Mistrust towards policy-makers, not misplaced

Lobbying powers are winning the battle of influence, leaving citizens with little alternative but to seek greater accountability from European institutions

Generally, journalists are stuck in the middle, caught in a tsunami of information coming from all sources. It has become a lot more complex in recent years. Once people get hold of your contact details in Brussels, the bombardment never stops. There are briefings and counter-briefings, tip-offs and been frozen out, one-to-ones and press trips, and dozens of daily press releases and reports to try to decipher if you are interested. It might be a tad simplistic, but certainly when I started out the world of journalism was divided into two kinds of stories — those citizens needed to know to play their role in the democratic process, and those that were merely intended to entertain.

That world has passed. The goal-posts have been changed in the old competition to make the important interesting and the interesting important. It is about persuasion rather than informing. Now citizens are children in a sweetie shop choosing their favourite sweets and the media competes to provide whatever they wish. The filters journalists once used to choose which stories to concentrate on have been breached and now go far beyond the old fashioned idea of ‘news value’.

Spin doctors kingdom

Skilled media and public relations officials armed with the results of focus groups and psychologists pick the choicest piece of information. They then flesh it out to ensure it forms a cohesive whole, trot out a selection of supporting facts and figures and send it out, oven-ready, to the news ‘operative’ in the media.

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Fashion and fads dictate more than ever before what is newsworthy. Vested interests are using all the machinery at their disposal to ensure that their judgement is the one that becomes the accepted, common-sense one. Their view, their product, their service becomes the answer to whatever question, whatever problem is posed.

For this is not just a game of who can get the most media exposure. The media is just one facet for the players. The Chinese-wall between lobbying and public relations in professional companies is less than paper thin — something clearly evident in centres of power such as capital cities, Brussels and Washington.

With consultations, advisory groups, expert committees, representative associations, business bodies, non-governmental organisations, supporting consumer groups, exhibitions, conferences, debates, prizes and awards now all part of the political decision making process, the media as well as the politicians and public are part of the target audience to achieve a very specific end.

Scientists caught in the big manipulation game

There are tasty little stories, expert analysis on demand and prestigious advocates-for-hire willing to provide op-ed pieces for willing media. It can be game, set and match for the most skilful and wealthiest interest. Science is frequently included in the weaponry of advocates and opponents. Once seen as objective by citizens wooed by its magic, with each piece of research having an automatic QED attached in people’s minds, it too has become just another armament in the game.

Now scientists are trotted out—lances in hand like Medieval knights—to battle face-to-face as part of the backdrop to creating the perception that all is well, and the solution is to hand. They are asked to present the definitive answer to what are frequently in effect cultural questions or issues that should be a matter of personal choice. These issues are difficult in themselves for any government to rule on. And so offer a fertile space for professionals to use their skills and offer neat answers.

On one hand, if an action, a service, a product is causing the economy harm, a government could be justified in taking action. On the other hand, any action the State takes may in the end be seen as creating alternative problems, little wonder regulation is a mess.

Policy-making quagmire

The civil servants involved in the process have to manage the politics. And we have some examples of how this can appear to leave the bureaucrats relying on Machiavellian action. A classic example, is the EU’s REACH directive. It was designed to offer citizens the optimum safety in a world that surrounds people with a diversity of chemicals that have not always been tested comprehensively or as the cocktail they create in the life of a modern person.

But research turned up by toxicologist Thomas Hartung, at the time working as head of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, was suppressed. It was showing far more animals would need to be used in testing as a result of the more stringent rules in REACH. This, doubtless, was in the knowledge that such emotionally charged information would be used by those with a vested interest to kill REACH.

The German European Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, at the time, Günter Verheugen, said at the time that REACH would not be ethically viable if it required excessive additional use of animals. The ethics of exposing humans to chemicals that were not as comprehensively tested did not appear to be an issue.

The legalising of soft drugs such as cannabis is another case in point. These are accepted as playing a malevolent role in some people’s mental health, causing businesses to lose productivity. On the other hand, being banned contributes to soft drugs’ scarcity and lack of control and so contributing to crime. The argument can be made for legalising it with the added value of having the trade contribute to the State’s coffers.

Alcohol is another typical example. It contributes to 3.3 million deaths or 5.9% of deaths globally a year. There was a 240% increase in liver disease between 1995 and 2007 in Ireland, my own country, where ironically we have the highest abstinence rates in the EU.

Broken system, yield skepticism

This is all serious stuff, especially if you are a victim. Does it justify a ‘nanny state’? Will education about its safe use and dangers appease our feeling of needing to do something? Does the state and society confine itself to just tackling addiction? And where is the line between addiction and simply spending a boring retirement in a mindless stupor or alleviating pressure or simply being the life and soul of the party?

Of course who pays for research should not influence either the scientist or the public perception. But experience shows that he who pays the piper expects to call the tune. As demonstrated in an era when pharmaceutical companies do not want to publish their studies, or publish them selectively; when questions as well as answers are changed in Eurobarometer studies; or when scientists are plainly for hire, this may not be the place to start. When the battle is on to continue not to have to list the ingredients of alcohol or of cigarettes clearly displayed so consumers know what they consume, one has to wonder what is to hide, and why?

Basically the system has broken down, the old world has disappeared giving rise to a deep and unbridgeable divide between the professionals and the citizens. There, vested interests manipulating a political class fed on buzz-words, the latest fad, or their own greed for power or wealth.

The scientists are at one another’s throats and many are at war with the decision makers — see the latest open letter supported by EuroScientist and published in Nature, escribed thus: “Scientists from different European countries describe in this letter that, despite marked heterogeneity in the situation of scientific research in their respective countries, there are strong similarities in the destructive policies being followed. This critical analysis, highlighted in Nature and simultaneously published in a number of newspapers across Europe, is a wake-up call to policy makers to correct their course, and to researchers and citizens to defend the essential role of science in society.”

The increasing scepticism of citizens towards their main-steam politicians is evident at every election. Meanwhile, the results of allowing the market alone to dictate policies are also evident in the obesity, diabetes and decreasing mortality rates. Journalism as a provider of the tool to help citizens to understand how they are being governed — information — is in decay.

When vested interests spend millions of Euro to sway politicians and policies to their advantage, then there are alternative questions to be posed before we are entitled to insist that policies be science-based. The scientists and their employers must first ensure that their science is not policy-based.

Do you believe things will ever change?

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Ann Cahill

Ann is president of the International Press Association in Brussels & European affairs correspondent for The Irish Examiner.

This article is part of a wider focus on harm reduction science and examining evidence-based policy versus policy-biased evidence. It was originally included in a report entitled Addictions: Ethics, Integrity and the Policy-Maker, which is Volume 3 from a series called Science in the Public Interest, published by SciCom – Making Sense of Science.

Featured image credit: Jan Taljaard, PelicanDream

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