Friday 21 December 2012

What's got into Private Eye?

Why is Private Eye so reluctant to believe that an EU Commissioner could be involved in corruption?

Last month I mentioned the piss-poor report the magazine ran about snusgate. For those who don't know, EU Health Commissioner John Dalli has been sacked and is under investigation by the EU's anti-corruption body Olaf. He is suspected of being involved in an attempt to solicit a €60 million bribe from the snus manufacturer Swedish Match in return for overturning the EU-wide ban on oral tobacco. Private Eye has made the lame insinuation that Olaf itself is corrupt, on the basis that the tobacco industry gives money to the EU to clamp down on tobacco smuggling and that some of this money probably "filters down" to Olaf. Therefore Olaf, er, falsely accused Dalli because, er, the tobacco industry wanted him out of the way so that, er, oh, I don't know... It's a half-baked conspiracy theory with no evidence to back it up.

The original article was littered with basic factual mistakes and made allegations that even the most emotional anti-smoking headbangers have not made. I was therefore surprised to see it rehashed in the current issue (see below—click top enlarge).

The dilemma for the conspiracy theorists is that since the first Private Eye story was published it has become clear that the sacking of Dalli has made absolutely no difference to the Tobacco Products Directive which was released on time and unchanged. To get around this problem—and to establish some sort of motive for why the anti-fraud office would suddenly risk everything to unseat an innocent man—the Eye brings plain packaging into the mix (which was not mentioned in its original story and is not part of the Tobacco Products Directive)...

Having secured the dismissal of EU health commissioner John Dalli with a damning dossier, "Big Tobacco" squashed any threat of a new European directive forcing firms to sell their poison in plain packaging.

Once again, the Eye focuses on the extremely tenuous financial link between Olaf and the tobacco industry:

Questions must be asked as to the independence of the EU investigators at OLAF, the anti-fraud section of the EU. Four Big Tobacco firms had agreed to fund the EU with $1.96bn to combat smuggling and other crimes. Some of this vast sum will have filtered down to OLAF, whose fraudbusters ended up investigating health commissioner Dalli's links with a tobacco lobbyist in his native Malta. This led to him being fired before a new directive on plain packaging could be pushed through.

That would be a great motive if it weren't for the fact that plain packaging was never part of the Tobacco Products Directive and John Dalli said as much when he was still in the job back in April...

Dalli said: “We want to reduce the attractiveness of smoking. Packaging can help in this regard but the European Commission doesn’t want to go as far as Australia, where cigarette packets must be completely plain.”

It would be jolly exciting if there was some grand conspiracy behind the Dalli sacking, but there is not a shred of evidence to support Private Eye's hunch. The magazine would make a more impressive case if it didn't keep making a Horlicks of easily verifiable facts. For example, it refers to snus as "gum", it has talked about a non-existent European smoking ban, it wrongly refers to Dalli's Maltese acquaintance as a "tobacco lobbyist", it refers to a JTI court case which ended months ago as if it were ongoing and it gets JTI's argument in that case completely the wrong way around. As a regular reader of Private Eye, it makes me wonder how much rubbish I've taken on trust from the esteemed organ over the last twenty years.

The least a decent conspiracy theory requires is a credible motive, but if you ask "cui bono?" about the Dalli sacking, the answer is clearly not the tobacco industry since the Tobacco Products Directive gives them 75% graphic warnings, a continuing snus ban, a ban on menthol, a de facto ban on new reduced-risk products and a vast array of petty regulations regarding pack sizes, additives, cigarette lengths and much else besides. Moreover, the only evidence the Eye can find for Dalli's innocence is (a) the EU gets money from the tobacco industry to combat smuggling, (b) some of Dalli's friends say he is innocent, and (c) Dalli says he is innocent.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Dalli's acquaintance solicited the €60 million bribe and Olaf says there is "unambiguous circumstantial evidence" that Dalli knew about the approach. It would hardly be the first time an EU Commissioner had engaged in corrupt behaviour, so why is the Eye so unwilling to believe that the obvious explanation is the real explanation?


Xopher said...

Any one who has watched Have I got news for you would have spotted that Hislop hates smoking. I seem to remember him restating the conspiracy claptrap that Big Tobacco had funded the opposition to Plain Packaging.

Dick Puddlecote said...

So even Private Eye pays lazy hacks like the 'Fleet Street' they like to ridicule, eh?

There's a massive story to be told about Dalli and the TPD but Private Eye are down a different avenue picking roses while the drive-by shooting is happening elsewhere.

Paul Foot must be spinning wildly.

Charlie said...

Because it is a big mistake to view "Private Eye" as any kind of anti-state, pro-freedom publication, despite their constant uncovering of evidence of how bad the state is.

The general "template" of anything floated in that rag goes like this:

(1) Look what a cock up the state/government/bureaucracy has made of this.
(2) There must be more state/government/bureaucracy to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I say this as a long time reader of theirs. Much as I like (love) that magazine, I am frequently amazed at their ability to ignore the very evidence they themselves constantly dig up.

Zaphod said...

I have to tolerate the Eye's occasional (regular?) monumental stupidity, because I like the other bits.