Ashdown, Amnesty and the ippr

Background: last week I wrote a short article on Lib Dem Voice about the ippr’s new report on surveillance and data protection, pointing out how it had been funded and lamenting the fact that Lord Ashdown has, in effect, been used to legitimise the argument. This resulted in a furious response from Lord Ashdown himself, most of which I have dealt with in the subsequent comments thread.

There has been one lingering thread from all this which I have been quietly pursuing. Lord Ashdown listed a number of other funders for his Commission which I didn’t mention. These are:

Cabinet Office
The Foreign Ministry of Sweden.
Amnesty International

I didn’t mention them because they didn’t finance this particular report. Nonetheless it is true that the Commission itself has a plurality of funding. This hardly negates my argument, but if Lord Ashdown wishes that to be placed on the record, then fair enough.

But then I dug a little deeper, looking at the Security Commission’s section on the ippr website and scanning through all their publications. I could find references to the Swedes and DFID, but not the Cabinet Office or Amnesty. Since the Cabinet Office hardly counts in my book as pro-human rights and privacy organisation, I wasn’t particularly bothered if Lord Ashdown wanted to boast of getting money out of them. But Amnesty was somewhat more curious, so I have spent the last couple of days trying to find out the exact nature of their funding. And now, thanks to the helpful person running Amnesty’s Twitter account, I have it:

We do not fund the work of the commission per se, but contribute to a series of security lectures they hold. We do this to give voice to the human rights dynamic of counter terrorism. [Direct message sent to me]

Now let me be clear: as far as I am concerned, Amnesty’s role here is unimpeachable. They are doing exactly what I would expect a major human rights organisation to be doing. But it does highlight a couple of points coming out of Lord Ashdown’s missive. The first is that Amnesty’s funding is entirely unrelated to the production of this report and thus it is extremely misleading to even bring it up. They aren’t even contributing to core costs which would make them indirectly responsible for its publication.

Secondly, he stated that:

All funders are required to sign a contract which explicitly forbids them from trying to influence the content of what we publish. As it happens, one funder did try to exert this kind of influence and their money was returned to them immediately and they were immediately showed the door.

I’m sure they do all sign such a contract, but it is a silly one to make. They know exactly what they are getting. In the exact same way, it is not as if CAMRA are funding the ippr on a research project on community pubs (announced today) with any doubt in their mind that the research will conclude that community pubs are worthless and should be shut down. In the case of Amnesty, they are quite explicit: “We do this to give voice to the human rights dynamic of counter terrorism.

EDS, Raytheon Systems et al don’t merely have an agenda, they have shareholders and a fiduciary duty to maximise profits. I don’t begrudge them funding research but I do assert my right to highlight it.

I am unaware of a single disinterested IT professional who actually supports the agenda driving the database state. Equally, I have seen the sheer energy which has been wasted in countering apparently independent research on climate change which, it turns out, was funded by Big Oil over the past decade. We simply cannot afford to ignore the degree to which money is driving this agenda and what an unlevel playing field it results in. And that is why I am uncomfortable with a man like Lord Ashdown effectively lending it greater legitimacy that it would otherwise warrant.

I am genuinely surprised by how many fellow Liberal Democrats have sought to shout me down or belittle me for raising this issue, or claimed that getting told off by Lord Ashdown has left my credibility in “smoking ruins.” Whether my reputation is in ruins or not, I’m afraid I’ll keep blogging about this. Sorry to disappoint.


  1. …and long may you continue to do so. Thank you for clarifying these details and getting to the bottom of this.

    I still don’t think Paddy is anyone’s “patsy” (and I acknowledge you weren’t saying this, you asked the question in the title), and is highly unlikely ever to be anyone’s “patsy” while his marbles are still intact. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone less likely to be anyone’s “patsy” and more sure of their own mind. He may have become, or revealed himself as, a little more hawkish than we thought possible, but that is a different matter.

    But you have laid out the facts very fairly and I do think Paddy’s response was rather unwisely impulsive. If he had counted to about 57 and then written his response, I think he could have written something a lttle more enlightening, self-effacing and humourful.

    Despite admittedly being framed as a question, it was a rather jarring title over a (for you) typically thoughtful and fair article, as I wrote at the time. The title didn’t really match the article, and was rather childish, I thought. But then again hark at me lecturing on childish titles.

  2. I stand by the use of the word “patsy”. I’m not alleging any impropriety on Lord Ashdown’s part, but I do think he is being used here and his claim that his funders don’t have an agenda only reinforces my view. He really does need to pay this whole angle considerably more attention.

  3. I certainly wouldn’t expect anything else from a man of your robustness. So, now you’ve done all this research and thought about it so much, presumably you are now saying that Paddy IS a patsy for the IT industry, are you? 🙂

  4. Ian Kearns has now left the following comment on the original piece. I thought it was relevant to repost it here:

    “James, Paul, other contributors, I’d like to add a few points to the discussion you’ve all been having, from my perspective as the Deputy Chair of ippr’s Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. I know the issues raised are important,and what to try to clarify a few things.

    First, whatever else you might feel there is ambiguity over, there can be no ambiguity over this statement inside the paper by David Omand:

    ‘The views in this paper are those of the author alone and are being published here in the hope of advancing public debate. They do not represent the views of the Commission panel or the views of any sponsoring organisation.’

    It’s hard to know how we could be clearer about who’s views are being published here and it does seem unfair to assume that Paddy Ashdown necessarily agrees with it. I don’t agree with all of it myself and it would have been nice if this explicit delimitation of who’s views were being expressed had been acknowledged in the initial post by you James.

    Second, the Commission itself, as a Commission, has only released one paper, its interim report, (Shared Destinies: Security in A Globalised World, available at This interim report was signed off by the entire Commission panel, and it is therefore fair to assume that all members of the Commmission panel can be held accountable for what it says. We’d obviously be very pleased if people would read it!

    Third, just to clarify, the report that stimulated this debate, by David Omand, was not published in the week leading up to the Convention on Liberty. It was published on the 9th February. The reason the report received media coverage in the week that it did is that Alan Travis of the Guardian read it in his own time, then published a piece based on it, on a timeline of his and the Guardian’s choosing. His piece was then read and picked up by other journalists, including Andrew Gilligan in the Evening Standard, who also drew the same inaccurate conclusion about when the report had been published and why.

    Fourth, how the Commission is paid for has been made clear by Paddy and by Paul Walters (sic) above. Amnesty International come into the picture as sponsors of an upcoming speech on human rights, the details of which, in terms of speaker and timing, are just being ironed out.

    All details will be on our web-site just as soon as arrangements are finalised.This speech forms part of a wider series of security lectures which run alongside and feed thinking into the Commission. Nick Clegg delivered a speech in this series on October 13th 2008 (again, see

    Fifth, I would argue that there is a distinction to be made, (and it is an important one in an open society that needs more informed and civilised debate, not less) between questioning the integrity or naivety of individual commission members and engaging in a legitimate debate about whether this Commission is genuinely independent. Paddy has rightly set out the contractual position the ippr takes with funders in this regard but in the end, it seems to me that the only way to demonstrate independence of view is through what debates this Commission starts and what policies it recommends.

    In this regard, and in addition to the piece by David Omand, I would just ask people to consider the following:

    The recent demolition of torture practices as illegal and dumb, by Commission panel member Charles Guthrie in The Times;

    Our ongoing efforts as a Commission to develop a final report that says something meaningful not just about counter-terrorism but also about what the United Kingdom should do to better promote human rights around the world and more effectively prevent the recurring tragedy of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity;

    The call, in our interim report, for the global eradication of nuclear weapons, and the setting out of a series of steps to help get us there;

    The call, in the same document, for the UK to fully meet its responsibiilty to prevent violent conflict in order to save thousands of innocent lives in some of the poorest countries on earth;

    Our policy proposals on improving global readiness to meet the challenges posed by pandemic disease, and issues raised by 21st century advances in bio-technology which bring huge potential advances for humanity, but also new security concerns.

    I’m not sure which, if any of these activities and proposals serve the interests of the IT industry. But I’d suggest these ideas, and the ideas we publish in our final report later this year are what you should judge us on. We’re all in favour of open debate, hope you’ll read our interim and final reports, and engage us in a lively debate about our final report when we publish. In the end, we’re trying to advance solutions to a range of pressing security challenges and to leave something better for the next generation. While we’re trying and in the interim, if anyone wants to know more about the work of the Commission, or has any great ideas about what we should be recommending, please just get in touch with us at the ippr.

    Best Wishes

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