How TPA’s ‘dodgy dossier’ separated the smart mob from the cut and paste brigade…

Let me say from the start that I have no quarrel with the editorial direction of the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA) report even though it makes sweeping and misleading claims about lobby groups being paid to lobby the government by the government. Indeed this is a big Westminster village story (the sums are pretty insignificant on any UK scale) since it simply presages the likely clearing out of left leaning think tanks when the Tories take power next year. That’s substantially the story Guido reported (though he’s not above a little bit of cutting and pasting himself). The cut and paste merchants in the MSM and Tory blogosphere simply took the TPA’s report at face value and reprinted it.

What alerted us to the reports dirty data was the mention of one of the sponsors of the Slugger Awards (which launch tomorrow btw), Stratagem as being in receipt of £900,000 from Scottish Enterprise. This was not Stratagem, the lobby group, but Strategem the events company. Someone boobed, and the Taxpayers Alliance director Matthew Sinclair has been on several blogs today insisting it was Scottish Enterprise and not them. What’s damaging though is not the ‘mistake’ as such, but that this in turn revealed that the TPA did not actually have the data stand up the headline claims in its dodgy dossier. Here’s what it said on the tin:

“The new TaxPayers Alliance report Taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning reveals the extent of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in the UK.”

Yet it was clear from the Scottish cock-up that they’d simply been identifying companies that have lobbying as one their core competences, and then taking the money spent on them by government and calling it lobbying. That gives us a series of lump sum payments but with absolutely no indication of what services it might have been spent on.

Otherwise how could they have mistaken a Glaswegian events company (there’s that old declared interest again) for a Belfast lobby company? At best this research is utterly useless, at worst deliberately misleading.

I’ve just completed my yearly review of the Irish blogosphere for Total Politics magazine. It is pretty clear to me that this junk research would not have last five minutes in the much less partisan, much less fevered atmosphere of the Irish blogosphere. I like to think it would have been ripped to shreds by a quorum of expert bloggers regardless of their political views of the TPA’s views.

But as we saw with the Referendum debate, the people we employ to be the gate keepers of quality are often to be found asleep at their posts (as can be seen from this list of the venerable and the good who were well and truly suckered by this decidedly dodgy dossier).

Oh, and welcome to the very silly season!

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  • Dave

    “Yet it was clear from the Scottish cock-up that they’d simply been identifying companies that have lobbying as one their core competences, and then taking the money spent on them by government and calling it lobbying. That gives us a series of lump sum payments but with absolutely no indication of what services it might have been spent on.

    Otherwise how could they have mistaken a Glaswegian events company (there’s that old declared interest again) for a Belfast lobby company?”

    It’s a clever spot on your part and you may well have blown the credibility of their research out of the water with it. However, does it follow that they could not know what Stratagem did because they got details of payments to the (wrong) Stratagem from Scottish Enterprise? They could have known what the (right) Stratagem did independently of that source, but would not have known how much they were paid for doing it.

    “But as we saw with the Referendum debate, the people we employ to be the gate keepers of quality are often to be found asleep at their posts…”

    True, and the pro-Lisbon propagandists are still at it. One of the most blatant fraudulent acts from the government is to miss-sell the rejected treaty as a fiscal stimulus package, declaring that its implementation is essential to Ireland’s economic recovery.

    Let’s hope that honest bloggers expose this vile propaganda from the anti-democratic, pro-Lisbon lobby, eh? 😉

  • Another one for the list might be “MigrationWatchUK” (I assume its Ireland branch office is as suspect), which styles itself as:

    an independent, voluntary, non political body.

    And Forest, the:

    voice and friend of the smoker

    which is near-100% financed by the tobacco industry.

    As a rule of thumb, I expect any organisation hailed and celebrated by Tim Mongomerie’s ConHome to have a sniff of brimstone about it.

    To be even-handed here, am I unique in finding Shami Chakrabati teeth-grindingly, nerve-gratingly tiresome? Does every TV studio have her clone in a cupboard, ready for instant punditry?

  • Mick,

    You’re getting utterly ridiculous. Those firms don’t just have lobbying as “one of their core competences”. They are political consultancies, members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants. The service they sell is to defend, through the media or in the corridors of power, political interests. You’re just being utterly naive if you think that people go to someone like Weber Shandwick looking for advice on how to deliver low cost meals on wheels.

    Take the Stratagem example. Suppose that the information we were given in an FOI were correct (and FOI responses are an official source and we did confirm the information with Scottish Enterprise), as you say that you have a broader case and it “is not the ‘mistake’ as such”. If Scottish Enterprise had paid hundreds of thousands of pounds to Stratagem then they would have paid hundreds of pounds to a firm that sells itself as a “dedicated lobbying company”. As such, there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with us describing that spending as going on lobbying, would there?

    It will never be possible to perfectly separate lobbying and political campaigning from other spending. We acknowledged that early and frequently in our report. However, we adopted a cautious methodology and kept to relatively clear cases. In an imperfect world, without spending transparency to make more detailed analysis possible, I’m satisfied that we did the most rigorous job possible. Hopefully you can see that in the full report here:
    http://www.taxpayersalliance.com/tflpc.pdf

    To be honest, I’ve tried to engage with you on this, as your initial criticism was substantive and worth addressing, but I’m rapidly getting the impression that you aren’t remotely listening and don’t really care. You’re angry that your mates at Stratagem have had a hard time and are on some kind of misguided attempt to avenge them. If your point is about the quality of the Irish blogosphere compared to the Westminster media, then I’m afraid you’re not doing a great job selling it. I was a blogger before I ever worked at the TPA and, to be frank, I’ve seen better.

    Best,
    Matt

  • The Spectator

    Mick

    I wonder if you may not have found your next great call in life – SPINWATCH

    Doing some background research, and forcing transparency, on the ever growing list of ‘thinktanks’ seems to me a worthwhile occupation, no?

    For example, I was aware of the rightward leanings of the TPA for a long time, and had no real problem with that – but it was still interesting to see just how eurosceptic, self-selecting, and more importantly incestuous, the organisation actually is. It puts its work in a new and interesting light.

    It is an interesting, if depressing, thing to find how cosy is the relationship between the Media, who want the heated debate to sell copy, and the factory of ‘think tanks’ that exist to provide the debators, seemingly independent of actual popular opinion.

    If I did a bit of nosing around on the subject, would you be willing to link to it?

  • I read Matthew Sinclair @ 09:45 AM with interest.

    He reminded me, for some reason, of the classic story of the barrister who opened his brief to find it consisted of just seven words:

    You have no case. Abuse the plaintiff.

    Sinclair does just that at some length.

    One useful gem in Sinclair’s spiel was his reference to the Association of Professional Political Consultants. I had never realised just how prolific these lobbying firms were: the 80 pages of the APPC register (which, presumably is voluntary and therefore incomplete) provide a check-list of “usual suspects”.

    Do we, in the UK, NI and/or RoI, have an equivalent of the official Federal register of lobbyists (that partial census of DC’s K Street)? The Spectator @ 10:16 AM is on the button here. There ought to be (perhaps there is, via Theyworkforyou or some similar body) a local version of
    opensecrets.org, so that when the inevitable day of universal proletarian liberation arrives, bruvvers, we have a check-list of the cockroaches to line up against the wall. opensecrets.org provides me with the chilling statistics that US lobbying employed 14,838 individuals and earned $3.3 billion last year. Yikes!

  • Jo

    Well I pay tax and the TPA neither speak for me nor represent my views. I suggest the term “Alliance” is meaningful as it unites a disparate and now hopefully even more disreptable right-wingers with agendas way beyond criticism of government spending. There are professional watchdogs to do that, not a motley collection of obnoxious grumpy “Times” letter writers.

  • “one of the sponsors of the Slugger Awards (which launch tomorrow btw), Stratagem”

    Mick, I’ve had a brief look at Stratagem’s clients (and those for which it does pro-bono work) on the APCC register and was intrigued by the presence of Amey Ventures, a PFI vehicle, and Common Purpose, Belfast. Perhaps clients with clout bear closer scrutiny. Just some food for thought – and the related notion: ‘no such thing as a free lunch’.

  • OOPS, that should be APPC register.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “It is an interesting, if depressing, thing to find how cosy is the relationship between the Media, who want the heated debate to sell copy, and the factory of ‘think tanks’ that exist to provide the debators, seemingly independent of actual popular opinion.”

    Er blindingly obvious, but what about Demos?
    “Independent think tank and research institute, believed to influence the policies of Tony Blair’s government. Considered a centre of “Third Way” ideas”

    Julia Middleton was a member of Demos and then went on to set up Common Purpose.

    http://www.commonpurpose.net/

    “Common Purpose UK is an educational charity delivering leadership training programmes to decision-makers of today and tomorrow, drawn from diverse sectors of society.”

    A “charity” that would appear to receive all it’s funding from Government, and has attracted a fair amount of criticism…

    Stratagem (The Belfast company) does a fair amount of pro bono work for Common Purpose.

    Conspiracy theory anyone?

  • Pigeon Toes

    So when a “report” funded by people with vested interests in that “report” does not hold up to independent scrutiny, then one should question all of the “conclusions” based in that “report”…

    Well the same could be said for lot’s of “reports” Mick, but then again you would have to be on the “inside” to see the glaringly flamin obvious!

    “The cut and paste merchants in the MSM ..took the ..report at face value and reprinted it.”

  • Mick Fealty

    Fair play to you Matt. I must admit, I thought you’d retired from the field of battle last night. But it’s to your credit that you’ve so generously engaged with your critics. Would that more would.

    My case is pretty simple. The TPA ‘research’ claimed:

    “Taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning reveals the extent of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in the UK.”

    They then produced a figure of £39 million and tell us that this is the extent of the problem. Now, if that were to be proven even substantially true (for instance by excusing the Stratagem/Strategem example as a genuine mistake), it would indeed be a shocking state of affairs and worthy of more than one set of headlines.

    Now you say “it will never be possible to perfectly separate lobbying and political campaigning from other spending.”

    Given how difficult it is to get full information out of government, I agree.

    But the TPA apparently arrived at that statement in the understanding that the headline claim of the research could not be be extrapolated from the available data.

    I’m sorry, I am not being awkward. I spent some years working in research, and I understand that some shortcuts can be legitimately taken.

    But I think that with this report the TPA sold large sections of the national press a poisoned pup.

  • Mick,

    Almost all empirical, real world, research involves a certain amount of uncertainty. Our role as responsible researchers is to ensure that we err on the side of caution as far as possible without missing the point by accepting too many false negatives. We then come up with a cautious figure that makes it clear whether the issue we have identified is significant. That’s what we have done.

    I think that keeping to the hiring of political consultants, trade associations and payments to primarily political campaigns is a very cautious method. We could easily have included parts of the public sector publicity budget and payments to charities like Oxfam that expend considerable resources campaigning, though their main role is delivering services.

    I know enough about lobbying firms to know that they are very clear cases. As I said in my last comment, they’re there to defend an organisation’s political interests. What makes you think that I’m wrong on that point?

    Certainly, Stratagem – the firm you’ve worked with – bill themselves as dedicated lobbyists. They’ve complained because of the error in Scottish Enterprise’s figures, not because they think it is innapropriate to describe any portion of their work as lobbying.

    Best,
    Matt

  • willis

    Matt

    I’m still not getting this. Is the FOI response from SE available anywhere? Surely the point Mick is making is that these are two entirely different companies?

  • Mick Fealty

    Matt,

    I notice you haven’t addressed my substantive point (ie that your research was based on data which did not allow you tell an events company apart from lobbyists).

    I’ve been fairly careful to keep this an argument about the methodology of the research, not the polemic argument in your report; section 3 on methodology is as good a section for the casual reader to get a handle on this as any.

    It is, I suspect, a good primer for the kind of rules that may be applied by the new Tory administration who have been gestating plans to super invest in the third sector. These might be written in shorthand as: you can have money for executive functions but find your own money if you want to indulge in polemics.

    I don’t have a problem with that; neither should the charities and other bodies which will benefit from the incoming government’s new largesse. All good wholesome stuff.

    My ONLY problem lies with the research method. Giving us a long list of exceptions is like telling us you didn’t include Sweden when you were examining the educational outcomes of Denmark.

  • The Spectator

    Mick, Matthew

    An interesting article on the operating methods of TPA in the Independent.

    The ‘killer’ quotes from my perspective are :

    Matthew Elliott : “What we’ve tried to do since 2004 is understand how the media works, so we’ve tried to give news stories to journalists on a plate. Journalists … don’t often have time to read long and dry reports from think-thanks. So we get fresh figures from government and local councils, which we package up into brief, media-friendly research papers, complete with eye-catching headline figures to give reporters a ready-made top line“.

    What you see now is journalists who are grateful for news which is almost perfectly packaged to go into the paper with a ready top line. In that sense, journalism is becoming very passive. It is a processor of other people’s information rather than being engaged in actively seeking out and determining what the truth … is.

    Kind of highlights the point that the TPA is a lobby group, whose main purpose is the manufacture of media stories, not the creation of accurate research.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might not have said.

  • The Spectator,

    Part of making our research media friendly is to make it robust and reliable. Which is why it is no accident that the error here came from a dodgy FOI response from Scottish Enterprise. We take huge care to avoid errors at our end and I think we have an enviable record given how data heavy our reports are. Don’t assume that trying to make work media friendly means making it less accurate, quite the contrary.

    Mick,

    Our data did allow us to tell a Scottish management consultancy from a Northern Irish political consultancy. Because, we sent Freedom of Information requests to organisations that appeared, based on the APPC register, to have hired lobbyists asking about the lobbyist by name. If Scottish Enterprise had answered our question, about Stratagem, rather than giving us other figures, about Strategem, then we would easily have been able to tell the two apart.

    Willis,

    Absolutely. They are two different companies.

    I went over this earlier. We sent a Freedom of Information request about Stratagem (spelled perfectly) but were sent a response which, it is now clear, was about Strategem. Because the response wasn’t what we were expecting – the figure was a lot larger than most other cases and they shifted spellings between their acknowledgement of our question and the actual response, typos happen in FOI responses but that was still enough to raise alarm – we called to confirm the figure with them.

    Unfortunately, all they did was confirm the figures as a correct answer to our question and what they would tell us about the services they obtained from the firm didn’t raise any further suspicions. The figure seemed genuine and, in light of things like the big EMDA payment to the NEF and Scottish Enterprise payment to Demos, not implausible.

    It is very unfortunate that an error has crept into the final report – trust me that infuriates me and I’ve no interest in it happening – but we really were trying to get an accurate picture of what happened and, in this exact case, did try very actively to ensure it was accurate by checking with our official source.

    Best,
    Matt

  • The Spectator

    Matthew

    I make no such assumption – although the Strate/agem debacle would perhaps influence one in that direction.

    After all, would one phone call to Strate/agem not have solved the mystery? Is it not Research 101 to confirm these figures at both ends where possible?

    Perhaps you could simply publish the chain of correspondence between you and SE on this matter, and we can make our own minds up about robustness.

    The point I find illuminating, however, is from your CEO, Matthew Elliott – you take figures – and then you package them – not consider them, not analyse them, not investigate them – Packagethem . It gives the clear impression that you are not looking for facts, you’re looking for media stories – and when it comes to facts, you won’t find what you aren’t looking for.

  • The Spectator

    Matthew

    One final point. You have consistently blamed SE for what, I think you have to agree, on the face of it is a clunker. Your defence, perfectly understandable, is that is not your clunker.

    It occurs to me, however, that regardless of the source of the mistake, SE are under no obligation to make sure your media releases are accurate – that is your responsibility, and yours alone.

    TPA put clearly and substantially incorrect information into the public domain, and used that information to form a political attack.

    TPA, i.e. you did it; not SE, not Slugger, not Uncle Tom Cobley. You.

    I cannot see how it is any defence for a professional researcher, whose job presumably is to ensure the accuracy of their own work, who then publishes inaccurate and misleading research to blame a source, a source which never sought to have the information used in that way by the researcher. It just hand-washing of the first order, and frankly its juvenile.

    As a famous man once may have said “the buck stops here” – in this case ‘here’ is TPA.

    A research body of merit – which TPA presumably wants and claims to be – should mea culpa and be done with it. A genuine research body would. IF QUB, for example, published information on cancer deaths, and got risks from say, eating chilli wildy wrong because of a typo (A wrong point spot for example in the figures) it wouldn’t throw all the blame on Belfast City Hospital for the figures; it would own up and move on. Explain, certainly, but mea cupla nonetheless.

    (For a real world example, read the background history to the Popeye cartoon strip.)

    Instead, TPA have disavowed any blame, attacked SE, as if SE is under some duty to do TPA’s job for it. Then it attacks those who point out TPA’s problem.

    Which leads one, inevitably, to the conclusion, that to the members and staff of TPA, the public standing of TPA, and the influence it wields thereby (i.e. their own skins), are more important than the truth.

  • Just a small point, Spectator, the second italicised paragraph from the Independent is also a quote, this time from Paul Lashmar.

  • The Spectator,

    I’m not saying that Scottish Enterprise have to do our jobs for us. All I’m saying is that the Freedom of Information Act creates a legal duty for them to provide information when it is requested. That is the only way to get such information short of a Parliamentary Question (and they often can’t get as much). If we could use existing sources, we would.

    If we make a mistake, I’ll acknowledge that. No matter how careful you are, they do happen and there’s nothing to be gained by denying them when they do. However, in this case – there was no error in how we collected, analysed or presented our data. Getting all high and mighty about where the buck stops entirely misses the point. No one can do policy research without relying, to a certain extent, on existing primary information whether it is annual accounts, official statistics or response to questions under the FOIA. It is a very different thing when those sources are wrong, to when we make a mistake at our end.

    Best,
    Matt

  • Mick Fealty

    I’ll come back to this later… on a Birthday break… My Amazon wish list, if anyone feels so moved: http://url.ie/26l4

  • The Spectator

    Nevin

    Thanks. I was aware of that. I just did not want to give the impression that the second paragraph was a further quote from Matthew Elliott.

    Matthew

    “I’m not saying that Scottish Enterprise have to do our jobs for us. “

    Well, you’re blaming them entirely for the errors you published, so I’d say that’s exactly what you are saying.

    If we make a mistake, I’ll acknowledge that.

    You did. You haven’t.

    there was no error in how we collected, analysed or presented our data.

    But, Matthew, there is an error. A £1million pound error. The collection can perhaps be blamed on SE (perhaps), but the analyis and presentation lie entirely on your shoulders.

    Getting all high and mighty about where the buck stops entirely misses the point.

    Leaving aside the juvenalia of “All High and Mighty” – where the buck stops is entirely the point. You published bad figures. You tried to make hay out of them. You shouldn’t have done so. Your fault. The trustworthiness of your further figures are thereafter fatally undermined, because we simply cannot trust that you haven’t made other cock-ups.

    And your response to challenge reinforces that we can’t even trust you to own up to the mistakes, even if you do find them, presumably because it is too damaging to TPA. Again, the public profile of TPA is trumping the truth. It’s neither big, not clever, Matthew.

    I’ll repeat again:

    Can you publish the correspondence between yourself and SE for verification?

    Did you attempt to contact Strata/egem at any point in this debacle to verify figures that were, by your own admission, extraordinary?

    And I’ll add for good measure:

    Do you accept that the responsibility for the contents of a piece of work belongs in the first instance to the author?

  • The Spectator,

    This is ridiculous. The vast majority of research in the social sciences works with existing data from official sources. We can’t establish ourselves how much Scottish Enterprise paid or didn’t pay Stratagem, we have no power to bust into their offices and look at their financial records. Our responsibility is to collect, analyse and present the information produced as accurately as possible and check when things look dodgy. We did that by calling the source. Some other call that, with hindsight, might have helped is irrelevant. There is a limit to what it is reasonable for us to do checking a single figure.

    I won’t be responding to any further comments on these threads. I’ve tried to engage but I’ve got better things to do with my time than hang around to take unwarranted anonymous abuse. Clearly you have no idea how research in the social sciences is conducted and are just interested in fleshing out some absurd theory about the TPA being some kind of LSE conspiracy theory.

    Best,
    Matt

  • “did not want to give the impression”

    My initial reaction, Spectator, was that indeed it was a Matthew Elliot quote; my second was that the paragraph was composed by the reporter.

    Using quotes and the Paul Lashmar name would have removed the ambiguity and resulting confusion.

  • The Spectator

    Matthew

    I’m sorry Matthew, but that is just man-playing. First Mick, now me. I don’t think a stonewalling denial of responsibility amounts to engagement in any person’s book. And what exactly is the abuse – and what’s unwarranted about it?

    Look, a reputable research body lives and dies by the accuracy of its work. That’s just the rules of the game. Do you deny this.

    I can only assume from your reply that the answer to my second question is ‘no, we did not call Strata/egem, even once, to verify or question the figure.’ That speaks rather loudly to me, and for your information, I know a reasonable chunk about social sciences. Not as much as I’d like, but enough to spot spoofing. Even for my undergraduate dissertation (child sexual abuse figures) I double sourced my figures – and I was 20 yrs old and an amateur.

    AS for the LSE conspiracy theory – please don’t put words into my mouth. I note, quite correctly, that for a grassroots organisation, the founding base is extremely narrow, limited as it appears to be to former Conservative student politicians from two specific universities. am I wrong in this, or do you simply not like me stating it?

    That’s fine. I have no quarrel with such an organisation existing. LSE is a fantastic school, I’d love to have gone there in retrospect. (Imperial is exceptional too, but my A-level interest in the pure sciences has long since vanished). I’m not claiming you’re Bilderberg for goodness sake! I just want some honesty about your beliefs, your doctrines, your rasion d’etre.

    You seem to have interpreted that as some sort of feral attack on your right to exist (which it clearly isn’t), and you’ve come out snarling.

    I appreciate your considerable history as a debator. You should know better then than to make ad hominem attacks or to create and attack straw men. That is not valid engagement, it’s the politics of personal destruction, and it doesn’t reflect well on you or your organisation, which given Mick believes you and your organisation are generally worthy of respect is a very sad thing

    I will simply repeat, Matthew:

    Can you publish the correspondence between yourself and SE for verification?

    Do you accept that the responsibility for the contents of a piece of work belongs in the first instance to the author?

  • The Spectator

    Nevin

    Fair enough. Mea Cupla. (See, it’s easy!)

  • Well done, Spectator. I take it you’re not a politician, senior civil servant – or lobbyist 😉

    PS What’s the Latin for ‘our fault’ (just in case any organisation feels so moved)? 🙂

  • The Spectator

    Nevin

    You take it quite correctly on all counts(;-))

    By the way, as far as my Latin goes, it’s “Nostra Culpa”.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Nevin,

    You will note that on Monday past, the Belfast Telegraph felt “so moved”…

    Just search for the usual..

  • willis

    From the Indy article

    “The TPA thinks ahead as to how its stories can have as long a tail as possible, rippling across local media outlets with the help of the activity of a network of 2,500 grass-roots supporters. “We tailor our reports to encourage local participation,” says Elliott. “For example, by ranking local councils by waste or salaries we encourage local papers to pick the story up. This in turn causes a stir locally, which gets the locals groups agitated and brings us new members and supporters.”

    Very very clever.

  • Mick

    It appears I owe TPA a little apology.

    I rather flippently used the word incestuous, obviously only by way of analogy, to describe the key members of the organisation – but in fact it appears the group is a little more self-selecting than I first envisaged!

    Matthew Elliott and Florence Heath are in fact married! Congratulations to them; I’m sure they won’t take my use of the term as in any way aimed at their happy union. (If I now find they have split I’ll be mortified!)

    BTW Malcom, if you’re reading – please see the excellent SourceWatch which does a very good job indeed, if not a media friendly one, of what we have discussed on this blog.

  • “the Belfast Telegraph felt “so moved””

    hmmm – 33 weeks. Would that be the usual gestation period for a Belfast Telegraph or other MSM apology? BTW, the PA reporter’s name has, er, vanished into the ether.

  • I’d say for the Tele that’s rather quick…

  • Mick Fealty

    First, a word or two on ad hominem argument as we understand it on Slugger. The others on this thread will have heard this ‘lecture’ ad nauseam (and on occasions had it dinning in their own ears), so I expect they may choose to switch off at this stage.

    One of the reasons Slugger has attained the reputation it has in a highly contested area like Northern Ireland is that we don’t care ‘who’ makes ‘what’ argument, so long as they abide by the rules of civil engagement.

    For me, one of the most damaging conceits of the modern liberal era of politics is that there is some kind of politically correct elite who know what’s what and constantly take upon themselves to correct the errors of the terminally politically incorrect.

    This, in my view, has led to the ‘progressive’ demonisation of anything to the right (in absolutely current terms) of Harriet Harman. It’s something I have tried to push against, not by propagandising in the opposite direction but by rigorously reinforcing the idea that arguments should stand on their own merit, rather than resiling to established notions of who constitutes an ‘expert witnesses’ and who doesn’t.

    In other words, anyone can become an ‘expert’ if their ideas are good and resilient enough under the consistent critical scrutiny of their peers.

    In Northern Ireland we have to deal with elites that are much more entrenched than anything you may believe you are tackling in Westminster. You guys can vote people out. We can only change the proportions by which people hold executive power.

    It’s a system that was invented for a particular laudable end, but it may, at the heel of the hunt, simply fall apart under the weight of its own considerable contradictions.

    Such speaking of awkward truth unto power has been Slugger’s stock in trade. It means that whilst we are not often liked by powerful elites, we are, generally, respected for the bluntness and the honesty of our speaking, even by those upon whom we may have inflicted considerable embarrassment or pain.

    Whilst others have become obsessed with the issue of who backs the TPA, I simply do not care who funds you, nor whose interest you may be serving. All I care about is whether what you say stacks up to what you say it does. If it does, or in this case, if it did, then kudos to you.

    It is good for those in power within a representative democracy to have their collective feet held to the fire and, if proportionate, severely burnt. Or, if not for them, it certainly is for the rest of us whom they would mostly prefer to keep in the dark.

    Which brings me to the reason why this report is a story in and of its own right.

    You are right to be infuriated. But not with Scottish Enterprise. Whether it was SE’s fault for misreading or misdirecting you, it was you who ended up putting that particular piece of misinformation into the public domain.

    I rather admire your media (and blog) friendly approach. But your mistake here, as I have said several times before, was that you collated secondary information (the amount of government expenditure on consultancy is a modest but important story in itself) but went on to make claims that could only have been firmly deduced from primary details that were not subject to your FOIs.

    Would that such information could be routinely available. But we shall have to wait for the next Tory government to make good on their promises to open up such primary financial data.

    In short you took a punt. And, being fairly certain that during the doldrums of the silly season most journos would buy such a story without looking too hard at the detail, you were rewarded by getting it shifted up to the next rung of the news ladder.

    To paraphrase in a knowing, post modern, early Seventies’ sit com sort of way you were telling them (and now us): “Never mind the quality, feel the width…”

    That’s not intended to be a glib riposte by the way. I read you when you were a common or garden blogger, and I developed a huge respect for your work.

    At this point you might do better to favour us by not treating our readers as though they were just another bunch of dumb ‘opposition’ hacks. Or worse, idiots.

  • Mick

    I see your points. all of them. I honestly think I made some of them first ;-).I would only reply by reiterating my original point – I actually have a fair amount of time for some, though not all, of the ideas of TPA. The Eurosceptic edge worries me; the tax stance (more or less “all tax is bad tax”) seems doctrinaire, but the healthy scepticism on public spending is much needed. Indeed, there’s a genuinely good point to be made on the subject of this circular lobbying. But the TPA lost that point somewhere between the inaccurate information and the invective that greeted challenge.

    As for the point I make by referring to their roots, it’s not that those roots are somehow improper (they aren’t, and to argue such, in my book anyway, would be ‘bollixology’) but that the TPA appears to be somewhat disingenuous about its roots.

    In other words, it’s not the conservatism that worries me, it’s the possible dishonesty, or at least disingenuousness.

    TPA presents its reports more or less as impartial original social science research. “These are the facts and figures, mate – no arguin’ with ’em!”

    But it just wasn’t true – at least, not in the academic, dry and impartial way most people expect scientific research to be undertaken.
    Carelessness with the data is more or less professional death to any social sciences researcher. Should TPA be immune?

    It’s a polemic. Which is fine, if you’re at least honest about it.

    The SE example was instructive, not simply because it was a silly mistake in and of itself, and thus reduced the credibility of the report.

    But it was Matthew’s response that worried me more, and really got me digging at TPA, because it seemed too personal, too partisan to be a defence of science – it was simply a defence of TPA. As if it was not the facts that were important, it was the cause.

    A quick ‘mea culpa’, with a firm but humble explanation would have got most people back to a pre-cynical position. But Matthew took the road more travelled by, and that has made all the difference.

    AS for myself if Mick feels my nosing about has sailed too close to man-playing, I apologise. But, as my friends are known to say, the questioning goes to character, m’lud, and character (or at least reliability) is a live issue in the case.

  • Dave

    “But your mistake here, as I have said several times before, was that you collated secondary information (the amount of government expenditure on consultancy is a modest but important story in itself) but went on to make claims that could only have been firmly deduced from primary details that were not subject to your FOIs.”

    You’re overstating the case for the prosecution. The TPA didn’t claim in their report that all of the money paid to these groups went on lobbying: they claimed that the money was paid to groups “whose [i]primary[/i] focus is campaigning for policy change.” Primary clearly implies that there are other functions performed by these groups that could have been the intended purpose of the grant, so there is no claim made that a particular grant must have been for lobbying – rather that such was the likely purpose of the grant.

    They also made it clear that they had other sources for information apart from using a Freedom of Information request, stating that FOIs were “used to obtain [i]some[/i] of the original information contained in the reports.” Some, obviously, does not imply all.

    In addition, the report is littered with caveats such as “There is currently no way of systematically studying the problem of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in its entirety. Some of the figures used in this report were available in official documents, but others could only be obtained by submitting Freedom of Information requests.”

  • You’re really overstating your case here, Mick.

  • Dave

    *Not grant, but payment.”

  • Mick Fealty

    Dave, TB,

    It’s the only case I’ve been making since the beginning. And it’s a pretty simple, and limited one. The rest was simply laying out why I’ve taken the ‘position’ I have.

  • Dave

    “There is currently no way of systematically studying the problem of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in its entirety”

    In which case, should they really and deliberately making such high-octane press headlines suggesting otherwise.

    But let’s be honest – “we think there might well be a problem, it’s worthy of investigation but we can’t be sure without more detailed figures” doesn’t get them the press and influence that “It’s a Disgrace and a Scandal!!” does, even if it is closer to the truth.

    Genuine social scientists shouldn’t engage in overselling, much less misselling – and if a pressure group oversells, or missells, it is legitimate to weigh their partisanship in the balance when considering the factuality their press releases. To my mind, there’s a hint that TPA try to have it both ways – they want to be allowed to sell hard like a lobby group (fine on its own), but demand the respect, deference and attention of genuine social scientists (also fine on its own) – but the two are clearly incompatible. You have to choose.

    It appears, with respect, that Matthew wasn’t to happy about being put to the choice. And Mick and I both caught some flak and baseless allegations for our troubles. Which was a pity, but leads me more strongly to the view that they, and their work, properly belong in the lobby category, not the research/social science one. Which is a pity, because it’s the science we need right now to identify just where the waste is happening.