee that when I chose to publish the Trafigura question I was by no means sure that I wouldn’t be prosecuted. I took the risk because I felt so strongly about the issue, and believe that many of the others who did the same thing were making a similar calculation.

The second question may seem reasonable at first glance. But the implication seems to be that when a judge passes a free speech restriction that appears completely unjust, or absurd, we simply have to nod deferentially and trust that they must have had lots of good reasons that we just don’t know about. This again, seems like a prescription for corruption and incompetence.

The last question was particularly interesting. While the Committee wanted to challenge us on our understanding of the “public interest”, it seemed to me that their definition of the “rule of law” was just as much open to question.

The United Nations defines the rule of law as:

a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities… are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced… and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law… avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.

The International Bar Association, meanwhile, sees the rule of law as establishing “a transparent process accessible and equal to all”. The IBA spells out that “Confidence in the system of governance in any society cannot be maintained unless the process is open and transparent.

On this basis, it would seem that High Court judges who pass secret edicts restricting freedom of expression – and the Parliamentarians who allow them to continue – are doing far more to undermine the rule of law than the bloggers who circumvent them.

Rich man’s justice

Lord Gold and Gisela Stewart MP seemed concerned – if somewhat bemused – by my suggestion that I would quickly go bankrupt if I was ever dragged into a libel court over something that I’d written. Surely this was incredibly unfair to any potential litigants who might end up losing money by taking me to court? His Lordship noted, disdainfully, that it wasn’t worth anyone’s while suing me, was it?

It was difficult to know what to make of this point, so I thought I’d expand on it here: A typical UK libel case can end up costing upwards of £100,000 to defend. This is a figure far beyond the means of most ordinary people, including most bloggers, and that is why, for most of us, being sued for libel would entail bankruptcy.

The main reason that such cases are so expensive in this country – reportedly around 140 times the European average – is that the “reputation management” firms that bring them are willing and able to charge more for an hour’s work than many of us earn in a week.

This is, in other words, a situation that the legal profession, aided by a Parliament unprepared, so far, to reign in the activities of such firms, has actively created. So it seems odd for Parliamentarians – many of whom, like David Gold, are also lawyers themselves – to wring their hands when confronted with the consequences.

I’ve no idea what the Committee will have made of our testimony. It is, at least, encouraging that these issues are starting to be debated properly. But it is nonetheless disturbing to see such a blithe acceptance among our elected officials of this fundamentally undemocratic system. It’s difficult to see how the current mess will be sorted out, and public confidence restored, until we dismantle these secret courts.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 15, 2011 at 2:13 am

Straw poll – Is the current UK government better or worse than the last in basing its policies on good scientific evidence?

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I’m doing an article on science, evidence and evidence-based policy and would be interested to know what people think about these questions:

1. Is the current UK government better or worse than the last in basing its policies on good scientific evidence, or is there no big difference?

2. Is “evidence-based policy” on the march or on the retreat, or is the picture more complicated than that?

3. What are the current challenges facing scientists in seeking to get their voices heard in government?

Please leave a comment or email me at richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot uk

[Update - I will not be citing this straw poll as any kind of representative sample of public opinion, but I am still interested in general impressions and especially any concrete examples of areas where things may be getting better or worse. ]

Written by Richard Wilson

November 1, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Rwandan government’s $50,000-a-month PR strategy revealed

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Racepoint Group worked to promote “Rwanda’s visionary leader”

A detailed PR strategy prepared by lobbyists for the Rwandan government has been published by the US authorities. Under US law, lobby firms working on behalf of other governments are required to register their activities publicly.

The memo, which was prepared by “Racepoint Group” in 2009, is addressed to the Rwandan Information Minister from company bigwigs Larry Weber and Peter Prodromou – whose previous experience includes “working with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Libya to positively impact global public perception and support negotiating positions with key allies”.

The strategy aims: to “build a strong and sustained Image campaign communicating the successes of Rwanda with key stakeholders in the political and financial elite communities” and “Offset the negative and factually incorrect information of those parties with vested interests in mis-portraying Rwanda’s advancements”.

Campaign themes include “Rwanda’s Visionary Leader… highlighting President Kagame and his visionary leadership” and “The Rwandan Miracle: Healing of a Nation”. The company’s fees are listed as $50,000 per month plus $2,500 – £3,500 per month for “out of pocket expenses”. The average Rwandan has an income of $510 per year.

Racepoint suggests that Rwanda has a “significant image problem”, in part because “Certain NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, continue to advance a story of an unstable Rwanda” . Racepoint seems dismissive of this picture, alleging that Human Rights Watch and others are presenting it merely “as a means of continuing to attract donors and wield influence in the region”.

The PR firm then outlines “a consolidated set of tactics to publicize both Rwanda and President Kagame“. This will initially involve “leveraging top print and broadcast outlets to communicate the Rwanda success story… and, in the process, validate it based on their credibility”, together with “a proactive campaign that leverages the web to seed stories favorable to Rwanda”.

Racepoint singles out  the Huffington Post as a particular online media target, together with “careful seeding across the blogosphere” to “initiate an offensive to control the organic search on Rwanda and set the agenda in print and broadcast”.

“At the same time, we will blunt the online impact of our opposition by initiating a wall of defense debunking their accusations… we will identify and selectively respond to the most egregious… we will erect, on free social networks, ‘walls’ of pro-Rwandan data that debunks myths and links to Rwanda’s national web site. This will enable us to establish captive audiences on the web…”

Further elements mooted include a “Celebrity Visitor Program” a “Global College Tour” for President Kagame, and “challenging heads of NGOs that are the country’s largest detractors to public, televised debates on networks like CNN, BBC and al-Jazeera. This will provide Rwandan officials with the opportunity to debunk mythology being propagated by hostile NGOs and other detractors.”

The Guardian last year profiled Racepoint’s PR work for the Rwandan government, and highlighted critical comments by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative:

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, in a report last year, found that Rwanda has “excellent public relations machinery” which has succeeded in “persuading the key members of the international community that it has an exemplary constitution emphasising democracy, power-sharing, and human rights which it fully respects”. It concluded: “The truth is, however, the opposite.”

Rwanda’s constitution, the report said, was “a facade which hides the exclusionary and repressive nature of the regime”, “basic human rights are in an unsatisfactory state”, “censorship is prevalent” and there are “serious concerns about the level of political freedom”.

Written by Richard Wilson

September 4, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Blogger arrested for filming council meeting: In Carmarthenshire, this is what democracy looks like

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Furious council officials call Police after blogger refuses to stop filming a public meeting

From Carmarthenshire Planning blog

…when the row commenced over the Day Club, I started filming with my phone… I was asked to leave by the Chairman and Mark James, I said that I was not doing anything wrong, it is not against the law nor even in their standing orders (rules for meetings), neither was I disturbing the meeting…

As I didn’t leave, Mr James and the Chair called the police and then adjourned the meeting… it only took ten minutes today for two police cars and four police officers to appear in the Gallery. I tried to argue my point but was then arrested in the Public Gallery for ‘breaching the peace’. I was taken outside the door, handcuffed, searched, my phone taken and marched out to the waiting police cars. I was then taken 30 miles to Llanelli police station where I remained handcuffed for another hour before being ‘processed’, and put in a cell for another two hours.

By this time I was very disorientated, worried about my young daughter who needed picking up from school, I was cold (the police had taken my jacket and shoes and socks) and distressed. Without a solicitor present, I was then threatened by three police officers who said that if I didn’t sign an ‘undertaking’ not to film/record any more meetings I would be kept in overnight

Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson is on Twitter as @caebrwyn

Written by Richard Wilson

June 9, 2011 at 10:05 pm