Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Nursultan Nazarbayev

The Blair Years Part Seven

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 1 2016

Colman's Column3

Blair’s Later Career

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Tony Blair has hinted that he may return to active politics. He said he was “trying to create the space for a political debate about where modern Western democracies go and where the progressive forces particularly find their place”. He announced that he will launch a new organisation in the new year to look at the global forces that have led to Brexit and Trump: “The political centre has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent. Instead, we are seeing a convergence of the far left and far right.” Blair plans a consolidation of the various groups and foundations he currently runs. He has already said he is closing his for-profit businesses, which have attracted criticism.

It is rather depressing to read the opening pages of Tom Bower’s book Broken Vows – Tony Blair and the Tragedy of Power – and to think back to the optimism one felt in May 1997. It has to be said that Bowers’s book has not received unstinting praise. Nevertheless, Bower gives a good picture of Blair’s life after he left government. Blair has earned tens of millions through a combination of consultancies, public speaking and facilitating corporate deals.

Delivery Man

Blair’s main pitch was that he succeeded in government because of his ability to “deliver” and that he could pass the secret of this on to others in government through “delivery unit solution packages”. David Runciman reviewing Broken Vows in the London Review of Books noted: “Deliverology is itself a false prospectus. It relies on the assumption that Blair gradually mastered these skills on the job and that he was forced out just when he had got on top of the government machine.”

In order to write this series, I have done a lot of reading, including the following very useful books, whose authors interviewed a great number of civil servants and politicians who had observed Blair at close quarters. I would recommend these books. There were three books by Anthony Seldon – Blair (2004), Blair Unbound (2008) and Brown at 10 (2010). There were two by Andrew Rawnsley – Servants of the People (2000) and The End of the Party (2010). No-one seems to disagree with Bowers’s verdict that Blair could be unfocused, lacking in knowledge and poor at management. None of these writers seems overly impressed with Michael Barber’s Delivery Unit.

Globetrotter

Bower describes how in the last months of his premiership Blair preferred travelling the globe to paying attention to domestic politics. “Some of those journeys were influenced by his ambitions for a career after Downing Street”. Bowers puts some of the blame on Cherie: “He had constantly urged his wife to refrain from her embarrassing financial forays, promising her serious wealth once they left Downing Street. He assumed that a new world of fees and commissions would answer Cherie’s familiar plea of ‘Why can’t we go by private jet?’”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 10: Tony Blair and Cherie Blair seen arriving hand in hand at chiltern firehouse restaurant and memebers club for dinner on May 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davies/GC Images)

 

 

 

Helping Gaddafi

 

Blair resigned as Prime Minister on 27 June 2007, but immediately before leaving office he embarked on a global tour which included a meeting with Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. On 27 April, he had thanked Gaddafi for the “excellent cooperation” between their intelligence services. What this in reality meant was that Blair was helping Gaddafi torture and kill his opponents. MI5 officers, in cooperation with Libyan intelligence agents, had been targeting Libyans living in London who were opposed to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. When Blair thanked Gaddafi for “assistance” he was probably referring to information extracted by torture in Libya.

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Human Rights Stuff

For a man who based his “ethical” foreign policy on unseating tyrants, Blair’s relations with dictators have been puzzling. It is difficult to square this with his professed Christian morality. In 2011, he accepted a lucrative offer from the Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev.

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Leaked e-mails revealed in 2016 that Blair had charged Nazarbayev £5 million a year for his services. Kazakh security forces shot dead fourteen unarmed protesters and wounded over sixty others in Zhanaozen in 2011. There were also reports of opponents being tortured. “I don’t dismiss the human rights stuff,” Blair said. “These are points we make”. Blair personally wrote large sections of a speech that Nazarbayev made at Cambridge University. The line Blair advised him to take was “I understand and hear what our critics say. However, I would simply say this to them: by all means make your points and I assure you we’re listening. But give us credit for the huge change of a positive nature we have brought about in our country over these past 20 years… We are going to have to go step by step.” Since Blair began his work with Kazakhstan, the country has fallen eight places in the  Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, to 160 out of 180, and fell in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, to 123 out of 167.

 

The UK government refused to release information about Blair’s involvement with Rwanda through his Africa Governance Initiative charity. Amnesty International has accused Rwandan president Paul Kagame of human rights abuses, including unlawful detentions, restricting freedom of expression and jailing opposition politicians and journalists. A UN report accused his forces of war crimes, including possible genocide, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

paul-kagame

Bad Faith

Blair even accepted donations to his Faith Foundation of $500,000 from Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch, and $1 million from Michael Milken (the model for Hollywood’s Gordon “greed is good” Gekko) who was convicted in 1990 for fraud. Faith Foundation staff attended a conference in Vienna funded by Saudi Arabia.

 

His work towards peace in the Middle East for the Quartet (for which the UK government contributed £400,000 of taxpayers’ money every year) proved ineffectual because of the taint of his closeness with GW Bush. One observer said that he watched Blair’s authority ‘swiftly drip away’, and he was excluded from discussions.

 

This image of a former prime minister touting himself about may be distasteful but Blair is not the first world leader to disappoint and cash in afterwards. It seems a bit pathetic that Blair should use his status to try to sell the Nigerians Israeli drones and other military equipment for use in their fight against Islamic rebels. However, is it so bad to try and make a buck for Tony Blair Associates? This is more serious than just hucksterism and greed. David Runciman was writing before Trump’s election but he presciently wrote in March 2016: “The way Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have conducted themselves since leaving office is a hostage to the fortunes not just of their personal reputations but of the political causes they still represent … If the scandal of deliverology contributes to the election of President Trump, that would be another thing entirely.”

Conclusion

The three most important public servants in Blair’s administration – Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull – concluded that, as prime minister, Blair had not been a fit guardian of the public’s trust. Richard Wilson said: “There are events during my period as Cabinet secretary that make me shudder at what I remember because we had high hopes and we were so disappointed. He promised so much, but in the end, so little was achieved.”

Historian Ian Kershaw wrote in 2007 when Blair left office: “Labour now seems to stand for little more than the claim that it can manage the problems of British society a bit better, and a bit more humanely, than can the Conservatives. And even that claim is open to question…However Blair’s domestic achievements are judged, his place in history will be primarily shaped by the Iraq war. Iraq will forever stand out in bold red in the debit column of his time in office. It was an avoidable disaster. And it was a disaster bearing Blair’s personal hallmark.”

 

Sri Lanka PR Part 2

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 10 2014

Colman's Column3

Last week I wrote in Ceylon Today about an article in the Calgary Herald by Manisha Krishnan. That article dealt with Ryan de Hoedt’s efforts to get his sister to Canada from Sri Lanka, where, according to him, she is in grave danger. I circulated the article among many Sri Lankan contacts, all of whom had difficulty in believing that de Hoedt’s sister was being persecuted in 2014 because her family helped Tamils in July 1983. I had copied a draft of my first article to Ms Krishnan using an e-mail address given at the foot of her own article. I said that I was giving her the opportunity to comment before I published and wanted to clear up some of the points in her article that had puzzled many people. She did not respond. I copied my published article to her using the same e-mail address. My e-mail bounced back as “undeliverable”. I sent her a message on Facebook, again giving her the opportunity to comment. To date she has not responded.

I have done another Google search for Ryan de Hoedt. I can see no response from the Sri Lankan government or police to the story in the Calgary Herald. The only information about Ryan de Hoedt is new print or online outlets repeating the Calgary Herald story. There is a Ryan de Hoedt on Facebook but there is no information at all on his timeline. Does Ryan de Hoedt exist? Perhaps the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa might look into this case and make a public statement?

Perhaps we should not expect that, as it seems that the responsibility for representing Sri Lanka has been taken away from diplomats and handed over to expensive foreign PR firms who know nothing about the country.

Bridge that Gap

Perhaps GOSL could consider handing the country’s PR contract to Tony Blair.GQ Magazine recently caused great hilarity by giving its Philanthropist of the Year award to Blair. GQ justified the award thus: “Alongside his role as a Middle East peace envoy, Blair’s channelled his energy into philanthropy… His most ambitious [project] is the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative. Launched in 2008, the foundation operates in six African countries – Sierra Leone, Rwanda Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Senegal – where teams work alongside government bodies to bridge the gap between African leaders’ visions for a better future and their government’s ability to implement it.”

Good Governance in Kazakhstan

Blair does not seem to be very successful at fostering his own public image but his philanthropic work included some PR work for others. He had a two-year contract worth millions of pounds to advise Kazakhstan’s leadership on good governance. Human rights campaigners say Blair has produced no improvements for Kazakh people apart from Nursultan Nazarbayev, “Leader of the Nation”. Nazarbayev has ruled oppressively for over twenty years. During the time was advising him Kazakhstan’s human rights situation deteriorated. Nazarbayev won re-election in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote. Blair gave suggestions on how to improve Nazarbayev’s image after his police killed 14 unarmed protesters. Oksana Makushina, a former deputy editor of one suppressed newspaper, said: “If Mr Blair was advising Nazarbayev on something, it definitely wasn’t freedom of speech. Over the last two years the screws have only been tightened on the media.” Borat might have done a better job.

Blair’s New Clients

Blair has added Mongolia and Albania to the list of clients. Albania’s new socialist government says it wants him to help Albania to achieve EU membership. Mongolia is seeking advice on foreign investment, health and education, health.

Blair’s office dismisses reports of reaping £16m in fees from Kazakhstan, and says Blair makes no personal profit. Perhaps he could philanthropically assist Sri Lanka pro bono.

Bell Pottinger

Tim Bell, now Baron Bell, who advised Margaret Thatcher on media matters when she was UK Prime Minister, is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger. The company came under public scrutiny after managers were secretly recorded talking to fake representatives of the Uzbek government and meddling with Wikipedia by removing negative information and replacing it with positive spin. It is the largest UK-based public relations consultancy. They have had many dodgy clients, such as General Pinochet, a recent one being Rolf Harris.

According to PR Week dated January 2010, Bell Pottinger hired Qorvis Communications as a subcontractor for its work with the government of Sri Lanka. Qorvis was to provide “media relations and monitoring, crisis communications planning, and stakeholder representation in the US. The budget is approximately $483,000.”

What return did Sri Lanka get for this investment? Despite Bell Pottinger’s dark arts, Rolf Harris got a sentence of five years and nine months in prison for twelve indecent assaults on children as young as seven. He is losing weight and being spat upon in prison.

Patton Boggs

Back in January 2009, the Washington Embassy of Sri Lanka retained the firm of Patton Boggs with a fixed fee of $35,000 per month, payable quarterly in advance. Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs helped run the account, which calls on Patton Boggs to “provide guidance and counsel to the Embassy of Sri Lanka regarding its relations with the Executive and Legislative Branches of the US Government.” How did that work out? Did we get value for money?

Patton Boggs did not influence then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sri Lanka’s benefit. She said: “I think that the Sri Lankan government knows that the entire world is very disappointed that in its efforts to end what it sees as 25 years of conflict, it is causing such untold suffering”. Patton Boggs’s efforts did not prevent Bruce Fein filing a 1,000-page report with the U.S. Justice Department charging violations of the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007. Fein referred to “a grisly 61-year tale of Sinhalese Buddhists attempting to make Sri Lanka ‘Tamil free’”.

Patton Boggs recently merged with Squire Sanders. Will that enable them to give a better service to GOSL?

Burson-Marsteller

GOSL signed a contract with Burson-Marsteller for US$ 75,000 a month (more than US $900,000 a year). B-M’s website boasts of its sophisticated campaigns: “Clients often engage Burson-Marsteller when the stakes are high …. Most of all, clients come to us for our proven ability to communicate effectively with their most critical audiences and stakeholders.” Some critics have said that these sophisticated campaigns often include dirty tricks.

B-M is the largest PR firm in the world; it has represented some unlovely regimes. The Nigerian government engaged B-M during the Biafran war, to discredit reports of genocide.   The fascist junta in Argentina hired B-M during the 70s and early 80s, to attract foreign investment. South Korea hired them to cover up human rights abuses for the 1988 Olympics. B-M represented the communist Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu.

As well as asking if it is a good idea for Sri Lanka to be associated with these regimes, one could ask if B-M was successful in improving the public image of Nigeria, Argentina, South Korea or Ceausescu.

Thompson Advisory Group

GOSL paid millions of rupees to Thompson Advisory Group (TAG). A lump sum of Rs 4.5 million (as well a monthly fee of Rs. 910,000) went to a driver called Tilak Mohan Siriwardena. Apparently, there are plans to give TAG millions more. In a previous effort, more than once TAG referred to this island nation as “Sir Lanka”.

TAG produced a documentary, Sri Lanka: Reconciling and Rebuilding, which Groundviews described as “rank propaganda… albeit produced very well, with compelling visuals and a well scripted storyline”. Did this film change anyone’s mind about Sri Lanka?

Macro or Micro?

Other PR firms advising the Sri Lankan government have included Vigilant Worldwide Communications of New York. Their task (for six months at a cost of $5,000 a month) is to “develop a strategic communications plan and conduct outreach to Members of the Congress and other US government officials with the purpose of raising awareness of Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to the US.”

There may be some logic in this macro strategy of trying to influence influential people. The nitty-gritty though is does it work? It does not seem to.

Should a micro approach be tried? Why are such large sums being spent at the same time that challengeable items like the Calgary Herald story are allowed to go unchallenged? Embassy staff should be challenging these stories. The huge funds paid to western PR behemoths should be diverted to the diplomatic service to equip embassies to serve their country effectively.

Perhaps Mr Lional Premasiri, Acting High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Ottawa, could issue a press release about the Calgary Herald story.

 

 

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