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Bilderberg: Making a mockery of Ministerial transparency data

Written by Guest on Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Charlie Skelton discusses what the annual Bilderberg Conference can teach us about open data in the UK.


Charlie Skelton is a writer for Have I Got News For You and the Guardian. The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.

“Information is power” said David Cameron in July 2011. “It lets people hold the powerful to account”. However not all information is of the same quality. Good information is power. But bad information is disempowering.

The annual Bilderberg Conference is a particularly acute example. At the annual conference, participants have an implicit commitment to confidentiality over their meetings, undermining the public commitments of transparency over lobbying and the value of the UK’s Ministerial lobbying and gifts & hospitality transparency data. Where information is published it has been found to be internally inconsistent, incomplete and inaccurate. 

In the Treasury’s quarterly transparency data for April-June 2014, in the list of George Osborne’s “overseas travel”, is the record of a trip made on “30 – 31 May 2014”. Destination: Switzerland. Purpose of trip: the Bilderberg conference. One tiny mistake: the 2014 Bilderberg conference wasn’t in Switzerland. It was in Denmark.

A slip of the fingers by a 19-year-old doing work experience at the Treasury, perhaps. But this error is indicative of the quality of the data published about ministers’ participation in the annual Bilderberg conference – a yearly international summit of 130 or so high-ranking politicians, bank bosses, IMF chiefs, Nato heads and corporate CEOs.

Staying with the 2014 conference for the moment: George Osborne records his attendance at this event in his list of “meetings with external organisations.” However, the Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, who was a participant at the same conference, has completely failed to declare her attendance in her quarterly transparency data for the period.

Greening (pictured below) thinks it best to declare a chat she had with the Clean Cookstoves Alliance “to discuss the issue of Clean Cookstoves in developing countries”, but not worth telling the public about attending a three-day policy summit with the Chairman and CEO of Shell, the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of HSBC, the Chairman and Chief Executive of BP, the Chairman of Fiat, the Executive Chairman of Google, and her own Chancellor. Maybe it didn’t seem important enough?

Going back a couple of years to 2013 David Cameron recorded his trip to the Bilderberg conference in Watford in two different categories: “meetings with external organisations” and “hospitality” received. And he was there for a single evening. Greening was out in Denmark for the entire conference, and never mentions it. The hospitality, the travel costs, the meetings. Not a whisper. She meticulously declares getting a “flight upgrade” from British Airways the previous month, but not three days of private banqueting and accommodation at a 5 star luxury hotel in Copenhagen. It’s farcical.

We’re left with a situation where two senior British ministers attended the 2014 Bilderberg conference in Copenhagen. One didn’t declare it at all, and the other declared it as a visit to Switzerland. Viva transparency!

Even though Osborne did partially succeed in declaring his overseas travel to the Copenhagen conference (even if he got the country wrong), he fails to declare any “hospitality” received for the days he spent there. In the same quarterly return he’s careful to register a lunch with former World Bank boss Robert Zoellick (albeit misspelled as “Zellick”) but not the many meals he shared with Zoellick at Bilderberg. The same gap occurs in 2013: no mention of hospitality. Osborne did, however, declare the hospitality of Bilderberg back in 2011. Was that the one year he managed to get a seat at dinner?

The declarations around the Bilderberg conference highlight a sort of scattergun approach to Ministerial transparency data. Back in Osborne’s 2011 declarations, he lists Bilderberg under “hospitality” but fails to record the 2011 conference in his list of “meetings with external organisations”, which he does in both 2013 and 2014.

Similarly, Kenneth Clarke, when a minister, chose to register his attendance at Bilderberg in 2013, but not in 2012. And even in the year Clarke did admit going to the conference he made no mention of the hospitality received (which, judging from the colour of his face when he left, was plenty).

It’s impossible to say whether these inconsistencies and inaccuracies are due to carelessness, dishonesty, or civil service whimsy. But what’s certain is that they undermine one’s confidence in the overall trustworthiness of the ministerial transparency data. I’ve only examined one small area. Are these the only errors and omissions in the data? It would take an extremely muscular leap of faith to think that’s the case.

It begs the question: is anyone actually checking this stuff? Or are we meant to say: “fine, they’ve published a spreadsheet and stamped it with the word “transparency”, I guess that’s ok then.”

This brings us to another more general failing of the ministerial transparency data: the form in which they’ve been recorded. For example, the column of data headed “name of external organisation” is being made to accommodate everything from single journalists to corporations to major international conferences. In Osborne’s most recent return, we have the same column in the spreadsheet being used to record meetings with “Mail on Sunday (Georgie Greig)”, “Dr Kissinger”, “HSBC” and “Bilderberg conference”. As if these are somehow equivalent bits of data. They’re simply not. They’re not the same order of things. Trying to fit them all in the same spreadsheet column is what the logician Rudolf Carnap called “a confusion of spheres”.

(Never mind the fact that the Editor of the Mail on Sunday is “Geordie” Greig, not “Georgie” Greig. Another gold star for the Treasury intern).

A similar category error occurs in the next column along, where the phrase “general discussion” is being used to describe both a 40-minute chat with a journalist and the entire content of a visit to Bilderberg: multiple meetings and seminars on multiple subjects that took place at a major, multi-day international summit. The same phrase can’t meaningfully cover both events: there’s too vast a difference of scale.

When used in reference to Bilderberg, the phrase “general discussion” has, in the terminology of Karl Popper, tremendously low “explanatory power”. It lacks what Popper calls “informative content”. Saying you had a “general discussion” with the “Bilderberg conference” is close to saying nothing at all. (Which is what Justine Greening actually did).

The problem here is: you don’t have a “meeting” with the Bilderberg conference, like you might with Geordie Greig. You have a series of meetings during it. It’s a sort of meta-meeting, containing seminars, breakout meetings, Q&As, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, drinks, and private discussions. Perhaps with the Chairman of HSBC. And it lasts three days.

We witnessed George Osborne engaged in one of these breakout meetings in Copenhagen, where, for a good 25 minutes, he sat in earnest discussion with Sir John Kerr, who’s the Deputy Chairman of Scottish Power and was then a Director of mining giant Rio Tinto. It was intense. We watched it take place. We’ve got photos of it. And if anything could be classified as a “meeting”, this was a meeting.

Osborne was there in Copenhagen, in his official capacity as Chancellor, very definitely having a meeting that he subsequently didn’t declare having. What Osborne should have entered in his list of “meetings with external organisations”, if this list is to mean anything at all, is “Scottish Power (Sir John Kerr)” and “Rio Tinto (Sir John Kerr)”.

Again, are we to suppose this is the only “meeting” at Bilderberg that our Chancellor overlooked? The one that we happened to be able to document? That can’t possibly be the case, a fact which further erodes our trust in the data.

“Every effort has been taken to ensure that this is as accurate as possible” insisted the Treasury on one of Osborne’s earlier declarations. “Every effort” has been spent creating data this patchy? That’s tragic. Don’t forget: the public is paying for the preparation and publishing of this inadequate information by our public services, information which it’s then supposed to use to hold the public services to account.

One of the government’s seven “Information Principles for the UK Public Sector” is that information should be “fit for purpose.” And these transparency declarations fall well short of that standard.

The official spreadsheets look a lot more like “information” than they actually are. In the case of George Osborne telling us he went to Switzerland and had a “general discussion” with the “Bilderberg conference”, the information is close to being garbage. In the case of Justine Greening, we don’t even get the garbage.

David Cameron urged us to use transparency data to hold the government to account, but if we really want wield this information, we need to know it’s information worth wielding. Before we hold the government to account, first we have to hold the transparency data itself to account.


Read 4278 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 11:48


The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.

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