It can’t have escaped everyone’s notice that Tim Ireland, Garry Smith (aka Curious Hamster) and myself have spent a fair amount of time, of late, digging into the many connection between the supposedly ‘independent’ charitable think-tank, Policy Exchange, and the Conservative Party and, latterly, connections between 18 Doughty Street (and a number of other related ‘operations’ including ConservativeHome, the Young Britons Foundation and BritainAndAmerica.com).
In case you’ve missed out on the ‘action’, you can easily pick up the thread of our various bits of digging from these posts.
Ministry of Truth (me)…
Bloggerheads (Tim Ireland)
Plus a fair bit more at Tim’s spoof on the activities of Paul Staines, Guido 2.0
Curious Hamster (Garry)…
Let’s be clear what the issues are here.
In the case of Policy Exchange, which operates as a registered charity under the following objects:
The Purposes of the charity are:
3.1 The Non-partisan advancement of education of the public in the economic social and political sciences and their effect on public policy and the public-policy making process in the UK and the promotion and publication of objective research;
3.2 the pursuit of such other purposes which are exclusively charitable within the law of the England and Wales as the directors of the charity (hereinafter referred to as ‘The Trustees’ shall determine
…the contention is pretty simple. Policy Exchange has a governing body made of people with extensive and verifiable links to the Conservative Party – in fact, based on information available in the public domain it has not been possible to verify that a single member of its board of trustees is not a Tory in one way or the other. The ‘role call’ includes a current Tory MP, former Tory election candidates, former employees of the Tory Party including a former special adviser to the Thatcher government, Tory Party donors, journalists working currently, or formerly, for newspapers that are clearly identified in the public eye as supporting the Tory Party.
Add to that the fact that their main staff team includes a newly-selected Tory candidate, two former Tory Parliamentary candidates, one of whom is expected to be a leading contender for the Tory nomination for London Mayor and two more former Tory party employees, and it should be obvious why we’ve all come to think that Policy Exchange’s pretensions of independence and non-partisanship, which are essential to its charitable status, ring just that little bit hollow…
…especially when we discover that its Director, Nicholas Boles, made this statement on a Radio 4 programme about think-tanks only a matter of a month ago:
Radio 4: In The Think Tanks : Programme One 07/01/2007
When we started we felt rather like rebels in a forest with our faces blacked up, lobbing grenades at high command, and the high command being pretty unnamused by the whole process. And that was an exciting time and you have a purpose.
And now, of course, somebody we like and admire has taken over high command and is relying on us to do some useful work to actually flesh out what the new direction is going to be.”
“So, I hope that a lot of what we do will compliment what the policy groups that the conservative party have set up are doing, and perhaps provide some sort of deeper research evidence for some policy positions.”
(Thank to ‘Grist to the mill?’ in the comments on the first Policy Exchange article).
That statement I’ve highlighted doesn’t sound particularly non-partisan, does it?
At the very least it raises serious questions about the public character of Policy Exchange as a charity, because that and other public statements by another of its employees that I’ve been compiling over the last few days, clearly give the impression that Policy Exchange is a partisan think-think working towards the specific goal of the election of a Conservative government under David Cameron.
And with that in mind, I’ve decided that the concerns this raise are sufficient not only to ask the Charity Commission to look generally at the question of political think-tanks and whether they are subject to adequate regulatory oversight, but also to ask that they look specifically at Policy Exchange and some of the activities of its employees over recent months, as these clearly appear to call in question its public character as a charity.
Moving on to 18 Doughty Street and its co-projects (or, alternatively, Fox News Lite or Tory TV, whichever you prefer) an Tim’s correctly noted in linking this article from The Register, the whole set-up there circumvents OFCOM regulations, which require due impartiality in broadcast media and state that “No politician may be used as a newsreader, interviewer or reporter in any news programmes unless, exceptionally, it is editorially justified. In that case, the political allegiance of that person must be made clear to the audience.”
However, there is always more than one way to skin a cat, and while Fox New Lite operates outside OFCOM’s regulations, a quick scan through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, yields this rather interesting clause:
6. – (1) The Commission shall keep under review, and from time to time submit reports to the Secretary of State on, the following matters, namely-
(f) political advertising in the broadcast and other electronic media;
And other electronic media, eh? So where OFCOM can’t go, it seems that the Electoral Commission can.
Now some might argue that this is can of worms that a political blogger would be best to avoid as its opens the door to considerations about where and whether blogging, itself, might cross the line into regulated campaign activity, but then ordinary bloggers really have nothing to fear because in S52 of PPERA, which covers activities that can’t be considered ‘donations’ to political campaigns, one of the exempt activities is specifically:
(g) the provision by any individual of his own services which he provides voluntarily in his own time and free of charge;
Joe Blogger, sat at his computer in his pyjamas on his own time and at his own expense is specifically exempt from such considerations… but whether the same can be said of a slick, well-funded new media operation run by Tory Party members and supporter in which people like Iain Dale get paid for their services is another matter entirely. At best this in an open question in the sense that operations like Fox News Lite et al are new enough for the Electoral Commission not to have formed a view of how and where their activities might sit in relation to current regulations on political campaigning, donations, etc. – which I’m Fox News Lite’s backers are well aware of.
And for that reason, and with elections for Local Government, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly due this year, I think now is an opportune time for the Electoral Commission to take a look at these new developments and take a view as to whether and to what extent their activities should be subject to regulation, particularly in key campaign periods leading in to elections.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always considered prevention to be better than a cure, and in the case of Fox News Lite it seems better that the Electoral Commission take a good close look into the loopholes that it may be exploiting in existing regulations and decide whether there are any stable doors that need to be shut before the horses get a change to bolt.
Blogging may, therefore, be a touch light for a few days while these and other questions are properly framed and forwarded to the relevant regulators for consideration – although I do have one other thing I want to comment on today, as you’ll see in a short while.