Fox News Lite on the Smith Institute

Well, I’ve now had to chance to review Iain Dale’s Fox News Lite smear story, sorry, report on the Smith Institute and my immediate reaction is…

…is that it?

Okay, I will say the video is worth watching just for the section on Bob Shrum’s comments about David Cameron, which I thought was brilliant, especially the bit about Cameron being a shameless opportunist with no policies – that alone is worth following the link for (yes, there is it, Sunny).

Just one question about that, that Fox News Lite doesn’t make clear; is the guy slagging of Cameron in an American accent actually Shrum, or just a jobbing actor working for Fox News Lite reading out a transcript of part of Shrum’s speech?

Just thought I’d ask, as that’s the kind of thing a real TV station would make clear in their broadcasts.

Anyway, aside from Shrum’s excellent assessment of Cameron, what else has Dale got to offer.

Well the substance of his allegations (actually substance is the wrong word entirely there, as it implies that there’s something too them), go like this…

Allegation 1…

a) The Smith Institute uses Number 11 Downing Street as a venue for lots of meetings.

b) ‘Business people’ who get invited to these meetings would probably go because they think that Gordon Brown might just pop his head round the door and say hello.

c) Iain doesn’t know what actually goes in these meetings at all.

Therefore that’s ‘Cash For Access’.

So no actual evidence, there, Iain? No? Thought not?

Allegation number 2.

a) The Smith Institute rents office space from the New Statesman, which is owned Geoffrey Robinson, a close ally of Gordon Brown.

b) Bob Shrum is the only paid ‘fellow’ employed the Smith Institute.

c) Gordon Brown has been seen talking to Bob Shrum on the pavement outside the offices of the New Statesman.

Therefore something dodgy is going on… I’m afraid Iain gets a lead-lined tinfoil helmet for that one.

Allegation Number 3

a) The Smith Institute organised two meetings for a political audience, that included Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, Alistair Darling and Polly Toynbee (??? I thought you lot had decided you like Polly Pot? Oh well).

b) Bob Shrum gave speeches to the meetings, the first on the utter vapidity of Cameron’s first 100 days and his George W Bush-like efforts to look like a moderate, and the second on the outcome of the American mid-term elections.

Now okay, taken at face value that looks rather political and partisan, which would be no-no for a registered charity if it were found to expending its own funds on such meetings…

..but there’s a ‘but’ in the form of a non-charitable trading company called SI Events Limited, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Smith Institute – for those not conversant in charity law, registered charities do face considerable restrictions in carrying out trading activities but are permitted to own and operate non-charitable subsidiaries which can trade as they wish, within the law, in order to bring in additional income which can then be transfered by deed of covenant or via gift aid back to the charity to support its work.

This is all perfectly routine – if you look into Oxfam’s accounts you’ll almost certainly find that they have a trading company that handles all their ‘fair trade’ products.

So, when we come the Smith Institutes’s most recent published accounts, what we find is that it declares its ownership of SI Events Limited, the size of the company’s capital/reserves (£42,095) and its operating profit for the year (£14,290).

And here’s the rub… The Smith Institute, itself, cannot as a charity ‘do’ the kind of partisan political meetings that Dale refers to in his report BUT the Labour Party, or a group of Labour MPs, or anyone else for that matter could quite happily hire the services of SI Events Limited to organise just such a meeting, and if the meetings were organised on this basis then The Smith Insititute, itself, has certain not done anything that would call into question its charitable status.

But, of course, Dale omits any mention of the existence of SI Events Limited, let alone points to the possibility that it, and not the The Smith Institute, arranged these two meetings, precisely because it doesn’t quite fit in with his ‘sleaze’ thesis.

So, no evidence again, eh Iain? Shame that…

Oh, by the way, you know I mentioned the other day that Iain Dale just so happens to a trustee of the ‘independent’ think-tank Policy Exchange, and, of course, like The Smith Institute, Policy Exchange, as a registered charity, is obliged to be non-partisan, both by law and by its charitable objects (which specifically state that is should be non-partisan).

Which brings to a couple of questions that I’d quite like Iain to help me with.

Now, earlier this week – Monday 29th Jan to be exact – Policy Exchange published a lengthy report called ‘Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism’ by one of its research fellows, Munira Mirza (with Abi Senthilkumaran and Zein Ja’far) which its own press release – issued the same day – trails in the following manner:

‘Think Tank of the Year’ Policy Exchange today releases the results of a major new survey* of the attitudes of Muslims in Britain and the reasons behind the rapid rise in Islamic fundamentalism amongst the younger generation. The authors of ‘Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism’ conclude that the growth of Islamism must be understood in relation to political and social trends that have emerged in British society and suggests that the way the Government is responding to Islamism is making things worse, not better.’

And by way of complete coincidence, I’m sure, this report turns out to have been released the day after Dave Cameron pops up in the Observer (28th Jan) to give his ‘own’ thoughts on much the same subject as the report, while on the same day (29th Jan) that the report was released he gave a keynote speech on the same subject, this being a mere day before the official publication date (30th) of an interim report by the official Tory policy group that’s looking at national and international security, which covers much the same ground (if from a different angle) but which was actually ‘obtained’ by the BBC on – yes, you guessed it – 29th Jan, just in time for them to refer to it in their coverage of Dave’s speech in Birmingham.

That’s an awful lot of coincidences, Iain.

Mmm, oh yes, almost forget – the questions?

Did, by any remote chance, Dave Cameron, or maybe his speech writers, have access to the contents of the Policy Exchange report before it’s official release date? Say maybe in plenty of time for him to take its findings into account in drafting the speech?

And, if so, which seems a bit of possibility on the observable evidence, could you tell me whether the same facility was afford to any other political party; say like Labour or the Lib Dem? I think we’ll take it as read that for the purposes of this question, your Unionist friends in Northern Ireland don’t really count.

Answers in the comment box, if you please…

Oh, sorry, having a bit of a Columbo moment here… just one more thing…

You know how charities are supposed to be non-partisan, and especially the kind whose charitable objects specifically say that they’re non-partisan?

Well, with that in mind, could you tell me a bit more about the background to a book called ‘Compassionate Conservatism: What it is. Why we need it’, which was written by Policy Exchange’s Executive Director, Jesse Norman (with Jahan Ganesh) and published by Policy Exchange in June 2006, and which is trailed on the Policy Exchange website in these terms:

(June 2006) David Cameron has made “modern, compassionate conservatism” the guiding philosophy of his leadership of the Conservative Party, stating that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. But many have expressed scepticism or even hostility to this idea. So what is compassionate conservatism, and how can it meet the social and political challenges faced by today’s Britain?

In fact the introduction to the ‘book’ makes even more intriguing reading:

One of the most prominent themes of the Conservatives under David Cameron has been that of “compassionate conservatism”. In a speech at Policy Exchange in June 2005, at the outset of his campaign to be leader of the Conservative party, Cameron said that his party would stand “for compassion and aspiration in equal measure”. In December, in his acceptance speech as leader, he called for “a modern and compassionate conservatism which is right for our times and our country”. And since then, he and other senior Conservatives have repeated this call in speeches, in the media and in political advertisements; and the theme of “modern, compassionate conservatism” has formed the core of the party’s new statement of aims and values, Built to Last.

Cameron has described compassionate conservatism in terms of trust, responsibility and inclusiveness:

“The more we trust people, the stronger they and society become. We’re all in this together… we have a shared responsibility for our shared future… There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the state. We will stand up for the victims of state failure and ensure that social justice and economic opportunity are achieved by empowering people and communities.”

Mmm, very nicely written, but then when Jesse’s not working for Policy Exchange he is, since last December, the Conservative Party’s PPC for the new constituency of Hereford and South Herefordshire, as I’m sure you’re already aware.

In fact, you seem to be aware of a lot of things regarding this book, as you were keen enough to promote it back in June, when you described it as:

probably the first attempt by anyone to seriously define the Cameroonian political philosophy.

And you also, very kindly, link to an article of Jesse’s on Comment is Free, in which he makes some interesting, and dare I say it, political observations, like:

After six months, we can already see that David Cameron is changing the basic terms of the political debate. Not merely at the level of language, as New Labour did, but at the level of ideas.

And

It thus rejects the unreflective statism of Gordon Brown.

And, mustn’t forget this one either:

It is by intuitively seeing the social need – and the space within current politics – for this tradition that David Cameron and the modern Conservative party are changing the terms of the debate. He is showing, not that Britain is a not conservative country, but precisely that it is.

What was all that you were saying about Bob Shrum and The Smith Institute, Iain?

In fact, if we take a look at Jesse’s profile and index page on CiF, we find that while he’s clearly identified on his profile as the Executive Director of Policy Exchange, his output over a space of four months in anything but charitable or non-partisan.

Of 11 articles in total, written over a space of about five months, Jesse manages to put up seven that directly attack the Labour Party or a named Labour Minister, including three where his target is specifically Gordon Brown, plus two shills for his Policy Exchange published book on ‘Compassionate Conservativism’, a defence of Cameron and Osbourne’s tax policy (with yet another shill for his book – you don’t know Oliver Kamm, by any chance? Never mind, it’s just a thought), plus an attack on Roy Hattersley that, again, miraculously morphs into a peroration on the joys of being a full-on member of Opus Dave, including the now obligatory, but rather more subtle (this time) link to his book.

Now, I know right away what the comeback will be here. Ah. but he’s writing in a personal capacity and not formally on behalf of Policy Exchange.

Well, quite.

Thing is, that’s rather skirting the issue here.

For one thing, if we look at exactly how he links back to his book throughout these articles, what becomes obvious is that many, if not most of the link present in an explicitly partisan political context – it used as a vehicle either to support Dave Cameron and the Tory Party or, when he’s on the attack, to support a partisan argument against the Labour Party or a particular Labour politician.

Remember, this is a book published by a registered charity that should be non-partisan and yet its main author, who is also the Executive Director of the charity in question and, now, a Tory PPC, is pitching it in an explicitly partisan political context, one that at least matches the partisan comments of Bob Shrum, about which Dale and other Tories are currently complaining.

Mmm… Pot calling Kettle black, methinks.

But then there’s more to consider. You see, looking closely at the Charity Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activities by charities (CC9, BTW), the context in which the Commission considers it permissible for a charity to engage in political campaigning or activities is described in quite narrow terms…

47. The principles which apply to charities’ involvement in campaigning and political activities, apply equally to charities’ contact with political parties and their representatives. Such contact is a natural and integral part of some campaigns. However, the value which the public attach to the independence of charities, and the confidence the public have in charities’ work, means that charities need to pay particular consideration to the consequences of working with political parties and their representatives.

48. Following the principles, it is acceptable for a charity to advocate support for a particular policy, even if that policy solution is advocated by a political party or candidate, providing the policy is in furtherance of the charity’s purposes. However a charity must not support a political party or candidate.

Throughout it guidance, the context presented by the Charity Commission is one in which a charity either supports or opposes a specific policy or expression of policy (i.e. piece of legislation), which charities are entitled to do provided they do so on the basis of well-founded research and adopt a non-partisan approach – i.e. it would permissible for a charity to publicly oppose the introduction on ID card on the basis that they consider it a bad policy in its own right and present their objections solely in terms of the policy itself. What a charity in that situation could not do, however, is publicly oppose that policy from the standpoint that its a bad policy because its a Labour Party policy – that would take them over the line into partisan activity of a kind not allowed by Charity Law.

The problem here, as I see it, is that Norman’s book is not advocating or supporting a policy, rather its explicitly supporting a broad ideological position, ‘compassionate conservativism’ , one that it specifically identified with a particular political leader – Dave Cameron – and with a specific political party, the Conservative Party.

It would be absurd, for example, to suggest that either the Liberal Democrats or Labour Party had adopted an ideology of ‘compassionate conservativism’ – the term, itself,  clearly implies that the ideology positions it expresses, and which Norman is arguing for, clearly belong to, and can be found only within, the Conservative Party.

It is, so far as I can see, and explicitly partisan political text, and the publication of such a text by a non-partisan charity is, therefore, a highly questionable act, because implicit in the act of supporting and advocating ‘compassionate conservatism’ is support for the Conservative Party under David Cameron, never mind that both the trailer for the book on the Policy Exchange website and its introduction, make the connection to Cameron and the Tory Party, absolutely clear.

So what, exactly, is the deal here, Iain? You’re a trustee and therefore, with you other trustees, bear legal responsibility for ensuring the Policy Exchange operates within both charity law and its charitable object, so how do you account for this and in what sense does this differ from your comments about Bob Shrum’s speeches?

As I’ve not quite got around, as yet, to forwarding my observations to the Charity Commission (busy week), I think the least I can do is afford you opportunity to respond to my comments and clarify your understanding of what it means for charity to operate in a non-partisan manner and how this relates to this particular book.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of regulations and stuff like that, I’ve been mooching through some of the guidance over at the Electoral Commission and I’m just staring to wonder quite where and how some of these semi-detached Tory-run new media operations, like Fox News Lite, might ‘interact’ with the PPERA regulations covering donations-in-kind and campaign expenditure, amongst other things, and whether it be time to ask the Commission to take a look at some of the ‘high value’ media operations, before any serious campaigning for elections gets under way.

Political blogging, and even organic blogging networks are one thing, and must, quite rightly, be able to continue to develop without interference or unnecessary regulation, but corporate-style media operations like Fox News Lite look a rather different matter and may need something of a closer look. Can’t have people bypassing the rules, now can we?
Mmm. I wonder… What do you reckon?

5 thoughts on “Fox News Lite on the Smith Institute

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  2. can you read dear sir?

    You quote from the CC rules:
    “Following the principles, it is acceptable for a charity to advocate support for a particular policy, even if that policy solution is advocated by a political party or candidate, providing the policy is in furtherance of the charity

  3. None so blind…

    1. It’s far from established as yet as to whether it was the Smith Institute or SI Events Ltd that organised the meetings addressed by Bob Shrum.

    If its the former, then there’s a problem. If the latter then there is none – a non-charitable trading arm own by a charity is under no express political restrictions, provided that a clear line is kept between its activities and those of its parent charity.

    If SI Events is shown to have been merely the ‘hired help’ that took care of only the organisational elements of the meeting on behalf of a paying customer then these meetings are of no consequence. The same goes for Shrum, if he was addressing the meeting as Bob Shrum (Pundit) and Bob Shrum (fellow of the Smith Institute) then his comments are of no consequence to the Charity Commission.

    2. Do try an keep up…

    Introducing ID cards is a policy.

    Whether or not to withdraw from the EU is a policy.

    How to configure the tax system to best effect is a policy.

    ‘Compassionate conservatism’ is NOT a policy, its a broad statement of a general ideological/ philosophical viewpoint that informs policy, and one that is directly and publicly linked to a specific political party at the present time – the Tories.

    In terms of the public character of a charity, support for specific policies based on research is not a problem, support for a specific political party based on an ideological position is, and what matters is not just what a charity does but how it is perceived and how its actions contribute to those perceptions.

    My main point in all this is a simple one – people in glass houses should not throw stones.

  4. On 1, the question of SI Events Ltd. vs the charity itself is unclear – as you say there is an issue that needs to be investigated, because it’s not clear what has happened. So the furore around the Smith Insititute is indeed legitimate.

    On the issue of compassionate conservatism, that is, as I think you indicate, a blanket term that could really mean anything, as we’ve seen in the US, it’s not entirely clear what is compassionate about Bush’s conservatism. So compassionate conservatism is essentially meaningless, and is just a blanket term for a raft of policies behind it. Without the policies behind it is meaningless. A left-wing thinktank might advocate “social justice”, an ideology associated with the Labour party, but it does not mean anything on its own. Another one might advocate “free trade” or whatever else. These are the aims of the group.

    I think you are really grasping at straws to suggest that a charitable thinktank having an ideology that, in your view, is associated with a particular party is prohibited. This is quite blatantly not the case from the rules. ALL charitable thinktanks have an overall ideology, otherwise they would be pointless and no-one would want to be involved with them.

    Endorsing candidates = not allowed
    Endorsing parties = not allowed
    Attacking other parties = not allowed
    Attacking other candidates = not allowed

    I think everyone is well aware that there are a number of left-wing and right-wing that endorse policies/ideologies associated with both parties. This is not what is being questioned with respect to the Smith Institute.

    That Conservative figures are involved with Policy Exchange is hardly surprising – if its aims are conservative in outlook, then you would expect conservatives (with a small ‘c’) to be its members. The Conservative party, for very obvious reason, comprises most of the major conservative thinkers in the UK. That they do not mention on their website that their members are nearly all Conservative party figures is quite correct, as they are non-partisan, and therefore it would be wrong (in breach of charitable aims) to imply that they are a Conservative as distinct from conservative thinktank by listing the party affiliations. It is no coverup not to list this, it is just sensible. If you are a conservative-minded charity it would be absurd to exclude people just because they are Conservative MPs/members/whatever, as this would leave virtually no-one yes.

    So let’s not get tied up with arguing about policies and ideologies. All thinktanks do this. There is very specific controversy with the Smith Institute that is nothing to do with policy research and everything to do with improper party political behaviour by a supposed charitable body. There is nobody throwing stones in glass houses. The principle of conservative or socialist/social democratic charities is quite well established, and there just isn’t anything controversial about it.

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