Crina Boros cached version 14/12/2018 19:59:54 en The secrets of 'Black Ops' advertising. Who is paying for our news? <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>"I think the public would resent knowing they are being tricked. So best not to always tell them."</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="// Shot 2018-02-09 at 11.15.41.png" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="// Shot 2018-02-09 at 11.15.41.png" alt="lead " title="" width="460" height="238" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Are the 'glory days' of advertising back? (Mad Men, Lionsgate)</span></span></span></p><p>It's a "legitimate con", according to one former executive at ESI Media, the Russian-owned company that controls London’s Evening Standard and the online Independent. A writer working for Spark, the Telegraph’s branded content division, calls it “creative deception”. For the American communications academic, Mara Einstein, it’s simply “black ops advertising”. But whatever name you give to the growing practice of blurring the separation between impartial editorial and paid-for advertising, readers of UK newspapers and their linked online sites are increasingly unable to notice when the news ends and the hidden sales pitch begins.</p> <p>With close to <a href="">£1 billion of revenue estimated</a> to have disappeared from the UK print news industry over the last seven years, the combination of shrinking circulation and declining traditional ad revenue has boosted the commercial importance of paid-for content – which is increasingly covertly assimilated into news and features pages.</p><p class="mag-quote-right">“It’s a given that straight ads no longer work, so we bend and blur."</p> <p>According to one leading agency sales executive who spoke to openDemocracy: “It’s a given that straight ads no longer work, so we bend and blur. As the advertising industry guru, David Ogilvy, said ‘There’s no need for advertisements to look like advertisements’. Now they don’t. But unlike Ogilvy, I think the public would resent knowing they are being tricked. So best not to always tell them.”</p> <h2>Darkest Hour, brought to you by...</h2> <p>The Telegraph’s “creative commercial department”, Sparks, currently has a lucrative content deal with Focus Features and Working Title, the distribution and production companies responsible for the multiple US Academy Award- and Bafta-nominated film, Darkest Hour. The Churchill epic is flagged up by Sparks as a “live content marketing example” along with other high-paying clients that include British Airways; Disney and Pixar; the Norway tourist office in London; and the luxury jewellers, Jessica McCormick.</p> <p>Live campaigns and examples of “the latest branded content pieces” are stated as including “articles, videos, interactive games, maps and more”. The words “brought to you by” or “in association with” appear in the Telegraph’s paid-for content. The company maintains there is now a “thick Chinese wall” between paid-for content and impartial editorial.</p><p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="// and clemmie focus pictures jack english.jpg" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title="Image: Darkest Hour, Focus Pictures/Jack English"><img src="// and clemmie focus pictures jack english.jpg" alt="" title="Image: Darkest Hour, Focus Pictures/Jack English" width="460" height="307" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Image: Darkest Hour, Focus Pictures/Jack English</span></span></span></p> <p>However articles on Churchill, clearly connected with Darkest Hour, have been published which the Telegraph maintains are simply not part of the commercial deal with the film company. They include those headlined: <a href="">“Fact Checking” the Darkest Hour</a>, an <a href="">interview with Gary Oldman on “playing Churchill”</a>, a <a href="">Churchill speech in cinemas receiving a standing ovation</a>, a piece on the <a href="">film’s make-up skills</a>, and an examination of a Churchill memo. These pieces, including the main film review, are given a small strap head that says "premium".</p> <p>If there is a distinction between paid-for features, and independent evaluation of the film’s merits, it is not clear to Telegraph readers which is which. openDemocracy has tasked the Telegraph to comment on whether its journalists would feel free to openly criticise a company (like the producers and distributers of Darkest Hour) that was paying tens of thousands for positive coverage.</p> <p>Dr Michelle Amazeen, a professor in the department of mass communication, advertising and public relations at Boston University, says “It’s becoming harder to distinguish whether the content you are reading is news or something else… like advertising.” A recent piece of her research showed that <a href="">unless articles were specifically branded</a>, few people were now able to recognise paid-for advertising.</p> <h2>“A fraud on readers”</h2> <p>The Telegraph’s record on telling readers what they need to know is chequered. Writing for openDemocracy in 2015, the paper’s former chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, resigned and called the Telegraph’s coverage of HSBC <a href="">“a fraud on its readers”</a>. He said the traditional distinction between the editorial and advertising departments had “collapsed” and claimed this was a pattern discernible in other parts of the paper’s news coverage.</p> <p>Oborne said the paper had discouraged stories that were critical of HSBC, and that one former Telegraph executive had told him the bank was “an advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend.” The story made global headlines, and the Telegraph committed to stricter guidelines separating advertising from editorial in the wake of the scandal.</p> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title="Image: C4, advertising their Oborne content"><img src="//" alt="" title="Image: C4, advertising their Oborne content" width="460" height="230" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Image: C4, advertising their Oborne content</span></span></span></p><p>openDemocracy re-contacted current and former journalists at the Telegraph, and others with knowledge of the group’s commercial practices. All were reluctant to speak about any aspect of the company. However there was near unanimity that Oborne had not over-stated the problem. One journalist told openDemocracy: “If anything the situation from 2015 has deteriorated. Advertorial, however disguised, is now more important to the company than it ever was. But I doubt we are alone in this.”</p> <h2>“Content creators embedded in editorial departments”</h2> <p>ESI Media, the parent company of the online Independent and the London Live TV channel, now barely disguises to potential commercial clients any division between editorial and advertising. One former commercial executive in the company told openDemocracy “The old line between church and state often gave a newspaper its identity and reputation. That’s long gone.”</p> <p>ESI’s dedicated “commercial content creation team”, called Story Studio, boasts to clients that their “content creators are embedded within editorial departments”. Other execs say there is really no dedicated “creation team” and that the majority of paid content is written by either staff journalists or freelancers.</p><p class="mag-quote-right">“The holy grail for advertisers is now controlled content that is barely distinguishable from editorial text."</p> <p>An ESI insider, who spoke to openDemocracy on a strictly confidential basis, said: “The holy grail for advertisers is now controlled content that is barely distinguishable from editorial text. They want it written by in-house journalists, not by sycophantic copywriters. With the old power of traditional advertising seriously eroded, native advertising – essentially anything with the commercial source of the message well hidden and incorporated into supposedly impartial news and features – is what the big clients want.”</p> <p><strong><a href="">See: ‘How a GM giant bought control of what millions of Londoners read’.</a></strong></p><p><strong>&nbsp;</strong>When Story Studio started – before ESI shuttered the print edition of The Independent – newly-appointed commercial managers attempted to get senior writers at the Independent to deliver paid-for articles. One client, an international education company, wanted an eight-page supplement to be entirely written by a senior specialist writer. The request was refused on the grounds that an editor or senior writer’s reputation would be affected if they were associated with a product that was evidently paid for. News editors, with limited staff resources, were forced into fending off further requests for other correspondents to deliver tailored commercial articles.</p> <p>openDemocracy spoke to current and former young journalists working for Independent Digital News and Media, which <a href="">recently received new investment from a Saudi sultan</a>. </p> <p>One said that to refuse or even question an order that had “come from advertising” could result in a threat to end their employment contract. Sources from the “crèche” (as a group of young journalists at the Kensington office call themselves) said that because they were beginning their careers, they “had little option but to do what we are told. And it is particularly bad for lifestyle and fashion writers.” Another writer said: “I was directed to interview a leading figure from academia and was told to leave out anything negative. The reason? There was a connected advertising campaign.”</p> <h2>Everything for sale – at the right price</h2> <p>At the Evening Standard, currently edited by the former Tory chancellor, George Osborne, ESI commercial representatives have told some potential clients that many parts of the paper are “for sale” for the right price. A deal with Virgin Media saw the broadband company “take over” the prestigious Londoner’s Diary every Friday. Other paid-for Virgin content was described as “easily packaged into native stories” for the i100 news website. Although the content was marked as “in association with Virgin”, the layout design was generally indistinguishable from neighbouring editorial.</p> <p>Virgin were also the launch partners of the Standard’s “staying in” channel. The content of the channel focused on “must-see streamable” material and trending videos. Distributed free to London commuters at tube and rail stations, the Virgin deal was lauded for being able to “target readers on their way home.” A former commercial administrator at ESI, now working for another national media title, told openDemocracy:</p> <p>“The only game in town is survival. Readers are no longer won with stand-out editorial, instead we ‘target’ readers for their passive and monetised role as consumers of barely-disguised advertising. Once they rumble their current role, we will urgently need to invent a new method of persuasion, or pack up the whole fucking print news industry and go home.”</p> <h2>Is it a clear advert? Who knows?</h2> <p>At ESI, some commercial relationships are made very clear, for example when the furniture manufacture DFS “sponsored” the Standard’s Rio Olympics 2016 coverage. DFS was given a “daily front page call to action” urging Standard readers to get behind Team GB. The company sponsored the paper’s preview supplement and carried sponsored daily coverage on the sports pages. For the two Olympic weeks, 350 Evening Standard vendors around London wore t-shirts promoting the DFS and Team GB association.</p> <p>Less clear for Standard readers, however, is the current involvement of Betfair, the sports betting company, on the sports pages. The Betfair logo currently appears at the top of major sports stories on the back pages. One ad executive explained to openDemocracy: “The association of sport with betting is now so ingrained that Betfair know if outcome odds are discussed in a sports article and their logo is in view, then it’s likely that a link will be mentally made. That’s all Betfair want. Is it a clear advert? Who knows, because nothing is a clear advert anymore.”</p> <p>Mara Einstein, professor of media studies at City University New York, says the level of “covert selling” has so blurred the lines between editorial and marketing, that it has become a sophisticated, “black ops” industry. She has written: “Instead of telling us to buy, buy, buy, we are now told to “engage” and share, share, share – it is the ultimate subtle sell, and it is impossible to tell the real news from paid endorsements.”</p> <h2>Separation of church and state</h2> <p>Last year Enders Analysis predicted that native advertising would grow by over 150 percent over the next three years. The New York Times, wary of the both the financial attractions and the ethical pitfalls, began their own T Brand Studio – which organises branded content – by promising to keep the church and state line “strong and clear”. As one of the NY Times’ T-Brand executives in London noted: “The second you start blurring the line you get in a hell of a lot of trouble and lose a hell of lot of credibility.”</p> <p>Guardian Labs (GL), which runs content funding for Guardian News and Media, have a similar promise to hold an ethical line and make clear how content has been commissioned and produced, and who has funded it. GL say <a href="">one of three labels</a>&nbsp;will appear on its paid-for content: “supported by”, “Paid content/paid for by” or “advertiser content/from our advertisers”.</p> <p>However, for a former Guardian commissioning editor who spoke to openDemocracy, “supported by” is a “grey area for many writers”. The Guardian maintain that “supported by” is still “editorially independent content” because the editor-in-chief has the final say over whether a funding deal is accepted, and that the commissioning editor is not obliged to accept ideas from the funder. GNM say they do not show copy to funders for approval.</p> <p>“Supported by” is also used to mark content that has been produced from funding from the larger global foundation. Currently GNM take money <a href="">from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (for their Global Development site), from the Rockefeller Foundation (for the Cities Project), and from the Skoll Foundation (for climate and environment reporting)</a>.</p> <p>“This is a sensitive area for many contributors and staff writers,” one former section head told openDemocracy, “and it can lead to self-censorship because the question of critical funding for the paper is always hovering in the background. So you ask – ‘Do I really want to piss off a major funder?’”</p> <h2>“A multi-layered approach to storytelling’</h2> <p>GL recently produced a five months long paid-for campaign with Airbnb, the home rental website. The focus of the partnership was to show how using Airbnb can lead to a “deeper holiday experience.” Imogen Fox, executive editor at GL, said the Airbnb campaign and connected podcasts were a “fantastic example of how Guardian Labs can bring in world-class talent and build a multi-layered approach to storytelling for brands.” GL said all the Airbnb content was “labelled in line with the Guardian’s commercial guidelines.”</p> <p>Other parts of the Airbnb deal with GL was a series of “immersive features” that included a Q&amp;A about Airbnb, and personal accounts from “real families” who had used the rental site for their “perfect Airbnb family holiday.”</p><p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title="Image: Airbnb"><img src="//" alt="" title="Image: Airbnb" width="460" height="306" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Image: Airbnb</span></span></span></p> <p>GL claimed the campaign resulted in 33 percent of Guardian readers having an “improved opinion” of the company, and that Guardian readers were “twice as likely to go out of their way to recommend Airbnb.”</p> <p>However during late 2017, months after the official deal with Airbnb concluded, the Guardian continued to write positive stories about the company. An article in November last year praised Airbnb for <a href="">“expanding its stays for disabled travellers.”</a> In December there was a positive piece reporting a 600 per cent rise in bookings for 2018 for <a href="">“traditional family-run hostelries – ryokans – in Japan”</a>. A month after the Airbnb deal wrapped there was a feature about a couple headlined: <a href="">“Experience – I fell in love through Airbnb.”</a> In October there was a piece that praised an Airbnb loan scheme that would help the owners of homes offered for rent to pay for improvements. The scheme would <a href="">“help Airbnb cement its position as an alternative to traditional hotels.”</a></p> <p>None of these positive articles about Airbnb were marked as sponsored or paid-for content, and were presented by the Guardian as impartial editorials.</p> <p>Inside the same late 2017 timeframe, there were some qualified negative comments in the Guardian about Airbnb. In November there was a published letter in the “Consumer Champions” part of Money Guardian that criticised a host renter for cancelling a booking at the last minute. Airbnb were quoted as saying cancellations were rare, and there was a penalty system to discourage hosts from cancelling.</p> <p>In October another letter, also in Consumer Champions, criticised the flaw of double-booking and disappointment over the alternative provided which was “flea infested.” Airbnb said the client had failed to post a review within the required 14-day period, but admitted that the Competition and Market Authority had stepped in and forced Airbnb to rectify a flaw in their review system which had meant the worst listings escaping bad reviews.</p> <p>But for one City analyst involved in travel industry investment, GNM’s commercial partnership with Airbnb, however time-limited, opens up a potential conflict of interest. She said: “When deals like this end, does normal service resume? Because no serious business would work like that. Airbnb and other companies become valued clients to Guardian Labs. So Guardian readers, if they’ve noticed at all, must place their trust in the paper’s editors and managers to restore the divide between editorial and paid-for messages, after that line has been eroded for entirely commercial reasons.”</p><p>A Guardian spokesperson has told openDemocracy: "It is manifestly untrue that any advertising or branded content affects our editorial procedures, decisions or position. The Guardian’s journalism is always entirely independent and any advertising or branded content is very clearly labelled. We remain free to, and often do, challenge the activities of companies and organisations that are either our advertisers or sponsors."</p> <h2>BBC Energy news – with “assistance” from Exxon</h2> <p>“Supported funding”, which is claimed not to interfere with editorial independence, also affects Britain’s largest news organisation: the BBC.</p> <p>Reports were given to openDemocracy from leading environment campaign groups which claimed the commercial branch of the BBC, BBC Worldwide, had accepted financial assistance from the US energy company, Exxon, to aid its coverage in the United States of story strands linked to the environment. Under BBC Worldwide rules, advertising is allowed.</p> <p>The deal was not a secret, with the Exxon logo and acknowledged assistance appearing in web pages. The BBC’s relationship with Exxon is alleged to have helped cash-strapped commissioning editors deliver strong content that would otherwise have been too expensive to undertake. No involvement or editorial interference from Exxon is said to have taken place.</p><p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="// baton rouge refinery louisiana.jpg" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title="Image: Exxon Baton Rouge refinery, WikiCommons"><img src="// baton rouge refinery louisiana.jpg" alt="" title="Image: Exxon Baton Rouge refinery, WikiCommons" width="460" height="284" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Image: Exxon Baton Rouge refinery, WikiCommons</span></span></span></p> <p>However, when the BBC UK re-ran some of the US-based pieces on the environment which had acknowledged Exxon’s help, the logo of the energy company did not appear on the UK site. Advertising on the BBC in the UK is prohibited by the BBC’s charter. </p> <p>Did UK readers of the BBC not have the right to make their own judgement on sponsorship or “help” from Exxon? openDemocracy contacted the BBC asking for details of its arrangement with Exxon, and why the logo had not appeared on certain stories published in the UK when the company’s assistance had been made clear to US audiences.</p> <p>The BBC refused to divulge or discuss the Exxon link or any commercial arrangement with BBC Worldwide. It said information requests to parts of the BBC, including its Worldwide division, were not subject to Freedom of Information laws. The corporation stated that “All advertising must comply with the BBC’s advertising and sponsorship guidelines.” And added: “The BBC’s reputation for providing impartial and independent news will always take precedent over wider commercial goals.”</p> <p>Dr Michelle Amazeen at Boston University has warned that the current attitude of a struggling mainstream news industry towards native and disguised advertising is dangerously short term. While there may be valued incremental revenue arriving at a critical time when publishers “are bleeding ad dollars”, she says, there will be a cost down the road if readers are alienated. In the words of one of her research participants: “Everything is a goddamn ad now”. If that becomes the accepted norm, the industry – and in particular its ability to hold the powerful to account – will face a far graver threat.</p> <p>News organisations, Amazeen says, need to be transparent about who is funding them. Integrity matters, not least because “journalism demands transparency” from everyone else.</p> <p><em><strong>This article is part of </strong><a href=""><strong>openMedia</strong></a><strong>, a project funded by the Adessium and Democracy and Media foundations to investigate and expose commercial interference in editorial decisions across Europe’s media. If you are a journalist who recognises any of the issues described here, please fill out our confidential survey below, anonymously if you wish. Thank you.</strong></em></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p><em><strong><br /></strong></em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/adam-ramsay/fallout-from-oborne-files">Fallout from the Oborne files</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/james-cusick-crina-boros/how-gm-giant-bought-control-of-what-millions-of-londoners-read">How a GM giant ‘bought control’ of what millions of Londoners read</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/openmedia/mary-fitzgerald/welcome-to-openmedia">Why we&#039;re launching openMedia</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/mara-einstein/facebook-new-york-times-corporatised-fake-news-advertising">How Facebook and the New York Times corporatised &#039;fake news&#039;</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/jonathan-hardy/sponsored-content-is-blurring-line-between-advertising-and-editorial">Sponsored content is compromising media integrity</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> UK </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk UK Civil society Democracy and government openMedia Evening Standard media freedom investigations journalism Crina Boros James Cusick Thu, 08 Feb 2018 15:05:57 +0000 James Cusick and Crina Boros 116019 at How a GM giant ‘bought control’ of what millions of Londoners read <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The Evening Standard’s lucrative deal with Swiss chemical giant Syngenta shows how commercial giants pay for news – with readers left in the dark.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p dir="ltr"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="359" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Yui Mok/PA Images. All rights reserved.</span></span></span></p><p dir="ltr">London’s Evening Standard, the city’s flagship free newspaper read by millions of commuters every week, struck a lucrative deal that helped to varnish the reputation of one of the world’s largest agribusiness companies – with readers unaware that the firm was paying for positive coverage, openDemocracy can reveal today. </p><p dir="ltr">Billion dollar lawsuits the company was facing from farmers in the US were not mentioned in the paper’s coverage, and the ongoing controversy over UK plans to soften post-Brexit rules on GM seeds in farming was also bypassed.</p><p dir="ltr">As part of a major commercial deal in 2017 between the Swiss giant Syngenta and ESI Media – a major UK media company owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev and run by his son Evgeny – a series of public ‘debates’ and articles on the ‘future of food’ were run by London’s Evening Standard.</p><p dir="ltr">In the debates and related content, paid for by Syngenta, there was no examination of the financially damaging billion-dollar legal challenges Syngenta was facing across the United States.</p><p dir="ltr">Also omitted from the Standard’s coverage was the emerging political controversy over plans by the UK government to rewrite post-Brexit rules on the use of genetically modified seeds in farming – which Syngenta continues to back through expensive lobbying.</p><p dir="ltr">Syngenta’s paid-for debates and coverage in the Evening Standard are part of a growing practice inside ESI Media which deliberately blurs the division between advertising and editorial content, senior inside sources have told openDemocracy.</p><p dir="ltr">As part of a wider investigation by openDemocracy into the commercial pressures now affecting Europe’s media, former executives, journalists, and other insiders at ESI described a culture where senior editors play a subservient role to commercial masters who effectively run ESI’s operations – with readers left in the dark about who pays for their news, and on what terms.</p><h2>Coverage ‘money can’t buy’</h2><p dir="ltr">“Content creators” are described by ESI’s own marketing materials as “embedded” within the company’s editorial departments. High-profile brands like Virgin and Sainsbury’s are promised an “emotional relationship” with Evening Standard readers. As an ESI client, Syngenta, one of the world’s largest crop chemical producers that has previously been accused of orchestrating <a href="">attacks on scientists</a> who challenge the safety of their products, would have been promised “cut through” content and coverage that “money can’t buy.”</p><p dir="ltr">Inside sources claim that the difference between commercial and editorial content at ESI has become so weak at the paper, now edited by former Conservative chancellor George Osborne, that one former executive told openDemocracy: “The sleight of hand is so routine that if they renamed it the London Advertiser, that would be more appropriate.”</p><p dir="ltr"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="306" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Former chancellor George Osborne arrives at the Evening Standard offices to begin new role as editor. Victoria Jones/PA Images. All rights reserved.</span></span></span></p><h2>China takeover and a new commercial “partnership”</h2><p dir="ltr">When the lucrative deal between Syngenta and ESI Media was agreed in early 2017, the Swiss agri-chemical company was on course to be taken over by ChemChina, the state-owned Chinese chemical company. The $43 billion take-over figure was mentioned in a March 2017 article in the Evening Standard.</p><p dir="ltr">But it is what the Standard omitted to tell its readers about Syngenta – and what it failed to highlight in the public debates it hosted, paid for by Syngenta – that marks the difference between editorial information intended to inform readers, and commercial content paid for by a company looking to boost its balance sheet.</p><p dir="ltr">An executive source from within ESI has confirmed to openDemocracy that&nbsp;<a href="">the March 8 piece last year</a>, written by a Standard news and technology reporter, was part of the commercial “partnership” between Syngenta and ESI. (ESI Media also owns the Independent, now an online-only UK newspaper, and the London Live TV channel.)</p><p dir="ltr">In the article, pictured below, there was nothing to tell readers the piece was part of a lucrative commercial relationship with Syngenta.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="// Shot 2018-02-07 at 4.11.35 PM.png" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="// Shot 2018-02-07 at 4.11.35 PM.png" alt="" title="" width="460" height="366" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span></p><p dir="ltr">However, under a sub-heading, ‘Join the debate’, the Standard said it had 25 pairs of tickets to “give away” to a series of debates on the future of food that were being run “in conjunction with Syngenta.” A deadline and internet address for the ticket offer was included.</p><p dir="ltr">The piece described Syngenta as “one of the world’s leading crop protection firms” and stated that the Swiss firm believed “future shoppers face a stark compromise” – accept innovation or face higher prices and supply shortages.</p><p dir="ltr">The company, whose net income in 2016 was put at <a href="">$1.2 billion</a>, was described as “believing that ‘technology is key to sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture, including new genetic techniques, such as genome-editing…’”</p><p dir="ltr">Almost two thirds of the article was devoted to a positive presentation of Syngenta by senior company executives. Although GM (Genetic Modification) is still regarded as highly controversial by many UK farmers and consumers, the Standard described GM as simply a “more rapid process of what has been undertaken by seed breeders for centuries.”</p><p dir="ltr">The Swiss company’s often controversial technologies were described in the article as “the best possible outcome”, with those campaigners critical of genetically engineered crops dismissed as holding a “deep suspicion of technology.”</p><h2>Public ‘education’ – paid for by Syngenta</h2><p dir="ltr"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="730" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span></p><p dir="ltr">The first of the ESI-Syngenta 'future of food' events, on March 22, was chaired by the then-editor of the Standard, Sarah Sands, now editor of BBC Radio 4’s prestigious Today Programme.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">Industry sources told openDemocracy that given the high profile involvement of the editor (Sarah Sands) in the event, and the global importance of well-timed positive editorial, Syngenta would have been expected to pay north of £100,000 to ESI for their overall deal. The marketing agency, Green Street Media, were also paid to assist ESI with the public events.</p><p dir="ltr">Both Syngenta and ESI have declined to reveal what the deal was worth.</p><p dir="ltr">But for ESI, revenues from the Syngenta “partnership” and other paid-for content which blur the divide between editorial and advertising have become increasingly important. Three months after the food conference, the paper announced that profits had <a href="">fallen by a third</a>, down from £3.3m the previous financial year, to £2.2m. A further fall in profits is anticipated by City analysts when new figures are released later this year, linked to the fall in traditional advertising revenue and increased costs in distributing the freesheet across London.</p><p dir="ltr">Although the March 22 'future of food' discussion panel in Somerset House, chaired by Sands, was described as containing “industry experts”, discussions were dominated by those making the case for the importance of technology, with the North Europe head of Syngenta, Alex Steel, given a prominent role in the event.</p><p dir="ltr">A Standard staff reporter covered the debate, later stating it was between “Syngenta at one end and the co-owner of the healthy eating restaurant chain Leon [Henry Dimbleby] at the other.”</p><p dir="ltr">Yet Dimbleby – a long-term friend of the current environment secretary, Michael Gove – repeated what others on the panel had stated: that technology was critical and that UK consumers were not technology-averse. Concluding, Dimbleby said: “I’m very optimistic that technology is going to solve our problems.”</p><p dir="ltr"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="307" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Michael Gove, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent from Leon Restaurants visit the breakfast club at Lauriston School in Hackney on 4 July 2012. Image used under Fair Use: Flickr/educationgovuk. All rights reserved.</span></span></span></p><p dir="ltr">Syngenta’s own company website used the content from the Standard debate, stating it had been a “pioneering example of the mainstream media highlighting the issues we face and educating the public on how food is produced.” There was no mention that the public’s “education” had been bought by the company itself.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><h2>What they also failed to mention...</h2><p dir="ltr">At the time of the Standard extolling the virtues of Syngenta’s technology, legal trials in the US were pending, with lawsuits from some 350,000 corn growers across 20 US states claiming as much as $13 billion in losses.</p><p dir="ltr">In 2013 China had tested corn shipments from the United States and discovered they contained a specific genetically modified corn seed. Two years earlier Syngenta had marketed two varieties of corn seed to farmers in the US – Viptera and Duracade. Both were approved in the United States, but several other markets, including China, had not given formal approval for their use.</p><p dir="ltr">Farmers claimed Syngenta had rushed the genetically modified seed to market before getting export approval from China. The legal actions also claimed that Syngenta had misled them over when China would licence the GM seed.</p><p dir="ltr">Lawsuits against the Swiss company began piling up. The loss of the Chinese export market decreased overall demand for US corn, resulting in falling prices for US crops. Farmers affected included big producers in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin.</p><h2>‘Devastating losses’</h2><p dir="ltr"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="307" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Syngenta logo in a corn field near Basel, Switzerland. Xu Jinquan/PA Images. All rights reserved.</span></span></span></p><p dir="ltr">With more than 90% of corn grown in the US genetically engineered, the loss of the Chinese market was devastating. Farmers and other companies involved in the corn industry filed a series of lawsuits against Syngenta. Studies by the US National Grain and Feed Association and the North American Export Grain Association estimated the minimum damage to the industry was north of $3 billion.</p><p dir="ltr">The Swiss multinational claimed it had done nothing wrong and that the Chinese had not been interested in food safety, but were instead intent on lessening its dependence on the US corn market.</p><p dir="ltr">The massive China-related lawsuits had featured in coverage by international wire services such as Reuters, with Syngenta’s financial difficulties also spelled out in articles in the Financial Times and the Mail. Rumours early last year that the scale of Syngenta’s lawsuit liabilities in the United States would lead to a credit-rating downgrading were confirmed later in 2017 when the two ratings agencies, Standard &amp; Poor, and then Fitch, both put Syngenta “on notice” for a potential downgrade. In October last year, Fitch rated Syngenta at BBB, two notches above junk.</p><p dir="ltr">However, the ESI-Syngenta coverage focused only on the positives of new genetic technology.</p><p dir="ltr">One international trade broker in London, who asked not to be named because of his continuing involvement in global agribusiness, told openDemocracy: “The scale of Syngenta’s problems in early 2017 pointed to a potential credit rating downgrading. And though Syngenta has now reached settlement with a large number of litigants, there still remains concern about how these high-level settlements will be funded. I’d want to know all of this kind of stuff if I was attending a conference or reading about global food safety.”</p><h2>The Brexit context</h2><p dir="ltr">The timing of the Standard’s “partnership” was also politically critical for Syngenta. Early last year, Andrea Leadsom, then agriculture secretary, told a conference in Oxford: “as we prepare to leave the EU, I will be looking at scrapping the rules that hold us back and focusing instead on what works best for the UK.”</p><p dir="ltr">After Leadsom’s hint, the government confirmed that as part of the preparations for Brexit it would be reviewing regulations surrounding genetically modified organisms. It remains possible that GM crops could be licensed for commercial purposes as part of the UK’s post-Brexit regime, and the “precautionary” principles that have been a signature of Brussels’ rules could be ended.</p><p dir="ltr">This agricultural turnaround, given the enduring scepticism about the merits of GM, will not come without a loud public debate. In anticipation of this, leading GM companies including Monsanto and Syngenta are understood to have increased their budgets for high-profile lobbying campaigns to change public hearts and minds on genetic biotechnology.</p><h2>Lobbying for GM</h2><p dir="ltr">What the ESI Media partnership indicates, according to a leading UK lobbyist, is that in addition to some much-needed reputation-boosting after the China-related lawsuits, Syngenta “wanted to begin the assault on changing consumer attitudes to GM. From the highly controlled debate [in the Evening Standard], it would appear the message the company wants the public to hear, and were prepared to pay for, is: ‘accept-our-technology or face more expensive food’”.</p><p dir="ltr">Tamsin Cave at the transparency group Spinwatch said: “Syngenta is doing what lobbyists always do: trying to shape public opinion. It’s the only thing standing in the way of GMOs in the UK. So, it is framing the debate as this fictional choice between food shortages and price increases (the problem) and GMOs (the solution). Plus, we’re being told not to listen to their critics, who are apparently all Luddites. None of this is fact, it’s all just manufactured PR, and the Evening Standard is just the latest vehicle willing to spread it.</p><p dir="ltr">“Expect to see a lot more of this as we approach Brexit, which lobbyists see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to roll back regulations. We should all be extra vigilant.”</p><p dir="ltr">openDemocracy asked Syngenta how its content contract with ESI Media was intended to work, and whether image and reputation was considered a key ingredient of its deal with Evgeny Lebedev’s company. We also asked if the London debates were deliberately timed to address the difficult commercial backdrop that at one point was looking to cost the company billions of dollars. In addition we asked what ESI Media was paid for the deal, and whether the company stipulated that background details from Syngenta’s global operations should be “held back” from London’s Evening Standard readers.</p><p dir="ltr">The full statement from a Syngenta spokesman reads:</p><p class="blockquote-new" dir="ltr">“Syngenta partnered with the London Evening Standard in 2017 to undertake a series of events in London with the aim of engaging Londoners in open debate about the challenge of sustainably feeding major cities worldwide. Whilst many living in the rural environment have a direct understanding and relationship to farming and food production those in cities are sometimes less engaged despite forming the largest number of food consumers.</p><p class="blockquote-new" dir="ltr">“Through the events Syngenta demonstrated that it is open, engaged and responsible in promoting its technologies and responding to concerns of consumers. The events were fully advertised and included a fully public all-day pop up at Kings Cross Station. At both of the events held in 2017 we were happy to engage and discuss any issue with anyone.”</p><p dir="ltr">ESI Media were also asked to comment on the commercial details of their deal with Syngenta, and why there was no mention of the global financial difficulties the Swiss company was experiencing that had been widely reported elsewhere.</p><p dir="ltr">The company’s managing director, Doug Wills, said the partnership had been “news driven” and claimed the public debate about the future of food had been “an issue of considerable interest to our readers.” Wills said the Standard’s coverage around the event and a subsequent article later in the year “reflected both sides of the debate”.</p><p><strong><em>This article is part of <a href="">openMedia</a> a project funded by the Adessium and Democracy and Media foundations to investigate and expose commercial interference in editorial decisions across Europe’s media. If you are a journalist who recognises any of the issues described here, please fill out our <a href="">confidential survey</a> below, anonymously if you wish. Thank you.</em></strong></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/james-cusick-crina-boros/blurred-lines-and-black-ops-disappearing-divide-between-uk-news-and-adverti">The secrets of &#039;Black Ops&#039; advertising. Who is paying for our news?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/openmedia/mary-fitzgerald/welcome-to-openmedia">Why we&#039;re launching openMedia</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/uk/adam-ramsay/climate-change-reporting-for-sale">Climate change reporting for sale?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/ourkingdom/peter-oborne/why-i-have-resigned-from-telegraph">Why I have resigned from the Telegraph</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> UK </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-city"> <div class="field-label">City:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> London </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk London UK Civil society Democracy and government openMedia journalism investigations media freedom Crina Boros James Cusick Thu, 08 Feb 2018 10:55:26 +0000 James Cusick and Crina Boros 116003 at Bought and paid for – how Romania’s media is pressured by corporate and political masters <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Journalists in Romania failing to conform to pressure from private companies and advertisers face intimidation and risk losing their jobs.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="357" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Man holding a newspaper. Image: Nicolas Alejandro/Flickr. Some rights reserved.</span></span></span>Journalists in Romania failing to conform to pressure from private companies – and from advertisers demanding editorial control – face intimidation and risk losing their jobs, according to the latest reports on the country’s media.&nbsp;</p> <p>With Romania’s cash-strapped private-sector media increasingly influenced by political interests, a Romanian media watchdog, <a href="">ActiveWatch</a>, has told openDemocracy that the situation has deteriorated to the point where the press risks becoming substantially financially controlled.</p> <p>Mircea Toma, head of ActiveWatch, said: “we’ve put together a guide that shows from our press monitoring just how Romania’s media is being bought.”</p> <p>Toma said private companies and politicians had been interfering in news coverage “for years”. But now with very few broadcasters or news publishers making a profit, there was an increasing reliance on advertising revenue.</p> <p>With job-insecurity and low pay commonplace, many Romanian journalists face the stark choice between obeying orders that effectively come from corporate or financial masters, or – if refusing and asking too many questions – being sacked.</p><h2><strong>Silence is golden</strong></h2> <p>Concerns over deteriorating press freedom in the country were initially highlighted in a 2010 joint report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).</p> <p>A third of the journalists interviewed in the IFEX/RSF survey said what they wrote was influenced by advertising.</p> <p>To look deeper into the state of Romania’s press freedom, Toma’s watchdog group launched a media monitoring project which surveyed the output of seven Romanian national newspapers and the public television broadcaster TVR. The project focused on a proposed gold and silver mine in Roşia Montană, which would be the largest open-pit gold mine in Europe.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p>Anti-mining NGOs have been challenging the company and the government in court every step of the way for years. Plus, <a href="">country-wide protests</a> opposing the project spread across the country and through some diasporas. The riots peaked in 2013, pressuring the <a href="">government to vote down a bill</a> allegedly designed to greenlight the goldmining.&nbsp;</p><p>In 2015, after approximately 14 years of trying and failing to reopen the ancient gold mine in Roşia Montană, Gabriel Resources, the company in possession of 80% of the mine's shares,&nbsp;<a href="">filed a complaint</a>&nbsp;against Romania to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), which is still being addressed.</p> <p>ActiveWatch's analysis – called “Silence is Golden” – examined coverage of the mine in western Romania, which had planned to use a controversial process involving cyanide to extract gold.</p> <p>The survey followed on from Mircea Toma's own experience working for the satirical weekly magazine, Academia Caţavencu, which is known for its investigative reporting.</p> <p>Seven years ago, one of Toma’s Academia colleagues was invited on a group press trip to New Zealand. This included a tour of a gold mine where journalists observed a specific extraction technique in action.</p> <p>The New Zealand mine removed the precious metal using a process called “gold cyanidation”. The same process was intended to be used at Roşia Montană. The technique – banned in a number of countries due to the toxic nature of cyanide – aids the extraction of gold from low-grade ore by converting the metal into a water-soluble complex.</p> <p>Cyanide spills near mines using this process have been proven to have devastating environmental effects on rivers, causing pollution which lasts years.</p> <p>Major mining-related cyanide spills in the United States, Papua New Guinea, Guyana and Kyrgyzstan have prompted national bans on the potentially toxic process in the US, the Czech Republic and Hungary.</p> <p>In Romania, there have been several attempts to ban gold cyanidation which have all been rejected by the Romanian parliament.</p> <p>After <a href="">the group of Romanian journalists</a> returned from the trip to New Zealand, described as “extravagant” by those who took part, all their expenses were later proved to have been invoiced to the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), a subsidiary of Gabriel Resources, a company headquartered in Canada, and registered in the Channel Island of Jersey in 1995 for tax purposes.</p><p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="307" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Cârnic Massif may disappear if the mine reopens. Image: Caelainn Barr, Roșia Montana, Romania, 2013. Trip sponsored by Journalism Fund</span></span></span>Gabriel Resources was founded by a Romanian-born Australian, Frank Timis. He began negotiations with the Romanian government in 1996 to advance extraction of the country’s gold resources. A geological survey in 2000 estimated around 300 tons of gold and 1600 tons of silver could be extracted from four mountains surrounding the town of Roşia Montana. A mining licence was granted to RMGC in 1999.</p> <p>Toma began investigating the New Zealand trip, along with aspects of the mining process and the activities of the Romanian company. But the information he found and the articles he wrote were not published by Academia Caţavencu.&nbsp;</p> <h2><strong>Disinformation and censorship allegations</strong></h2> <p>After Toma claims that a series of articles on the mine were spiked, the reporter accused the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) of involvement in disinformation and censorship. He left the magazine when he says a healthy debate in the newsroom on the mine became a taboo subject.&nbsp;</p> <p>The ‘Silence is Golden’ survey carried out by Toma's ActiveWatch revealed that six of seven national papers, and the state TV broadcaster, had either delivered positive reports on the gold mine development in Roșia Montană, or went silent, many accepting substantial advertising and paid-for press trips from the company.</p> <p>Over the timeframe of the survey, which covered 2011, only one daily newspaper, Adevărul, had published neutral or unfavourable articles on the mine.</p><p>Other areas of concern have included a regional news website ( removing an article about the forced expropriation of property in areas linked to the mine.</p> <p>Two open letters addressed to some of Romania’s most popular newspapers – <a href="">Romania Libera</a> and <a href="">Capital</a> – accused editors of censoring reports on the mining project by deleting articles or removing critical content on their linked websites.</p> <h2><strong>Fake claims</strong></h2> <p>Press investigations of RMGC revealed that the mining company paid for television and online advertising which purported to show that unemployment was high in areas near the mining operation and that jobs in mining would help offset economic hardship.</p> <p>However, the accuracy of the advertising content was questioned by ActiveWatch. One spot featured a Roşia Montană villager who claimed to be unable to make a living from tourism. But subsequent field reporting found that the resident had a thriving business and was planning to build a villa for tourists.</p><p>Over the months of August to November of the same year, the survey also identified "a dramatic fall" in the presence of the topic at TVR: from 27 news items in August (26 of which on prime-time), to 15 in September, and only three over the next two months with just one on prime-time according to Toma.&nbsp;</p><p>In one month, 12 out of 15 items were shown in peak-audience slots. However, in the month that followed, only one item was shown at peak time, and in the subsequent month, reports on the mine were downgraded to a TVR secondary channel.</p> <p>ActiveWatch noted that the marked change in the mine’s coverage on main news programmes correlated with comments from the then Romanian president, Traian Basescu, who began openly offering his support for the controversial Rosia project.</p> <h2><strong>Political influence from the top</strong></h2> <p>According to <a href="">a report by Freedom House</a>, the US-based organisation that researches global human rights and political independence: “The parliamentary majority [in Romania] generally changes the leadership of the public broadcaster, ensuring a pro-government bias to its reporting.”</p> <p>openDemocracy found that RMGC filed an official complaint to TVR in 2011, accusing the broadcaster of a having a “malicious attitude” towards its operations in its current affairs programmes. Former TVR news programme director Rodica Culcer said the complaint was “an attempt to intimidate” their reporting.</p><p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="326" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Roșia Montană Gold Corporation CEO Dragoș Tănase at Antena 3 TV, September 2 2013. Image: ANTI.USL/Flickr. Some rights reserved.</span></span></span>Positive news coverage of Roşia Montană throughout 2011 coincided with the parent company, Gabriel Resources, almost doubling its public relations budget from 10 million Canadian dollars in 2010, to 19 million Canadian dollars over the following 12 months.</p> <p>For its 2011 annual report, Gabriel Resources, said the increased PR budget reflected “the continued efforts by the company to provide relevant and timely information to the Romanian population to maintain the positive momentum of public support for the project.”</p> <h2><strong>Educating the public</strong></h2> <p>The mining company RMGC told openDemocracy that it did not have an effective communication programme before 2008 and that “a lot of the public knowledge was inaccurate due to misrepresentation and rumour.” RMGC previously stated its “on-going communication strategy” was “critical” to “educate the public on modern mining.”</p> <p>The respected financial magazine, <a href="">Forbes (Romania) reported in 2013</a> that the period covering 2011 was “pivotal” for the mining company’s PR operation. Over that year it had spent £538,000 in print media advertising – a 152% increase from 2010 and 86% above the 2012 spend.</p> <p>Despite the jump in the PR budget and the aggressive national ad campaign, there were widespread demonstrations across Romania opposing the opening of the mine. The project has also faced organised resistance from environmental pressure groups and from countries along Romania’s border.</p> <p>Protests against the reopening of the gold mine involving thousands of participants took place between 2010 and 2013, which influenced the government’s decision to halt the project.</p> <p>However, ActiveWatch found that large parts of the Romanian media simply ignored the protests – such as occupations of important buildings, or profile support by leading pop stars – by devoting little or no coverage.</p><p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="104" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Romanians protesting against the reopening of the mine in Roșia Montană in University Square, Bucharest, 22 September 2013. Image: Andrei Tiut/Flickr. Some rights reserved. </span></span></span>A 2013 <a href="">investigation by Rise</a>, a group of Romanian investigative journalists who are members of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), looked at revenue from RMGC which went to television channels. It found that national broadcasters, academics, influential politicians and some prominent businessmen had all benefitted financially from RMGC’s PR operations.</p> <h2><strong>Selling silence</strong></h2> <p>A report by Naşul TV, a commercial channel in Romania, accused the country’s mainstream media of “selling their silence” by under-reporting anti-mining protests.</p> <p>Naşul claimed that RMGC had spent 12 million euros over three years on advertising and PR. The channel alleged that RMGC had changed its ad-buying strategy and had moved from a 2009 campaign which focused on media ratings to, in 2010, prioritising its “political affinities” which looked beyond simple audience measurement.</p> <p>As part of their new strategy, RMGC sponsored entire programmes on the state-owned channel. Reports in the Romanian press showed that RMGC bought 1,349 radio ads over three years, and described the 2011 spend as a “bombardment”.</p> <p>Toma told openDemocracy that the activities and commercial relationships forged by RMGC were a text-book warning for other media organisations around the world concerned about the growing influence of outside commercial pressure on independent editorial voices.</p> <p>Gabriel Resources were not available for comments on the latest developments addressing the gold mine in Romania.&nbsp;</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/claudia-ciobanu/another-rosia-montana-despite-public-outrage">Another Rosia Montana, despite public outrage</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/claudia-ciobanu/revolution-begins-with-rosia-montana">&quot;The Revolution begins with Rosia Montana&quot;</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/mihai-gotiu/romanian-spring-or-carpathian-autumn">Romanian spring or Carpathian autumn?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/raluca-besliu/romania%27s-unsolved-communist-ecological-disaster">Romania&#039;s unsolved communist ecological disaster</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/claudia-ciobanu/romanias-1989-revolution-redux">Romania&#039;s 1989 revolution redux</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/claudia-ciobanu/romania-and-bulgaria-occupy-transition">Romania and Bulgaria: occupy the transition!</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Romania </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Romania Civil society openMedia corporations: power & responsibility media freedom media plurality democratic media media freedom of expression mining Gabriel Resources Rosia Montana Romania RMGC corporations journalism censorship James Cusick Crina Boros Wed, 22 Nov 2017 15:03:50 +0000 Crina Boros and James Cusick 114838 at Revealed: The Tory MPs using taxpayers’ cash to fund a secretive hard-Brexit group <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Senior MPs including Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and Jacob Rees-Mogg have used their expenses to fund a 'party within a party' inside Westminster – effectively holding the government hostage over its negotiations with the EU.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p dir="ltr"><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="242" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>"The People Have Spoken." Photo: Avaaz. All rights reserved.</span></span></span>Taxpayers’ money is being used to fund an influential group of hard-line pro-Brexit Conservative MPs who are increasingly operating as a “party-within-a-party”, openDemocracy can reveal today.</p><p dir="ltr">Despite expenses rules stating that MPs cannot claim for research or work “done for, or on behalf of, a political party”, the European Research Group has received over a quarter of a million pounds from MPs who claimed the public cash through their official expenses.</p><p dir="ltr">The ERG, according to its current chair, MP Suella Fernandes, exists to ensure that Brexit will not be rendered “meaningless”. The group, regarded as an 80-strong private Tory caucus, wants Britain out of the EU single market and customs union. Its previous head, Steve Baker, now a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, said his group aimed to end EU’s “despotism” and give Britain back its borders.</p><p dir="ltr">Forty MPs have paid money to the ERG and claimed it back as ‘research’ over the period covering the David Cameron and Theresa May governments. These include current ministers and members of May’s cabinet. &nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">But the true number could be higher. Other MPs regarded as ERG members have claimed expenses for “research services” on European issues without specifying the ERG.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">According to a Whitehall analyst who has reviewed MPs’ expense statements for openDemocracy, the amount of taxpayers’ money received by the ERG is likely to be well above the officially listed quarter of a million pounds.</p><p dir="ltr">Anna Soubry, who served as a minister under David Cameron, and who has been critical of &nbsp;Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, told openDemocracy that while MPs legally used collective research services: “The ERG operates like a party within a party”. She added she was “surprised that it’s [ERG] being funded by taxpayers especially as it is a single issue organisation and would be of little use to a Conservative MP who doesn’t support their views.”&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">Ms Soubry said the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) should investigate the ERG payments to ensure taxpayers money “was being spent responsibly.”&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">Andrea Leadsom, the former Tory leadership contender who is currently Leader of the Commons, has claimed almost £10,000 for ERG research. Sajid Javid has listed £8000 for ERG work. Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, has claimed almost £8000, and the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, £2000. All are high profile cabinet figures who have voiced clear support in favour of the UK making a clean break with the EU.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">The office of backbench MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, currently being touted as a future leader of the Conservative Party, confirmed he was a member of the ERG. His staff insisted he had claimed no money through his expenses for the group. However his filed accounts state he claimed almost £10,000 for ERG research.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">openDemocracy repeatedly requested an official list of members of the ERG from Suella Fernandes. The former barrister has only been an MP since 2015 and took over as chair of the ERG from Steve Baker following his ministerial promotion in June this year. &nbsp;Although her office insisted the list was “not a state secret” it would not reveal any details of the group.</p><p dir="ltr">Despite Ms Fernandes’ leading role, her office said all matters relating to the group had to go through Christopher Howarth. He holds the basic title of “senior researcher” of the ERG.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">One of Ms Fernandes staff said Mr Howarth effectively ran the group from a separate Westminster office. “Christopher holds all the information. Only he can help. That is often a problem for us, especially if he is on holiday,” she said.</p><h2>“Their own whipping operation”</h2><p dir="ltr">Christopher Howarth worked for the MP Mark Francois when he was shadow Europe minister, and for Baker when he chaired the ERG. Baker, now a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, has also <a href="">received money from the secretive Constitutional Research Council</a>: the same outfit that channeled £435,000 of <a href="">‘dark money’ to the DUP</a> to campaign for Brexit.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">Baker is regarded by both front and backbench Tory eurosceptics as a key figure capable of using the influence of the ERG to ensure a hard Brexit is not watered down or compromised. His ministerial promotion by May was seen as necessary if she wanted to survive as prime minister after the debacle of the general election.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">The government’s continuing position on a hard Brexit without compromise in negotiations with Brussels is said to reflect fear that if there is any softening, the ERG will immediately move to oust May from 10 Downing Street.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">Tory MPs who spoke to openDemocracy on a strictly non-attributable basis, described ERG members as engaged in “their own whipping operation”, using a closely-guarded WhatsApp messaging network, and sticking rigidly to the ERG’s agreed policy-line on any matters relating to Brexit. One MP said “Their private newsletter is not a subject for discussion, it is a directive to be obeyed.”</p><p dir="ltr">No MP contacted by openDemocracy contradicted the notion of the ERG as a party-within-a-party, with many saying it had been transformed under Baker’s command.</p><p dir="ltr">In June this year Christopher Howarth helped organise a meeting of ERG MPs in a Commons committee room. Two ministers, one from Davis’ Brexit department, the other from Liam Fox’s international trade department, gave the gathered MPs assurances that Brexit still meant the UK being outside the customs union and the single market, with UK law returning to supremacy. Baker described the gathering as “hugely encouraging.”</p><p dir="ltr">The meeting coincided with confirmation that Steve Baker, then chair of the ERG, would be joining the government as a minister.</p><h2>“Running his own operation”</h2><p dir="ltr">There is more than some confusion – even among senior Tory MPs – over who exactly the ERG’s “senior researcher” Christopher Howarth now works for, and in what capacity.</p><p dir="ltr">In August, the name “Christopher Howarth” is listed twice in the official Register of Interests of Members’ Secretaries and Research Assistants as working for the MP Steve Baker and Nick Herbert, a former Home Office and Justice minister in David Cameron’s coalition government. &nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">Baker’s office referred questions on the ERG to Suella Fernandes. The Christopher Howarth who works for Nick Herbert has no connection with the ERG.</p><p>Howarth, the ERG’s senior researcher, is also officially listed by the Sergeant-at-Arms office, responsible for the security and administration of the Commons, as working for Chris Heaton-Harris. The Daventry MP was chair of the ERG between 2010 and 2015 before Baker.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">Heaton-Harris’s office was also contacted by openDemocracy. They said Howarth did not work there, that they had no formal connection with him, that he had no desk in their office, and that Howarth had his own office elsewhere on the Westminster estate.</p><p dir="ltr">Other Tory MPs said they believed Howarth had no connection with any one MP and effectively “ran his own operation from his own office.”&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">The Sergeant at Arms office said that researchers who held passes to the Palace of Westminster had to be employed by an MP whether backbench or at ministerial level. The Sergeant’s office said that researchers employed as staff by a think-tank or outside pressure group were not permitted to have their own office on the parliamentary estate or to enjoy independent access to the Palace of Westminster.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">Although Howarth has his own phone extension inside the parliamentary estate, the main Westminster switchboard do not have his name listed anywhere.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">openDemocracy repeatedly contacted both Mr Howarth and Ms Fernandes asking who employed him, where his office in the Palace of Westminster was, what research he had carried out, and how much he was being paid by the ERG.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">The questions were acknowledged but no information was received. &nbsp;</p><h2>“Amusing but entirely fanciful”</h2><p dir="ltr">Earlier this year the ERG’s former chair Steve Baker, after being promoted to a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, confirmed he had accepted £6,500 from the Constitutional Research Council in 2016. He claimed the money was used to fund an event for ERG members and their staff in late December 2016.</p><p dir="ltr">Under pressure from openDemocracy, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs now prop up Theresa May’s minority government, reluctantly acknowledged it received a £435,000 donation from the CRC in the run up to the Brexit referendum last year – more cash than they had ever spent on a political campaign in their history. Both the DUP and Richard Cook, a Scottish Tory who runs the CRC, have repeatedly refused to reveal where the funds came from.</p><p dir="ltr">The money was not used by the DUP solely in Northern Ireland, but instead was used to buy pro-Brexit advertising across the UK. Under Northern Ireland’s limited transparency rules, the DUP are not required to reveal full details of their funding.&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">The CRC do not publish any accounts and have refused to reveal details of their political affairs. After Baker confirmed the donation from the CRC he was asked if he knew where the money had come from and the identity of those donating funds to Cook’s group. The Department for Exiting the European Union referred all enquiries to Christopher Howarth.</p><p dir="ltr">In a brief reply this week, Howarth described the ERG link to the CRC as “amusing but entirely fanciful”. He repeated the explanation that the £6,500 had been from a “permissible donor.”</p><p dir="ltr">James McGrory, Executive Director of Open Britain, the cross-party campaign group who believe the government’s Brexit strategy is destructive and chaotic, said: “It will surprise many people to learn that their taxes are being used to fund a group of hard-line Brextremists operating as a ‘party within a party’ in the Conservatives. IPSA &nbsp;should investigate this quickly and thoroughly to judge whether this is the legitimate use of public funds its members claim it is.”&nbsp;</p><p dir="ltr">He added : “Given they are hoovering up hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ cash, the ERG should also be a lot more transparent about who its members are and what the money is being spent on.”</p><p dir="ltr"><em>Note: This article was changed to reflect the fact that the Christopher Howarth who works for Nick Herbert is a different person from the Christopher Howarth who works for the ERG.</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/uk/brexitinc/adam-ramsay/leadsom-campaign-chair-denies-involvement-in-dark-money-funded-poll-which-b">Leadsom campaign chair denies involvement in dark-money funded poll which boosted her campaign</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/uk/brexitinc/adam-ramsay-peter-geoghegan/new-brexit-minister-arms-industry-american-hard-right-and-e">The new Brexit minister, the arms industry, the American hard right… and Equatorial Guinea</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/uk/brexitinc/peter-geoghegan-adam-ramsay/meet-soopa-doopa-branding-agency-who-delivered-brexit">Meet the Soopa Doopa branding agency that delivered Brexit</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/uk/brexitinc/peter-geoghegan-adam-ramsay/meet-scottish-tory-behind-425000-dup-brexit-donation">Meet the Scottish Tory behind the £425,000 DUP Brexit donation</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/uk/peter-geoghegan-adam-ramsay/dup-donaldson-can-t-remember-why-his-brexit-campaign-spent-more-than-">DUP Donaldson can’t remember why his Brexit campaign spent more than £32,000 on controversial data analytics company linked to Trump</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/uk/adam-ramsay-peter-geoghegan/democratic-unionist-party-brexit-campaign-manager-admits-he-didn-t-kn">Democratic Unionist Party Brexit campaign manager admits he didn’t know about its mysterious donor’s links to the Saudi intelligence service</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> UK </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk uk UK Democracy and government Conservative Party European Research Group investigations Brexit DUP Dark Money Brexit Inc. James Cusick Adam Ramsay Crina Boros Thu, 07 Sep 2017 11:48:16 +0000 James Cusick, Adam Ramsay and Crina Boros 113232 at Crina Boros <div class="field field-au-term"> <div class="field-label">Author:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Crina Boros </div> </div> </div> <p>Crina Boros is an investigative journalist with a data-driven approach to reporting. She trains for CIJ and has freelanced for BBC, Greenpeace, Investigate Europe and ICIJ.</p> Crina Boros Thu, 07 Sep 2017 10:28:32 +0000 Crina Boros 113233 at