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Jul 31, 2008

Turning journalists into spooks?

Are journalists being paid to provide high-level political intelligence to companies and consultancies seeking to benefit from such information? Very possible, writes Melissa Sweet.

Are journalists being paid to provide high-level political intelligence to companies and consultancies seeking to benefit from such information?
Judging by a series of emails that I’ve recently seen, it seems the answer might be “yes”.

Several weeks ago, I received anemail which read as follows:

I work for Hakluyt which is a London-based but global strategic business intelligence/risk assessment firm. We have clients all round the world and certainly with interests all round the world. Although we never divulge who are clients are, they will typically be top-level executives in multinationals or private equity firms.

When they have a particular project in view — anything from a possible joint venture or market entry plan, and much in between — they will come to Hakluyt for us to provide them with greater visibility on what they have in mind. We work independently of any other advisers they may have.

We have a proprietary network of well-placed individuals around the world who are able to provide us, very discreetly, with intelligence on specific commercial or political issues that may arise. Typically, these individuals will be very well-connected, knowledgeable in a particular field or market and well placed discreetly to make inquiries.

I should add that we are only interested in “human source” information – ie information that is freely sought and freely given — and not documentary information at all. Also, just as we do not disclose the identify (sic) of our clients, we ask our network not to disclose the interest of Hakluyt.

Hence this email! With your healthcare expertise, I wondered if you might be able to help us on a new project on the new Australian government’s healthcare policy — how realistic their reform ambitions really are; the role of the private sector and whether its approach coincides with government; the profitability of various private sector area(hospitals; radiology and pathology service providers); and why government raised the tax penalty threshold for not taking private health insurance as far as it did. Our client is already knowledgeable in the sector.

At first, I thought there had been a mistake. Perhaps the man at Hakluyt did not realise that I am a journalist. I emailed back pointing that I am not a consultant but a journalist, and asked, “wearing my journalistic hat”, who his client was.

The reply was enlightening at a number of levels:

All I can say on that is that it is a financial institution interested in the sector, which I realise does not quite answer your question!
However, we have a very strong confidentiality code here operating at various levels: we never divulge the identity of our clients (whether to other clients, to our well-placed network of associates or at all). In the same way, we never reveal the identity of those associates (or, for that matter, of their own sources.) Equally, those sources never get to hear about the involvement of Hakluyt. By these means the best interests of all players are best served.

Which brings me to your first point. The reason for writing to you was not because I was looking for consulting skills. Rather, as a journalist — and particularly one with your speciality and expertise — you will, I assume, know literally dozens of well-placed sources in the field. In other words, if you were willing to help us out on the odd project, we would obviously be interested in your own expert “take”; but it would also be of huge interest to us if you were prepared, with a brief in hand, to speak to several of those sources on our (or our client’s) behalf and let us know what they say.

It would always be — as I mentioned in my first email — human source information that we are after; nothing in documentary form. For what it is worth, we already have a number of quality, usually specialist journalists that we deal with on this basis. From our point of view, they are expertly placed to source information and invariably we are calling on fairly traditional journalistic skills — so it works well.

If a company that professes to value confidentiality and discretion is prepared to send such an indiscreet email to an unknown journalist, they must have some grounds for feeling confident that journalists are willing to play along with them. The statement that “quality” journalists are already in their employ is just as worrying.

To be honest, I’ve dithered about going public on these emails. It seemed a breach of trust to publish correspondence that was obviously intended to remain private. But it was the assumptions of the second email from Hakluyt — written after I’d expressly declared my journalistic hand — that persuaded me the correspondence should be put on the public record.

The public has a right to know: are journalists selling political intelligence to consultancies such as Hakluyt?

Incidentally, according to the SourceWatch project Hakluyt & Company Limited is a British private intelligence agency, “…staffed almost entirely by ex-intelligence [services] staff”, according to a 2006 report in The Times. In 2001, The Sunday Times revealed that Hakluyt had been hired to spy on Greenpeace.


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3 thoughts on “Turning journalists into spooks?

  1. Tom McLoughlin

    Sweet! God I love the 5th estate blogosphere at times like this. And as Gandhi would say, being open about your cause tends to diminish violence and vice versa, in this case violence to the public interest. That damn Australian Govt and their nuisance PBS embarrassing Big Pharma.

  2. Lisa Crago

    proffesional muck rakers getting journos to ‘sell out’. A good jouno does not reveal any information that does not work to the advantage of a good news story. Investigative journos can be ‘used’ , or, put on the payroll. Thanks for reporting on this sensitive subject.

  3. Jennifer Doggett

    I was contacted recently by someone from an organisation called the Strategic Forecasting Group in the US wanting to speak to me about the Rudd Health Reforms. He didn’t say why he wanted the information or who he was acting for. I was overseas at the time and didn’t speak to him or find out any more about what was behind the request but it certainly sounds similar to Melissa’s request from Hakluyt. I have no problem discussing my personal views on health issues with people but I would be reluctant to talk to anyone if they were being paid to elicit my opinions and I did not know who was paying them. And I certainly would never obtain information from my contacts within the health sector in order to pass it on to a third party without their knowledge.