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NIESR and the European Commission: a response to Dan Hannan

NIESR and the European Commission: a response to Dan Hannan

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Updated 30 January 2014

Following my complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the Telegraph has now published the following withdrawal and apology:

Editor's note: After correspondence from Jonathan Portes, the Telegraph is happy to make clear that the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) receive research funding from the European Commission on the basis of competitive tender not because they ‘support EU membership’. We apologise for any confusion.

I would have preferred something even more explicit, but this at least makes the facts clear. 

It is important to note that this was a "comment" piece. For the PCC, that means that "controversial and contentious" opinions, even when not supported by facts or evidence, are fine, as long as they aren’t blatantly misleading.  But even so it found that Mr Hannan had gone over the line that separates “controversial opinion” from simply misleading the public  - and hence that the Telegraph had violated the part of the PCC code that says newspapers shouldn't publish "inaccurate, misleading, or distorted" information. 

In other words, what Mr Hannan wrote was untrue; and when he wrote it he and the Telegraph knew it was untrue. As I said at the time – a smear, pure and simple.  Mr Hannan really ought to apologise personally, but I suspect he lacks the requisite integrity.

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Dan Hannan doesn't like admitting error. This would be less of a problem if he didn't get so many things wrong. The original version of this Telegraph blog, on welfare, contained no fewer than five factual mistakes. When I, and many others, pointed them out, his response was to (grudgingly) correct one (the change has been noted), remove one blatantly untrue statement entirely (without noting the change), and to tinker (again, without noting the changes) with two more so as to convert them from flat wrong to merely deliberately misleading. Even after all that, the "corrected" article contains two clear factual errors (I leave these as an exercise for the reader - but I will note that if Mr Hannan says that a statistic is "truly eye-popping", that probably means it's incorrect).

So it's not surprising that when I corrected his colleagues Douglas Carswell MP and Stewart Jackson MP, on twitter and in this article, on the subject of EU migration and benefit tourism, Mr Hannan didn't want to actually argue about the facts or the evidence on this topic. Instead, he tweeted this:

"It's a serious question @jdportes. You say you get money from the EU. Do you suppose they'd still pay if you didn't support UK membership?"

My reply (repeated several times in different words) was the following:

"We have & will produce economic analysis of EU membership. But ultimately political question. No view"

"As I said: we've no position on EU membership (or Scottish independence) - our job is economic research & analysis."

I also pointed out that it was demonstrably false to suggest that I, and NIESR, didn't strongly criticise the European Commission's conduct of economic policy on occasion.  Mr Hannan's response:

"So @jdportes takes EU cash, and doesn't deny that it's because he backs membership. I hope the BBC will now stop portraying him as neutral."

How does one react when somebody accuses you of something, you deny it, several times, in plain English, and they then say "You don't deny it"? I asked for a withdrawal. Mr Hannan dodged, repeatedly. At this point what could just about have been an inadvertent error became deliberate misrepresentation. I described this as "dishonourable", which I think is rather restrained, if anything.   

Mr Hannan's response was this blog.  I'll leave the personal insults aside (readers can judge who is being "childish"..) and merely make two points, both relating to this statement:

"Mr Portes strongly supports EU membership (see here and here, for example). If he didn't, as I suspect he is well aware, he wouldn't get hundreds of thousands of pounds a year from Brussels."

The first link is this paper, the second to a newspaper story citing it.  However, as the first link makes clear, the paper was published in 2004, by two researchers, neither of whom remains at NIESR. I joined NIESR in 2011. In fact, I recently described the numbers in the paper as "past [their] sell-by date". So the idea that it represents evidence that I "strongly support EU membership" is simply laughable. Once again, Mr Hannan just gets his facts wrong.

But, leaving my views aside, nor does the paper imply any NIESR view on the principle of membership, then or now. As you would expect from a highly technical piece of economic analysis, published in the journal Economic Modelling, it takes no position on the UK's membership of the EU. It concludes that there would be no significant impact on employment, but some, significant but not huge, negative impact on output, from withdrawal. Whether you think that is an argument for or against withdrawal depends on lots of other factors, including of course much wider political considerations far beyond the scope of the paper.

The second point is Mr Hannan's much more serious accusation that I get "hundreds of thousands of pounds a year from Brussels" because of my "strong support" for EU membership. He doesn't give any supporting evidence, and never has. So what are the facts?

NIESR, like many other research institutions and most UK research-oriented universities, receives funding for specific research projects from a variety of sources, including the UK government and the European Commission.  Most of these are highly technical pieces of economic analysis - see the list here, for example.  

But this funding is awarded by competitive tender, through a complicated (and highly bureaucratic!) procurement process, carefully designed to conform to the law and to avoid any hint of impropriety or favouritism. It would, of course, be illegal for the EU, under EU procurement law, to award NIESR research funding on the basis of support, opposition, or neutrality on the question of the UK's EU membership. 

Mr Hannan is of course a Member of the European Parliament - and is known for criticising Commission waste. So here's a challenge. If he has even the slightest shred of evidence for his accusation that the Commission has broken not only its own procurement rules but European law, why doesn't he publish it and formally submit it to the Commission and their auditors? Should it be substantiated, even if only in part, this would be a major scandal.  

Of course, he doesn't and won't.  This is simply a smear, pure and simple.  I enjoy a good argument about evidence and policy, especially with people who disagree with me - I regard such discussions as both contributing to the public debate and helping me to refine my own views. Responding to deliberate untruths is, however, very tiresome. I have of course complained to the Press Complaints Commission, and I expect an apology and withdrawal in due course. 

Image: Gage Skidmore


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