September 13, 2013
The following is a story of how Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) is not respecting transparency in its research, systematically trying to stage outrage over nothing and distorting reality on issues that affect people’s lives and well-being. The Risk-Monger feels the European Commission should put some sort of moral sanctions on this openly biased guerrilla activist organisation, inhibit their anarchist-oriented exportation of paranoia and publicly recognise that CEO’s goal is not to promote transparency, but to disrupt the EU’s process of stakeholder consultation and dialogue.
This story (of how CEO is paying and using a French freelance journalist, Stéphane Horel, to reinforce an anti-industry bias and break transparency codes of good conduct) is sadly not a fiction, but there is very little factual evidence used by these parties. In a few months, CEO or Stéphane Horel will publish a study attempting to show how shocking and massive industry lobbying on endocrine disrupters has become. The reality is far from that despite CEO’s illusive techniques. This is a story of bias and manipulation – a horror story for anyone who respects fair play, facts and democratic institutions.
Money for nothing
CEO’s funding has increased in the last year. They are no longer dependent for more than 50 percent of their operations on the Isvara Foundation (a shady Middle-Eastern organisation operating out of a Swiss bank based on billionaire Ayman Jallad’s commitment to undermine Western liberal democratic institutions). CEO now boasts funding from a rather motley crew including the German Catholic Bishops Organisation, Misereor (mystifying indeed!), the Adessium Foundation (founded in 2005 with profits made from Dutch investment bankers before the crisis … almost as funny as Greenpeace USA being funded by the Rockefellers – no joke!) and the R.H. Southern Trust (a very opaque foundation with a website that simply tells people to go away).
So what is CEO doing with all of this extra funding (from apparently anyone who will give them money)? Holding conferences where they invite all stakeholders for an open and honest dialogue? I am still waiting for my invitation. Increase staff to professionalise their operations? Hardly. Rather, CEO went out and recruited an army of hungry, unemployed journalists to write articles on issues to their liking. The Risk-Monger was alarmed to see a post on the CEO Facebook page on April 24th, (see screenshot with my reaction ) asking for freelance journalists to write anti-industry articles for cash. Using journalists by paying them to say what you want them to say is perhaps the most unseemly and disgusting practices that all ethically-minded lobbyists have abandoned. Apparently not CEO – they are publicly advertising this.
CEO confirmed to me that they had contracted Stéphane Horel to write articles against industry lobbying. Ms Horel is a French activist who calls herself a freelance journalist because of films and articles she produced that attacked certain industries (food, agriculture, pharma). It is unclear if she has ever worked for a media organisation, but the word freelance can be used in a myriad of manners.
There is a big difference between giving interviews to the media in the hope of getting a fair hearing (what industry lobbyists try to do) and secretly taking journalists aside and paying them an undisclosed amount to write what you contractually want them to write (what CEO is doing). The journalist is no longer operating as a writer in the public interest, but as a consultant in the lobbyist’s interest. If the contracted journalists were to suddenly disagree with the motives, or worse, not find any information worth writing about, they would not get paid (the CEO contract would surely stipulate that journalists would have to find something negative about an industry). Biased from the get-go.
My best experience of such a lobbying tactic is when WWF contracted a journalist to write an article on endocrine disrupters back in 2004 (during the REACH anti-chemicals pandemonium). I was having a coffee with this freelance journalist and I had offered to introduce her to the lead scientist of the WHO report on endocrine when she confessed to me that she couldn’t. She was given a list of certain people to interview, what subjects to consider and which papers to source (and WWF allowed no others). Payment would be made once the article was published, upon which point, the activist NGO would lead a viral campaign to spread the mess they fabricated. Instant issue with a controlled message – what is not to like about that? Well, beside the fact that it is totally unethical and not really journalism or factual.
CEO and Stéphane Horel: Transparency was not in the contract
CEO admitted to the Risk-Monger that they have contracted Stéphane Horel to act on their behalf to prepare a report on how certain industries are lobbying the EU around the issue of endocrine disrupters. Please see the screenshot of two of 13 of Horel’s letters to the European Commission requesting copies of all emails, minutes of meetings or interactions between the European Commission and industry organisations and also between industry, the Commission and EFSA related to endocrine disruptors. (I am sorry I have to use screenshots, but CEO has a very bad habit of changing or taking information off of the web the previous times the Risk-Monger had put them under the microscope – the main link to all 13 of Horel’s freedom of information requests to the EU on endocrine disrupters can be found here.)
You will notice that Horel did not identify whom she is working for in the email exchanges with the European Commission. She identified herself as a freelance journalist and film maker based in Paris – not that she was under contract to CEO. Transparency is a basic principle that every lobbyist/consultant/contractee is taught on his or her first day, and a principle that CEO insists that industry organisations must follow. Any public official, journalist or decision-maker needs to know the motivation and interests of any interactions they come in contact with. But CEO does not seem so concerned to play by these rules of transparency. This is not the first time CEO committed the sin of having people under their pay forget to identify their relationship with CEO while looking for dirt by using dirty practices (see how CEO contractee David Leloup pretended to be an independent journalist in a 2010 blog that also generated a significant amount of further information about CEO from Risk-Monger readers).
In a private correspondence with the Risk-Monger, an anonymous person representing CEO (I think) admitted they are paying Stéphane Horel to write an article and assured me that she is acting transparently in this research. I informed this anonymous CEO person that, from the letters I had seen, Horel has been acting against the rules that CEO has decreed on others, but have received no further reply. It would be nice to know to whom in CEO I was corresponding, but that might be a little too transparent for them.
Why Horel is not acting as a journalist
A professional journalist would look for balance. Gather all of the evidence and report the information to the public, trusting that the public will be capable of making a decision based on the available facts and not just a selection of loose information cleverly arranged to confirm the author’s bias.
Notice in the requests for information in the screenshots above that Stéphane Horel had only asked the EU for copies of contacts between the Commission and industry researchers, industry trade associations and big multinational companies. A serious journalist should also ask for correspondence between the Commission and organisations like Pesticide Action Network, Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Maybe the close relationship between certain MEPs and activist endocrine researchers like Andreas Kortenkamp (and any budgets for him to come to closed parliamentary meetings) should be highlighted in a professional journalistic article. Which Green MEPs are sponsoring events and lunches in the European Parliament for which activists? This would be balanced research, something which Stéphane Horel is not interested in uncovering and for which CEO is not paying her to find out. This is not journalism nor is it responsible research (imagine a climate researcher only asking for information that denies global warming).
That the whole question of endocrine disrupters has remained a major policy issue for the last two decades even though the majority of the mainstream scientific community has rejected the activist research should, in itself, be a warning light that it is the environmental activist community, and not industry, that has manipulated the policy process (see a letter signed by 81 leading toxicologists to the EU’s Chief Science Adviser, begging the EU to start respecting proper scientific procedures on endocrine disrupters). Does that mean industry has to fund a further study to look at how environmental NGOs are manipulating the process, to find out who among the NGOs is saying and doing what and how much is being spent to have these activists distort decision-making with well-communicated but contrived uncertainty? This goes back to a question the Risk-Monger asked years ago: Who watches the watch-dogs?
Looking through the information that scientists and industry representatives have provided to the European Commission in the publicly available Horel correspondence that the European Commission has painstakingly (and at great public cost) provided, I am reassured that decisions are still being made by gathering the information from all available sources (and that all evidence so far provided shows industry officials behaving properly and professionally). In other words, Horel will have to be very creative to find a story to cash in on her contract with CEO. And what if there is nothing more than what I have seen (that industry is sharing their data and expressing their concerns)?
Trying to stop the dialogue and consultation process (so that Commission officials will only feel comfortable listening to NGO activists, and so that MEPs will only talk to CEO’s friends) is an attempt to undermine the democratic process. Obstructing the right of those whom you disagree with to have the opportunity to express their views in a decision-making process is a tactic that works well in totalitarian regimes and paranoid dictatorships. Industry is open to all stakeholders putting their views across – why can’t Corporate Europe Observatory bear to share that same capacity for dialogue and public engagement? When I asked CEO for information on Stéphane Horel, they started trying to investigate who was paying me (in the same manner as those living in totalitarian societies cannot ask innocent questions without facing judgement).
At the opportune time (on the legislative calendar for endocrine disrupters, that will probably be around the end of November), CEO will no doubt publish and virally spread Stéphane Horel’s report (after all, they paid for it) and will try to manufacture outrage at how industry is lobbying “massively”. Horel might do the same (CEO should make their contract with Horel public). It doesn’t matter that the facts don’t line up with their aspirations. Cynically, I suspect there will be those in Brussels who want to believe in this lobbyist imbalance, that will cheer and spread this fiction. And the Risk-Monger will regrettably have to blog on this again. Sadly, there will be some EU officials who had simply received an email from an industry stakeholder who will feel stigmatised by CEO’s dramatisation and will be a bit more uncomfortable being seen to have listened to the position of a major research, innovation and job creating representative. Some decision-makers may react to the orchestrated activist pressure that will inevitably follow this publication and try to be seen doing something … like ignoring scientific facts or leaning towards the activists on some decision (throw them a bone). This will be cowardly and wrong. That is what CEO wants to achieve – a castration of the engagement and dialogue process in western democracies so that anti-industry, anti-globalisation activists will have a greater influence on the EU decision-making process.
And that, after all, is what Mr Ayman Jallad from the Isvara Foundation is paying Corporate Europe Observatory to do.David Zaruk