Saturday, 10 October 2015

Poor Journalism & The Art of Innuendo - A Second Personal Statement

A few days back, I made a Personal Statement about my involvement in Exaro that I had hoped would be decisive in telling the truth of the matter for those interested in the current child abuse scandal - remember that I cannot and do not speak for Exaro or for the other shareholders but only for myself. As before, this has to be a Personal Statement.

In essence, I stated that I had founded Exaro but that I had no influence whatsoever over the editorial content and that, in particular, I certainly had no say in the editorial decision to get involved in the allegations about child abuse and its alleged cover-up in the British Establishment. I expressed my continued support, however, for the investigation of allegations. One of the grounds for this was that the campaign of vilification against me, the Editor and the main shareholder in Exaro (who also has no say over editorial decision-making as a result of a decision when the Company was founded, enshrined in a shareholders' agreement) which started some months ago in the back waters of the internet appeared to demonstrate that 'Exaro was on to something'. Based on long experience (see below), this indicated that there seemed to be murky forces interested in discrediting Exaro and perhaps 'killing it off' and, in killing it off, killing off the investigations by the Metropolitan Police. I have been struck since then by the extremely robust responses of the Met to the wide campaign of denigration of the investigations that has been mounted in recent weeks. I am also keen to emphasise that not all critics of Exaro can be tarred with the same brush. There are sincere and questioning people who are right to be concerned that the investigations remain on the right side of decency and do not descend into a witch hunt - so far, I do not believe that Exaro has done this.

I came to the view that there was no point in responding to the bottom feeders in the further reaches of the internet. The opinions of people who post on forums connected to David Icke might reasonably be ignored. I referred to the fact, however, that private investigators had been used to compile a 'dossier' on me and on Exaro. Having seen that part which related to me, it was in the grand tradition of third rate research without analysis and with content riddled with opportunities for innuendo, the art of which I shall return to later. This sump of rumour and half-truths did not avoid dragging in my family but my decision stood - there was no merit in giving the oxygen of publicity to what appeared to be an extreme right wing campaign of vilification or a psychological warfare operation masquerading as such. I have no idea who initiated or was interested in undertaking this campaign. Long experience in the defence of individuals against such online campaigns of vilification have taught me that these operations are best regarded as one of the unfortunate costs of a free society - like trolls in social media. One should be bigger than this.

So far so good but the denigration has recently moved up the line on the internet in a way I should have come to expect until it has reached the point where comment has to be made or lies and half-truths will become part of the mythology of my reputation. There is no necessary connection between the innuendo of the bottom-feeders and the higher level innuendo of the more 'respectable' blogger or mainstream media - none whatsoever - but the fact of reporting or campaigning through innuendo ironically demonstrates why Exaro existed in the first place. It was created in direct reaction to experience of the worst of British journalism - the automatic publication of material provided in dossiers whether by the 'secret state' or others, the failure to give adequate background, analysis or detail on stories and the failure to check stories at source. I am not going to defend Exaro in this context - it has to defend its own conduct. If mistakes have been made (by me as by others), there should be apology but any apology should not be the cause of the destruction of a major project which may offer to uncover something of what the ESRC-funded academics in History Today this month have called the 'hidden history' of official handling of child abuse in our country.

So, do I have anything to apologise for? Absolutely not. I have made it clear that I founded Exaro - for which I have absolutely no reason to apologise - and have no, repeat no, influence over editorial decision-making. Even if the Editor was proven to be politically motivated, had lied or had engaged in fearful misconduct (none of which is the case to date), my role would be limited to agreeing with Board Members to his removal on the evidence and only on the evidence. There would be no justification for such an act if the matter was one of the editorial material being inconvenient for us personally or our business interests.

But what is the response of the media to this in my case? It is not acceptance of the facts as outlined in my clear and unequivocal blog posting but, instead, an exercise in the sort of innuendo abhorrence of which had led to the creation of Exaro in the first place. Innuendo is the natural tool of the British Press in full hunting mode because it is an art learned within the confines of English defamation law and it usefully means that not too much resource need be spent on the expensive business of fact-checking and contextualisation. There is certainly no need to defame if you can select facts and use them to suggest something that is not actually true.

There are two key items of innuendo in my case and I am not afraid to confront them directly: that because I am left-wing and radical therefore Exaro must be part of some political conspiracy; and, second, that because my company, TPPR, undertook media relations and speech writing support for Asma Al-Assad, that I am in some way a 'bad person' whose implicit evil casts a shadow over Exaro. So I am going to deal with these two items of innuendo head on.

In both cases, these items have been variously used by campaigning bloggers and, latterly, by the so-called mainstream Press. Let me be crystal clear - in no case other than one has any journalist tried to contact me personally and directly in order to verify facts or discuss the implications. I note that the common trick with colleagues is to pose apparently devastating questions (less so with close analysis) only hours before a claimed deadline in that typical game of being able to say that the target had been contacted for a comment. In my case, I hold to a simple rule. Any respectable journalist may ask me any question on my own affairs in writing and I will undertake to try - as a busy person - to give a full written response if I think it appropriate within 36 hours. The one journalist who did try to contact me did so by leaving a message on Twitter which I did not see for several days - unlike the frenetic denizens of the Westminster Bubble, I only look at Twitter once a week at most!

The first innuendo about a left-wing political conspiracy is easily handled. I simply have to point to the previous blog posting and ask a journalist to read it. It clearly states the simple truth that Exaro was created with clear rules about editorial interference. I can add that the Editor was chosen in good part because of his lack of political affiliation and none of the other Directors to my knowledge have any particular affiliation themselves. In my case, I was actually estranged from the Labour Party from around 2004/2005 until only a few weeks ago. I am more radical and more left-wing in politics than those who controlled the Party until very recently and, like many, was uncomfortable with the forward foreign policy and the lack of democracy inside the Party. It is important to note that when Exaro was founded my regard for New Labour was probably at its lowest ebb.

This brings me to two specific claims - that I am a friend of Jeremy Corbyn and that I am in any way close to Tom Watson. Maybe I will be one day but I am not now. How about some basic facts. Let us start with Mr. Corbyn. I knew Jeremy in Islington in the 1990s for the simple reason that he was my Constituency MP.  I believe my wife (I had forgotten this but can thank the private investigators for reminding us) was on a local charitable board with him. I recall, unconnected to Islington party affairs, that I brought the attention of a Tory MP to some brutalised conservative-minded South East Asian dissidents who I had been asked to assist pro bono. That Conservative picked up the house phone at the Commons saying that Jeremy was the man to deal with this and, sure enough, with his usual moral integrity, Jeremy did what he could. In 1996, I attended meetings of the Campaign Group of MPs as Co-ordinator of the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance which was trying to democratise the Labour Party but I am not sure I even recall him in the room. I recall Jeremy turned up at one of our street parties. In other words, I knew him only a little more than the equally personally likeable Tory MP, Greg Clarke, in my current home of Tunbridge Wells. After I left London in 2000 - fifteen years ago - although we are 'Facebook Friends', I recall no communication between us other than one brief note of recognition when we connected. I certainly have not seen him since the late-1990s. So to claim some conspiratorial friendship is absurd. In fact, I respect and personally like him and he is part of the reason I rejoined the Labour Party but the 'conspiracy' is no more than that and I know a lot of prominent Conservatives better than I know the Leader of my own Party.

There is even less of a connection with Tom Watson. He was (I recall) my 'opposition' during the attempt to democratise the Party in 1995/1996 before he was an MP. I am not sure I even met him at that time. I may have done in passing but my dealings tended to be with Jon Cruddas amongst the Political Officers of the Trades Unions and with the Leader's Office. I am connected on Twitter and that is that. I have come to admire him for his stand on private rights over institutional force but then I equally admire the Tories Zac Goldsmith and David Davies in that respect. His election as Deputy Leader of the Party was undoubtedly a factor in my rejoining the Party as a private citizen, a decision I do not in the least regret. So, let us be clear, there is no left-wing conspiracy behind Exaro. I am the only left-winger involved, there was no Labour Party connection to my initiation of the Project (quite the opposite) and even if I had that conspiratorial intent, there is no mechanism by which I could influence policy. In short, any claim that Exaro is a left-wing plot should be regarded as the manufactured innuendo of fevered and desperate minds and this would have been made clear to any journalist who had bothered to contact me directly.

Now let us move on to the Asma al-Assad issue. The implication is that I should be ashamed in some way of my Company acting as adviser in the early 2000s to Mrs Al-Assad. Not only am I not ashamed but I am proud of the work done by my colleague - since, in fact, I cannot take credit for her sterling work. So, in the interests of dealing with innuendo and half-truths, let me tell you what one of my companies (TPPR) does in general and why our extensive work in the Syrian context was valuable and worthwhile.

I never speak of the details of the work I do for clients because of a commitment to client confidentiality but it is reasonable to write of the types of work we have done and why we do it. TPPR was founded in the late-1990s after I removed myself from domestic politics with a specific brief to defend individuals and others from the effects of unwarranted political warfare operations and also to advise on behaviour change and best practice to ensure that there was no room for future attacks in the future. It is rather interesting and amusing in some ways to be the one under attack now but at least I am well prepared with a correct and cool response to strategies of innuendo and to dossier-based psychological warfare operations.

I certainly have no need to justify our work to the British media - a lot of it was trying to educate lazy journalists on how to fact-check and ask the right questions. Sometimes we undertook pro bono or low paid work for the 'voiceless'. We were non-partisan and we might work indirectly alongside the State Department (in one case) or alongside Arab individuals wrongly accused of terrorism. With one exception, I do not recall we ever acted directly for Governments and that exception is outlined below. The details of our work, if we were permitted to reveal them, would be an advertisement for a fine and honourable little company that was at the heart of events during the so-called 'war on terror' and became expert in countering online psychological warfare operations during a dark period where collateral reputational damage was regarded as acceptable, using a supine media and even some NGOs as 'useful idiots' in campaigns to pervert and manipulate public opinion for political purposes.

Perhaps I am particularly proud of our first project which was the defence of the personal reputation of the owner of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals works in Sudan whose plant was bombed out of existence (its last shift of women workers almost slaughtered in consequence) because of a classic dodgy dossier, of our work to raise awareness in the Arab World of the appalling condition of the Marsh Arabs in Iraq in the run-up to the US invasion of 2003 and the forensic uncovering of the forged evidence used to try to remove George Galloway from the political scene. We never took sides or acted as agents of influence outside the limited parameters of specific initiatives which were ethically scrutinised with considerable care and usually related to our assessment of natural justice.

Now to Syria. Our involvement in Syria extended from approximately 2001 to approximately 2005. It certainly ended as soon as the Civil War broke out. Our Syrian friends, deeply distressed, split into their respective camps and it was ethically axiomatic that TPPR could not act for any Client in a war situation. Our relationship with Syria was complex and expressed as a series of projects in which senior and significant politicians of both main Parties might be involved and which were very much associated with the attempt to assist in the internal reform of the Government through dialogue. This was the only case where, at one point, we acted directly for an overseas Government when we agreed to assist the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in acting as liaison with the Foreign Office and in managing media relations during the Presidential Visit of 2002. We broke our rule on working with Governments in part because it was clear that it was in the British national interest to have a competent cultural liaison working with the Embassy answerable to the Embassy. During that period we had an excellent relationship with our FCO counterparts who proved, as you would expect, administratively competent under conditions where Syrian administrators were definitely not used to Western media and cultural habits.

Our other involvements were less direct. We agreed to help set up the British Syrian Society [''BSS'] with a number of highly respected British-Syrian businessmen and UK politicians as a friendship society designed to assist in the reform process that was widely assumed to be under way at the time. Incidentally, we introduced democracy to the BSS with a general vote of members to elect its Chairman. We managed the media relations for Syrian Culture Week and, through the BSS, we got to know the President's father-in-law who asked us to assist his daughter with some rather anodyne speech writing and a Press Visit by the Sunday Times. We were more than happy to do this and have no regrets. The intention was to build bridges in order to assist in modernisation. In that context, we undertook some confidential work with the London Embassy attempting (unsuccessfully) to change attitudes through educating Ministry officials on the cultural expectations of Syria in the West. Our work may reasonably be regarded as an honourable failure but it gave us a deep understanding of at least one aspect of Middle Eastern affairs. We had no connection with the Syrian Media Centre which was the State-directed communications unit in London. The specialist and educated journalists in the West covering the region were a pleasure to work with and never once were they pressurised by us to write (as if we could) anything but what they saw ... the spin and manipulation by the usual suspects was another matter. I have personal views on the responsibility for the slaughter and mayhem that subsequently appeared and I remain horrified by the ambiguities of Western association with faith-based obscurantists but that is a matter of personal politics and not the official view of TPPR.

In this second lengthy piece, I hope I have managed to make clear that not only do I have no editorial influence over Exaro which is wholly managed in that respect by the Editor but that Exaro never was, is not and never will be a political conspiracy, that the innuendo about me, about my family (if that is ever used as a tactic beyond the sump of bottom-feeders) and about my work needs cross-checking rather than accepting. My historic work in a Syrian context was mainstream, honourable and something of which I am actually rather proud.

The deeper public policy issues remain. They represent precisely the reasons I founded Exaro in 2011. Exaro may prove inadequate to the task or fail but the original impetus has been proved to be more correct than ever. When it comes to a national journalism based on dossiers, innuendo, half-truths, lack of analysis, sensationalism, partisan misinformation and disinformation, then if not Exaro ... who?