Thursday, October 05, 2006

Springing a leak

Yesterday I wrote about a leaked document that showed how the US Chamber of Commerce pressured the President of the Philippines to intervene in a court case to the benefit of the baby food industry.

Leaked documents have to be handled with great care. Questions to ask include: Are they genuine? Why have they been given to you? Will disclosing the facts in the documents put anyone at risk?

It is not always relevant to go public with a leaked document. It may simply re-enforce information from elsewhere. For example, it may be clear from monitoring company practices that it has introduced a new marketing strategy. A leaked memo to staff will confirm this has come from head office.

But sometimes leaked documents can have a dramatic effect. I recall a debate with Nestlé's Senior Policy Advisor at a UK university a few years ago. The Advisor had joined the anti-boycott team in Croydon from Sri Lanka so I raised one of the cases from Sri Lanka: Nestlé had lobbied the government to stop it strengthening the Sri Lankan baby food marketing requirements. Shamefully it was opposing labelling products in three languages, despite labelling products in three languages in its home country of Switzerland.

The Nestlé Executive suggested this was untrue and any comment it had made had been as part of a consultation. It was a partner in the process, Nestlé claimed. It was a classic example of the 'mid-point bias' strategy I wrote about a couple of days ago. With two conflicting presentations of what had happened, Nestlé wanted to be believed, or the audience to at least conclude that the truth must be somewhere between the two.

Fortunately I had with me a copy of a leaked letter Nestlé had written and so put it up on the overhead projector. People could read it for themselves. Nestlé had written to an official with a request to 'use your good offices to invite us for a meeting' and that amongst its key points of concern was the requirement that the 'label be printed in three [underlined] languages'. After a long list of concerns about the regulations Nestlé insisted: 'the importers and ourselves should be invited to discuss the Code in depth, prior to finalisation of the said Code.' And just in case the official hadn't taken the point: 'We earnestly solicit your kind co-operation in convening a meeting, as requested, at your earliest convenience.'

Faced with the evidence, the Nestlé Executive could have thrown up her hands and admitted Nestlé wasn't responding to a consultation and wasn't a partner in the revision, but had pressed for a meeting to try to undermine implementation of the World Health Assembly measures. While admitting our claims were correct, she could have insisted it was the company's right to insist on a meeting. Instead, with a look of shock, she said the letter was supposed to be confidential, implying I was very naughty for having a copy of it.

Some leaked documents we can publicise and even put up on our website. But we have to be very careful about sources. Nestlé whistle blower, Syed Aamir Raza, is unusual in that he went public with internal company documents exposing practices such as the bribing of doctors in Pakistan. He said he was threatened by company executives and still today, nearly 7 years later, he has not been able to return to his country and has not seen his wife and two children in all that time. Nestlé could have thrown up its hands and admitted what the documents prove, but refuses to do so. Aamir's terrible situation is no doubt useful as a warning to other employees to others who might wish to blow the whistle.

Leaked documents are very useful. But also very dangerous. Handle with care.

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