The need for a Transparency Registry … FOR JOURNALISTS!

French translation

This blog was originally published on 6 August 2014 shortly after the university I taught at discontinued a programme for journalism students. After seeing some terrible things done to real journalists committed by activists who call themselves journalists (feral journalists), it might be a good idea to revisit an earlier idea.

Last week the American anti-industry activist group, US Right to Know, orchestrated three articles against Monsanto (here, here and here) on the eve of the US EPA’s announcement that California could not continue to demand glyphosate products be labelled as carcinogenic (a classic lobbyist smoke and mirror tactic to hide negative news). The activist lobby group’s cosy relationship with certain media organisations who thrive on the anti-industry narrative is a subject for another blog, but the curious point about these three articles is how little information the reader has about the real motivations of the authors.

No Carey, you’re a paid lobbyist
  • Carey Gillam, for example, is paid nearly 100,000 USD a year as a lobbyist to run anti-ag-tech campaigns for US Right to Know, but she began yet another of her anti-Monsanto diatribes printed in The Guardian with the deceptive three words: “I’m a journalist”. That is a lie – Carey is a lobbyist bought and paid for by donations from the organic food industry.
  • Paul Thacker habitually takes US Right to Know campaign material and hashes them into poorly written op-eds (something the activist group has themselves critically referred to as “ghost-writing”). Last week he used the NGO’s published material to write an ad hominem assault piece on one of the few American freelance journalists who does declare her funding. Motivation? The journalist Paul attacked is perceived as a threat to US Right to Know.
  • In their 2018 IRS filing, US Right to Know declared paying 134,000 USD to an unnamed entity in the EU to redistribute for the production of articles, and for the last six months, their director, Gary Ruskin, has refused my requests to declare the name of the recipient. Typical.
Should a US non-profit be funding writers in the EU? Shouldn’t they name the entity?

Five years ago many of these activists were demanding a tightening of the EU Transparency Register for lobbyists (but curiously not for them). What we need today is a register for journalists (and yes, bloggers) where they can list their affiliations and financial support. As more and more journalists take on outside work and more and more activists call themselves journalists, transparency will help us understand the influence webs.

As these webs become more entangled with social media gurus, tort lawyers and NGOs at global levels, a clearer understanding (rating) of these influence tools needs to be established. Some news organisations like The Guardian now provide news coverage in exchange for donations (ink for hire). An activist site like Mamavation, that acts as a financial matchmaker between bloggers and organic food companies, should be responsible to feed this information into some site or registry so others know if a blog is a paid product announcement. If Corporate Europe Observatory pays an individual like Stéphane Horel to write for them, we should know how much of her income (and influence) is coming from this interest group.

Zealot hypocrisy: Articles funded by the organic food industry is also industry funding

I shudder meanwhile at how a credible journalist has no means to defend himself or herself from rabid attacks from interest groups. When a band of glyphobic activists slandered the French journalist, Emmanuelle Ducros for receiving a modest fee to moderate a round-table event for a bakery association (accusing her of being a paid shill for the agro-food industry) there was no structure in place to protect her or others from the salivating hyenas seeking to destroy an enemy. “Fair Game”?

Influence has changed. Journalism has changed. Access to information has changed. We are, however, still trusting according to a perception of the old news organisation structure.

My 2014 blog which initiated a discussion in the European context now follows:


The Risk-Monger was having coffee with a friend at a Brussels-based industry trade association last month. He mentioned to me that later that day he would give an interview to a journalist. “Oh really? Who?” He wasn’t sure. I then warned him to be careful as Brussels is full of a lot of activist wolves with semi-professional cameras going around the town pretending to be journalists, and then uploading their anti-industry campaigns on YouTube. After an “Old-World / New-World” silent moment, I left his office thinking there must be a way to stop innocent people from being abused by unscrupulous activist campaigners posing as journalists.

As I left the office I passed the said “journalist” in the waiting room and I shuddered. This hired hack was no journalist at all – just the week before, I had seen him at a conference berating industry people in the audience for allegedly not caring about the bees (on that day, he was wearing a different cap).

And this is the problem: anyone can call themselves a journalist today (even the Risk-Monger), throw their activist literature online and pretend that their lobbying material is responsibly researched, objective journalism. There are no more newspapers to give trained journalists legitimacy (and fewer institutions are even training journalists today). Freelancers are running around Brussels more as communications entrepreneurs, and among them lurk the wolves – the unethical activists who use this blurry grey area to seek their prey as fodder for their campaigning. Most of their work is shabby and anecdotal, then uploaded on YouTube and virally shared among their networks of activists to pose as legitimate research.

Take my friend, Stéphane Horel. She calls herself a journalist and yet she receives money from groups like Corporate Europe Observatory to run anti-industry campaigns. Her webpage proudly links her activist attacks on various industries: food, pharma, agriculture … and now she is attacking the plastics and pesticides industries for trying to be involved in the EU consultations on endocrine disruptors (something she thinks is totally wrong … unless, of course, you work for an anti-industry NGO – she has admitted she feels she doesn’t need to question them). In trying to unmask conflicts of interest, she seems blissfully unaware that taking money, research and advice from lobbying groups like Corporate Europe Observatory while calling herself a journalist is in itself a conflict of interest.

The Risk-Monger feels that using the title “journalist” while at the same time being paid by groups to say what they want them to say is ethically challenging. What if a big chemical company paid a journalist to publish what they wanted to say? See screenshot below where CEO claims that Horel is a “freelance journalist” rather than the reality: a “bought and paid for” consultant.

At what point did Horel stop being a journalist and start representing an anti-industry lobby?

Look CEO, when you pay someone to write what you want them to write, you cannot claim they are freelance journalists – that is dishonest! Their delusion, I think, is that they feel that exposing what they perceive as unethical allows them to behave unethically. Frankly, I had never witnessed such a lack of integrity in any of my professional experiences in industry and public affairs.

If Stéphane Horel were to call up an unsuspecting corporate manager seeking an interview, how would the “soon to be pounced on” victim know if she were actually a journalist? How would he know who was paying Ms Horel? Which organisation she was actually working for? There needs to be a European transparency registry so people can sort out the legitimate journalists from the wolves.

RM update 2019: Corporate Europe Observatory’s Martin Pigeon has since used his relationship with Stéphane Foucart to insert Horel into the LeMonde writer’s pool.

Of course the journalist federations would not stand for it, insisting that their system of accreditation is sufficient. This is what the lobbying associations also claimed, a decade ago, prior to the European Transparency Registry. There are some unscrupulous lobbyists just as there are wolves pretending to be journalists so I am afraid the self-regulation argument won’t work.

The very existence of a European Journalist Transparency Registry would be successful as the activist wolves would see that their game is up and not bother to register. Policy-makers and company representatives will be better protected as they would only grant interviews to legitimate journalists on the registry who are not hiding their affiliations. If an industry representative checks the registry and finds that the journalist he or she is about to meet has been paid off by a group like CEO (and there are many), then he or she can make a better informed decision.

Creating a European Journalist Registry is a no-brainer and Mr Juncker should concentrate on that rather than caving in, like he did on his first day on the job, to those who shout the loudest (welcome to Brussels Jean-Claude!). Should journalists be caught lying or not declaring their affiliations on the registry (whether to NGOs or industry groups), they would be outed from the registry. Even bloggers should join. As the Risk-Monger refuses to receive money to write these blogs, he would gladly be the first to sign up.

A few thousand a year can buy a lot of influence (and a lot of ink). What if a big company had run this job offer?

Corporate Europe Observatory is not at all ashamed that they are using much of their excess bank balance (they have more than €675,000 a year) to buy off journalists to write reports for them. It is desperate times for journalists as the media world adapts to an evolving landscape, so CEO can easily challenge their ethical standards. CEO blatantly advertise for journalists (see screenshot below) and even directly employ them (while letting them continue to pretend to be journalists – see bottom of email chain: Leloup-Mack-08032010). Like most things that Corporate Europe Observatory does, I find this behaviour to be totally disgraceful.

As a final note, Stéphane Horel’s “documentary” where she attacks the crop protection and plastics industry (and probably others) for expressing their position during public consultations, will be released this week. She will be using the title of journalist on this day. It should be noted that the Risk-Monger offered to freely share information (via on-line discussions, via email and in person) for her research to help her get a more balanced and objective view. I offered to share information on how anti-industry scientists tried to hide research that showed that sperm counts were not in decline. I was willing to share my research on the comparatively high exposures humans face from endocrine disrupting properties in natural foods like soy or coffee. A real journalist would have accepted such a kind offer. Stéphane declined to even consider my information and chose rather to insult me.

I can’t wait to learn the facts!

Cover image source:

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