THIS weekend sees journalists and pundits flooding to debates at the Battle of Ideas at London's Royal College of Art. The Times is one of the event's sponsors. Join the debate anyone? The weekend calls itself a free-thinking festival and it attracts some serious people to step up on to its many platforms.
Steve Hewlett, Michael Mansfield, Mark Easton and Ray Snoddy are among the names billed as lining up to debate "ideas". The great and the good seem happy to lend their names in its support.
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What self-respecting opinion former wouldn't want to take to the platform at something marketed as the Battle of Ideas?
So who's behind this media-friendly talkfest? Why, the Institute of Ideas — "an agenda-setting organisation committed to forging a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint". What's not to like? The "institute" bit sounds serious and independent, like an academic institute. But the "ideas" bit, well that sounds fun!
But the institute is not a think-tank like Demos (charitable company, accounts published online) or Chatham House (charity, ditto). It is not academic. It is not public sector. It is not a charity. Far from being independent, it is dependent on whoever is stumping up the cash. The institute is in the corporate advocacy business. Nothing wrong with that. Except normally, it's polite to tell people. The institute is registered as the Academy of Ideas Ltd. Company secretary: Claire Regina Fox.
It turned over a modest £227,000 last year. Claire doesn't seem to like being the company secretary of a small corporate advocacy business, so instead she sells herself as director of the Institute of Ideas.
Claire's also a media commentator who has moved into the space vacated by Julie Burchill. Her portfolio of opinions ranges from defending Gary Glitter's right to download child pornography, to cheerleading for tobacco, to condemning healthy eating advice for kids.
Claire was co-publisher of the discredited LM (Living Marxism) magazine, which imploded when it committed a libel of truly stunning proportions against my former colleagues at ITN. Yes, "free speech" collided with that knotty old "telling lies" problem.
The Times sponsors the Battle of Ideas, but the paper doesn't allow companies who advertise on its comment pages to dictate a free leader column. Advertisers are left in no doubt that they cannot influence the editorial content.
"Free speech is allowed!" says the blurb for the Battle of Ideas. But representatives of sponsoring companies and organisations show up as debate panellists throughout the weekend. Presumably they are exercising the ancient "free speech" right of muscling in.
And what of the debates themselves? How "free thinking" are they? Take one on climate change. It is "produced" by the Future Cities Project. The project website proclaims that "environmentalism is driving down social aspirations".
The project's director, Austin Williams, picked the panel, and he's on it too. The first article on Austin's reading list to accompany the debate mocks "climate change doom-mongers". Like the Government's chief scientist, Sir David King perhaps? Williams himself adds a sarcastic self-penned piece reviewing a conference on renewable energy.
Another debate purporting to be about children's TV links to an article smearing campaigners against junk food advertising, describing them as "Talibanesque".
I'm sure Fox isn't part of a weird, cultish conspiracy to feed the opinion factory by twisting and reframing debates.
I can't believe for a second that she flaunts her ultra-libertarianism to tout for cash from public affairs departments in big corporations who like what they hear. But as Claire herself admits: "There is intense suspicion in relation to corporations… This perception needs to be tackled."
Fox's "festival" and her "Institute" blur many boundaries that would be better clearer.
You would think an event stage-managed by an attention-hungry contrarian who could suck the publicity from a stone, would be a bit more forthcoming about admitting its agenda.
At least pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, who are one of the event's main sponsors, are honest about what they want from stumping up cash — an event that "prompts people to rethink their assumptions". A good place to start would be with the Battle of Ideas.
ARMANDO Iannucci has been laying into broadcast journalism and its "shameful failure". He says it's in thrall to technology and doesn't provide "narrative". I guess that's what comedians call a story. According to Armando, comedy has been left to fill the space where the news used to live.
The News Quiz, Have I Got News For You, The Daily Show, Mock The Week — they're all there helping to interpret the world for young people. Well, the BBC does seem to be firing more journalists than comedians.
But the funny guy is indulging in a little messenger shooting himself. Armando blames TV news for failing to prevent the Iraq war. They haven't buried many comedians for reporting on the conflict. In the run-up to the war, I edited programmes that day after day challenged the threadbare excuses put up by the Prime Minister and his chums to convince the public that military action against Iraq might be justified.
But although journalism can challenge the executive, the audience can't influence it. Iannucci shares the illusion that if only people could see through the stuff coming out of Government they might somehow have… have what exactly? Taken to the streets?
When a million or so people marched against war on Iraq, the Government pointed to the 59 million who stayed at home. With no election looming, the control of the executive falls on our elected representatives. And when we did have a general election last year, Tony Blair managed a comfortable victory. The father of a soldier killed in Iraq stood against the Prime Minister in his own constituency and lost. The people spoke. The bastards.
Comedy is a reflection of our powerlessness. The fact that Have I Got News For You attracts so many MPs reflects their powerlessness too in the face of an executive that, since the 1980s, has overpowered our quaint Gladstonian democracy. But why stop a good old media row by arguing about politics?