Tuesday, July 19, 2011

One that must not get under the Radar

by Blad Tolstoy

Some of you may have read this article, published today (18/07/2011) in the Herald of Scotland: “University says tobacco giant is “harassing staff”.



This article reports that Philip Morris International (PMI), using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), has tried for almost a year to get hold of the full details of a project about smoking and young people undertaken by Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research.  So far, Stirling University has refused to accede to this request, claiming that PMI is harassing its staff and demanding that academic work be exempt form the FOI.

For those completely brainwashed by the notion that the tobacco industry is always the seat of all evil, such conduct by Stirling University might seem entirely justified.  However, if so, they need to think again and hard!

To begin with, a precedent should not be set because one academic establishment does not like a request from the tobacco industry regarding its work – and particularly, when that university’s work will probably directly affect the tobacco company concerned.

Moreover, universities study all sorts of subjects and subsequently produce papers which may affect the future of the general public, in addition to commercial companies.  Consequently, unless something relates to national security (such as military matters), there is no reason, in an open society, why academic work should not be subject to the FOI. By the same token, in my view and as someone who has worked extensively with charities, the fact that charities are exempt from the FOI doesn’t make sense either.  Over the years, there have been a number of charities that have been subject to bad practices and sometimes unlawful activities.  The public should have the right to access that data.
Returning to the subject of universities, it was only because of the FOI that the public was able to obtain the information relating to The University of East Anglia’s scandalous manipulation of information with regard to the subject of climate change. In fact, there have been countless times when ordinary citizens have made good use of the FOI and it is one of the few truly enlightened acts produced by the last government.

One cannot let this matter rest here, however, and it is worth examining more closely the possible motives of Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research.  Contrary to what the naïve might think, tobacco control does not consist of lots of “good guys” at all.  Many years ago, it forwent honest scientific research in favour of an “ends justifies the means” strategy whereby any claim, however wild and unsubstantiated by proper scientific evidence, was justified in order to bring about the great Utopian goal of stopping everyone from smoking.  Given that Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research department is a hotbed of fanatical activism (its staff team include both Gerard Hastings and Linda Bauld) then there is a distinct possibility that it does have some dubious research to hide. On the other hand, if this is not true, then what does this particular academic institution have to be afraid of in permitting access to its work?

Whatever the case, the FOI must not be watered down to accommodate this rather arrogant academic establishment for if it is, then the public will not be as aware of  matters that affect it as it should be and the concept of an open society will receive a major setback.  Having said that, we are ruled by a pretty weak and unprincipled political establishment, hence, many rotten things are possible…