Thursday, March 03, 2011

The PR firm that helped Libya (Mother Jones)

Another article about the unseen hands that guide our news coverage:

In February 2007 Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., who developed the concept of "soft power", visited Libya and sipped tea for three hours with Muammar Qaddafi. Months later, he penned an elegant description of the chat for The New Republic, reporting that Qaddafi had been interested in discussing "direct democracy." Nye noted that "there is no doubt that" the Libyan autocrat "acts differently on the world stage today than he did in decades past. And the fact that he took so much time to discuss ideas—including soft power—with a visiting professor suggests that he is actively seeking a new strategy." The article struck a hopeful tone: that there was a new Qaddafi. It also noted that Nye had gone to Libya "at the invitation of the Monitor Group, a consulting company that is helping Libya open itself to the global economy." 
Nye did not disclose all. He had actually traveled to Tripoli as a paid consultant of the Monitor Group (a relationship he disclosed in an email to Mother Jones), and the firm was working under a $3 million-per-year contract with Libya. Monitor, a Boston-based consulting firm with ties to the Harvard Business School, had been retained, according to internal documents obtained by a Libyan dissident group, not to promote economic development, but "to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi." So The New Republic published an article sympathetic to Qaddafi that had been written by a prominent American intellectual paid by a firm that was being compensated by Libya to burnish the dictator's image. 
The Nye article was but one PR coup the Monitor Group delivered for Qaddafi. But the firm also succeeded on other fronts. The two chief goals of the project, according to an internal document describing Monitor's Libya operations, were to produce a makeover for Libya and to introduce Qaddafi "as a thinker and intellectual, independent of his more widely-known and very public persona as the Leader of the Revolution in Libya."  
In 2006 and 2007, Benjamin Barber, an author specializing in democracy studies and a senior fellow at Demos, a pro-democracy think tank, took three trips to Libya as a paid consultant to Monitor. On these visits, Barber met with Libyan lawyers, officials, and activists interested in democratic reform—and Qaddafi, too.... 
Barber says he believed that the main aim of the Monitor Group's Libya project was to stir reform there—trying to "turn Libya from a rogue state into a better state." He was encouraged by small steps he saw in the country. And in August 2007, Barber wrote an op-ed for TheWashington Post, noting that Libya had finally released five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who each had been condemned to death for allegedly infecting children in a Libyan hospital with HIV. In the article—headlined "Gaddafi's Libya: An Ally for America?"—Barber wrote that his one-on-one conversations with Qaddafi had convinced him that the Libyan leader had arranged for their release to show his desire for "a genuine rapprochement with the United States." 
"Libya," Barber noted, "under Gaddafi has embarked on a journey that could make it the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government." He reported that Qaddafi, whom the United States and other governments had identified as a possible ally in the war against Al Qaeda, had been "holding open conversations" with Western intellectuals. 
But Barber did not mention in the Post piece that he himself had been a paid consultant for the Monitor Group.  
...Anthony Giddens, a leading British intellectual, made two Monitor-guided trips to Libya in 2007. According to Monitor documents, he published two articles about Libya after each trip. In one of those pieces—"My chat with the colonel," posted by The Guardian—Giddens noted, "As one-party states go, Libya is not especially repressive. Gadafy seems genuinely popular." He observed, "Will real progress be possible only when Gadafy leaves the scene? I tend to think the opposite. If he is sincere in wanting change, as I think he is, he could play a role in muting conflict that might otherwise arise as modernisation takes hold." The article did not mention the Monitor Group. 
The document that Mother Jones from the Monitor Group unearthed shows that they were not only trying to influence journalists and intellectuals but politicians as well:

Many of the visitors Monitor brought to Libya have individually briefed all levels of the United States government including specifically the President, Vice President, Heads of National Security and Intelligence as well as the Secretary of State.

It also lists the people that the Monitor Group brought to Libya, along with their subsequent speeches of articles. They include Richard Perle, Anthony Giddens, Francis Fukuyama, Nicholas Negroponte, American Sheikh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, Bernard Lewis, David Frost, Benjamin Barber and Joseph Nye. In addition, the Monitor Group maintained contacts with other influential people to get them to be more sympathetic to Libya, including George Soros, Fareed Zakaria, and Thomas Friedman.

Some of this is perfectly fine; it is not unusual for governments to invite influential people over. But the lack of transparency, especially for those who were paid consultants and published articles or gave speeches without proper disclosure, is really bad - and it makes one wonder what other autocracies are doing the same thing.

Could the Vogue reporter have been on the Syrian payroll?

(h/t Silke)