Using academics and other experts to support a controversial issue is a longstanding and proven effective practice. But paying experts to write positive opinions about Gadaffi’s Libya has backfired badly on some of the world’s leading academic institutions.
Just as Gaddafi was preparing to order tanks and jets against his own people, it was revealed that Professors from Harvard, London School of Economics and Rutgers, as well as other international intellectuals, had been paid by an American company to visit Libya and praise the Dictator’s efforts to achieve economic and political reform.
In one newspaper op-ed in 2007, Benjamin Barber of Rutgers predicted Libya under Muammar Gaddafi could become “the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government”, while Anthony Giddens, former head of the London School of Economics opined: “As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gaddafi seems genuinely popular.”
Their visits, and many others, were organized by the consultancy firm, Monitor Group, based in Cambridge Massachusetts, and founded by Harvard Professors. Between 2006 and 2008 the company received about $3 million to present Libya and its leader in a more positive light.
With Libyan forces shelling and strafing the opposition earlier this month, the company belatedly admitted it had been a “serious mistake” to plan a book praising Gaddafi, and it also regretted helping the Dictator’s son Saif write a plagiarised doctoral thesis at the LSE. But they still insisted their intention had been to encourage “accelerated modernization and increased openness of government institutions.” Meanwhile Sir Howard Davies resigned as a Director at the London School of Economics over the university accepting funding from the Gaddafi family.
The whole unsavoury affair raises questions about the paid opinions of high-profile academics, and the role of shadowy consultants who, in the case of the Monitor Group, are reportedly so secretive that clients are identified only by code names. The affair also raises questions about the legitimate use of independent third parties in issue management. This practice is widely used and is acknowledged for its effectiveness in bringing independent expert opinion to bear on matters of public concern and interest. Helping reporters to identify and interview authoritative commentators can add real value to informed debate.
However communication professionals and news outlets both have a duty to ensure the public understands who is talking and whether or not they are being paid for their opinions. The effort by the Monitor Group to “enhance the international appreciation of Libya” isn’t the first time consultants have been paid millions to defend despotic regimes, and certainly won’t be the last. But it’s a warning to universities to monitor the activities of academics who are willing enough to take advantage of their institutional prestige to promote controversial causes. And it’s a timely reminder that legitimate issue management can be hijacked by individuals and organizations prepared to place money before morals.