Richard Wilson's blog

richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot UK

Archive for the ‘PR industry’ Category

David Gorski on the insidious myth of “balance” in science reporting

leave a comment »

From Science-based medicine

I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.

Human Rights Watch on the deadly consequences of UN wishful thinking in Congo

leave a comment »

William Swing

UN Congo chief William Swing withheld
evidence of DRC government atrocities

From Human Rights Watch

The United Nations and a number of bilateral donors invested significant financial and political capital in the [2006] Congolese elections, one of the largest electoral support programs in the UN’s history. But with the polls finished, they have failed to invest comparable resources and attention in assuring that the new government implements its international human rights obligations. For donor governments, concern about winning a favored position with the new government took priority over halting abuses and assuring accountability…

Donor governments said they would devote considerable financial and technical resources to security sector reform programs, but have yet to insist that such programs include adequate vetting to rid the military and law enforcement services of individuals in senior positions who have been implicated in serious human rights violations…

Following the killings in Bas Congo in February 2007, MONUC [the UN peacekeeping force in Congo] sent a multi-disciplinary team to investigate. Its report was not published for five months as it was deemed “too sensitive.” UN officials did not want to criticize the new government before securing its agreement on the role of MONUC in the post-electoral period. Similarly MONUC delayed publication of its report on the March 2007 events for fear of upsetting relations with Kabila.

Both reports were blocked by the head of MONUC, Ambassador William Swing, who deflected repeated requests from the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York and from the then UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, for the reports to be made public.

If the reports had been promptly published, they could have contributed to wider awareness of the serious violations committed and might have led to additional diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government to halt the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable. The March 2007 investigation report was eventually published in French on January 4, 2008, after a copy was leaked to the press; no English version has been made public.

Don’t Get Fooled Again reviewed by Tom Cunliffe

leave a comment »

From A Common Reader

Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.

Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.

Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.

Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.

A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.

Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.

The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
  2. Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
  3. Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
  4. Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
  5. Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
  7. The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.

I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.

Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.

In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.

I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.

“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters. And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”

with one comment

It’s difficult not to wonder at times about the provenance of some anonymous comments left on internet discussion sites such as the BBC’s “Have Your Say” and the Guardian’s “Comment is Free”. ‘Astro-turfing’ seems almost impossible to prevent in such circumstances, and for anyone with a vested interest in promoting a particular point of view, the temptation must be difficult to resist.

Now the Guardian reports that a UK government counter-terrorism unit is targeting media organisations “as part of a new global propaganda push designed to ‘taint the al-Qaida brand'”. A strategy document recommends that the authorities “channel messages through volunteers in internet forums”.

“We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters”, says the leaked document. “And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media.”

While it isn’t hard to understand the rationale for tackling Al Qaeda in this way (and it’s surely preferable to torturing people), the most obvious fear is that those who begin disseminating misinformation for the ‘greater good’ may soon find themselves on a slippery slope. If ‘astroturfing’ to discredit a hostile terror group is acceptable, why not a hostile foreign government? And if spreading misinformation in defence of UK security interests is acceptable, why not our economic interests, which are, arguably, ultimately tied up with our security? Or in defence of an unpopular government policy which ministers feel is essential for the good of the country?

The Cigarette Century

with one comment

cultural history of the cigarette might not seem like the most obvious choice for a compelling read. But Harvard medical historian Allan M Brandt’s extraordinary work, ‘The Cigarette Century’ is a book that that strays a long way from the obvious. Brandt is both a meticulous historian and an eloquent writer – the book is reportedly the product of 20 years of research. In charting the rise and fall of the cigarette – from its humble and disreputable origins in the 19th century to its pre-eminence in the 1950s, and its gradual decline, in the face of growing evidence of its deadly effects – Brandt also recounts the evolution of modern American society; the growth of mass-production, the growing sophistication of industry lobbyists in Congress and – crucially – the birth of the advertising and public relations industries.

Drawing on confidential industry documents – many of them released under legal duress following a series of law-suits in the 1980s and 1990s – Brandt shows how tobacco companies deliberately sought to suppress evidence of the cigarette’s harmful effects, and deployed cutting-edge PR techniques to manipulate public opinion, creating the impression that the science around smoking and cancer was ‘unproven’ long after a clear consensus had emerged among experts.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I show how the techniques developed by the tobacco industry have become the standard tactic for an industry fighting a rearguard action against overwhelming scientific evidence of the dangers of its products.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 21, 2008 at 1:38 pm

UN calls UK government over attacks on freedom of expression

with 3 comments

Robert Maxwell, UK libel law’s most famous beneficiary

If I had to choose my all-time favourite bill ever passed by the New York State Legislature (a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon if ever there was one), it would have to be the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act”. The specific purpose of this bill is to stop Britain’s ‘rogue state’ libel laws from being used to undermine the constitutionally-protected right to freedom of speech in the state of New York.

Ironically, while the UK government allows our courts no jurisdiction over a murder committed overseas – even when the victim is a British citizen – it’s a different story when a book is published in a foreign country, which happens to offend someone with the time, inclination and (most importantly) cash to pursue their grievance in the UK courts.

The practice of ‘libel tourism’ relies on the fact that, with the internet, any book published anywhere in the world can be deemed to have effectively been published in the UK (and thereby fall under the jurisdiction of the UK libel courts) if it can be bought online and shipped to Britain. UK libel law famously places the burden of proof on the author/publisher of a work rather than on the plaintiff. A UK libel defendant is effectively guilty until proven innocent.

It’s also, I’m told, possible to defend a UK libel case successfully, yet still be left with massive legal costs to cover. Bringing a libel case can be very expensive, and is thus largely beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. So what we effectively have is a legal mechanism for allowing rich people and organisations to inflict crippling costs on anyone who says bad things about them, regardless of whether or not those things are actually true. During the 1970s and 1980s this mechanism was famously – and skillfully – exploited by the fraudster Robert Maxwell to suppress the many questions raised about his business deals. It was only after his somewhat mysterious death that the truth emerged. Perhaps the one saving grace of the law is that, at least in the UK, dead men can’t bring libel cases.

But with the advent of the internet, the phenomenon of ‘libel tourism’ gives the UK’s rapacious libel laws a global reach, and now pose such a threat to freedom of expression worldwide that foreign states are having to create legislation to protect their citizens.

The threat posed by ‘libel tourists’ is just one among a number of issues raised by a recent UN report on the state of human rights in the UK. Equally dangerous – if not more so, as we’ve been familiar with the libel problem for long enough to have at least some ways around it – is the Brown regime’s attempt to make it illegal for any former civil servant to say anything at all about their time in government, ever, without official permission from the state.

According to Craig Murray (ex UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan):

“The idea, of course, is that only the ministers’ version of truth will enter history. You can be confident that Jack Straw’s memoirs will not tell you that he instructed Richard Dearlove that we would use intelligence from torture, or that we colluded with torture and extraordinary rendition in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. You needed my memoirs for that. If Jack Straw had his way, I would not have been able to publish my book telling you the truth; in fact the new regulations were born directly out of Straw’s fury at Murder in Samarkand.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I explore the ease with which deception and delusion can start to creep in – and go unchecked – once freedom of expression has been compromised. An effectively functioning society depends on the free flow of information. The quicker that serious systemic problems can be identified, and analysed, the quicker solutions can be found. Attacks on freedom of expression seriously hinder this process, with the result that, at the extreme (as in the Soviet Union and Communist China), a wholesale national disaster can unfold without those in power ever facing up to the reality of what’s going on – less still being held accountable.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 19, 2008 at 2:24 pm

Power House PR

leave a comment »

One of the great things about the net is being able to track down classic books that have long gone out of print – if they ever were available in the UK in the first place. I came across Susan B Trenton’s “The Power House” whilst following the trail of the infamous “Nurse Nayirah” – whose (now) widely-discredited testimony before the US Congress played a crucial role in swinging world opinion in favour of military action in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War. Published the following year, in 1992, Trenton’s book follows the intriguing career of Robert Keith Gray, who headed up the global PR phenomenon Hill and Knowlton during the 1980s.

“The Power House” is these days quite hard to track down, but a flavour of it can be found in this article, which originally appeared in Washington Monthly. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I take a look at the PR firm’s Hill and Knowlton’s extraordinary track record, both before and after Gray, from the manufactured ‘controversy’ over scientific evidence linking smoking and cancer to its more recent activities representing a dizzying range of dictatorial governments from around the world.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 8, 2008 at 8:10 am