What You Can Get Away With » straw man institute

With almost ten years of blogging experience behind me (and just typing that makes me feel old) I think it’s time that I found some ways to cash in all the time I’ve wasted on it to make a quick buck. Sorry, what I meant to say there was ‘utilise my extensive cross-platform social media communication skills to monetise my experience and provide a variety of value-added activities to my valued clients’.

The problem, of course, is that I’m not shameless enough to even attempt some of the con tricks that others use as a business model. As a councillor, I’m regularly bombarded with invitations to conferences on important policy issues, all of which appear to be the opportunity to spend several hundred pounds to sit in the poorly ventilated ‘conference suite’ of a mid-market London hotel while someone reads out a PowerPoint presentation of easily downloadable information at you, as the precursor to a limp ‘discussion of current challenges’ (aka ‘tell us what other issues we might be able to sell you a conference on’). If I was savvy and soulless enough, I wouldn’t be complaining about these, but creating my own company to do the same.

Rather than set up a company to do this, I could do it in the name of a think tank instead. That way, not only could I establish spurious conferences, I could publish reports and discussion papers on topics that were in no way determined by whoever wanted to sponsor me, and with robustly independent conclusions that just happened to coincide with their needs. I could even give something back to the next generation by creating a Junior Associate programme that would teach them all the skills they needed to be effective policy professionals, including the best search terms to put into Google, important errors to avoid when copy-and-pasting and just how much you can get away with charging people for admittance into this exclusive programme.

Has anyone founded the Michael Stone Institute yet? A few years ago, myself and another blogger (whose identity I’ll protect unless they’re happy for it to be revealed) did discuss creating a spoof ‘Straw Man Institute‘ with the promise that we’d ‘make the arguments no one else will’. We thought there’d be a ready market amongst commentators and other blowhards. ‘SMI (a noted liberal think tank)’ would happily have provided reports on why everyone in Britain should be forced to be gay Muslims for Peter Hitchens to bloviate against.

I think the project foundered on two problems. First, we didn’t have the enthusiasm to carry it on beyond the initial idea, and second, the market was far too skewed by existing companies. There’s no point in advertising yourselves as being willing to make the arguments that no one else will, when there are plenty of people willing to do that and actually mean what they say, often for free. When we’re living in a world where Demos not only has a ‘Progressive Conservatism Project’ but its director can write what amounts to ‘Iain Duncan Smith must destroy the welfare state in order to save it’, what hope is there for a mild and humble parodist to make a living?

In a world where an internet get-rich-quick mogul can make it into the Cabinet, I suppose I need to rebrand myself as an expert in hashtag virality. I can do you a quick seminar for £350, maybe even £250 if you want to use our special early bird booking rate.

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I remembered the Straw Man Institute the other day. Reproduced here, just in case the Sharpener site finally goes blunt and falls off the web.

One of the problems of modern newspaper publishing is the question of how to fill the blank pages of the newspaper every day. After all, even though there’s a lot of news out in the world, journalists only have a finite amount of time each day to turn reality into news, so sometimes they’re glad when the news comes prepackaged for them and it’s even better when it’s not just a press release, but an entire study allowing them to quote a whole host of spurious facts, stick in a couple of pictures and they’ve filled a page with the news that watching four or more DVDs a day can help lower cholesterol.

So, as the demand for news has increased, so the number of studies conducted has risen and the number of people carrying them out has grown to. No longer the sole preserve of the ivory towers of academia, just about anyone can call themselves an Institute or a Foundation and start pushing out their own factoids to an eager and hungry press. Everyone’s a winner – the journalist fills his space and gets to the pub earlier, the Insitute in question gets a mention in the press and a plug for their latest pamphlet and the paper’s readers get a few more vague statistics to quote in ill-informed pub discussions.

It’s not limited to the news sections of the papers either – where would sports pages be without the surveys of which flavour pies are most preferred by football fans, for instance? Even columnists, opinionators and leader writers can have their work eased for them by a well-timed report – I’m certain anyone doing a research project about Sure Start must have a momentary frisson of excitement when they realise that they can guarantee their name appearing in the papers if they send a copy to Polly Toynbee. Indeed, just about any columnist with a point to make can normally find the research from somewhere to back it up.

However, there is one need that isn’t being addressed, especially with the recent development of many newspaper columns into denunciations of things the author doesn’t like. Too often, they’re forced to resort to criticising nebulous figures who believe in the antithesis of the author’s beliefs and aren’t able to bring up someone concrete to make people believe that the threat they’ve identified is real. So, why not have an organisation that specialises in coming up with those arguments that no one else will make? One that will publish the unpublishable and allow it to be torn apart?

Yes, the time has now come for the Straw Man Institute. For far too long, columnists (and bloggers, of course) have been left to generate their own straw men to argue against, with the lack of effort immediately apparent to all expert observers. However, the Straw Man Institute will ensure that everyone has someone to shout against and denounce. Be it calling for an immediate surrender to the terrorists and all their demands while we all convert to Islam or calling for the whole of the government to be privatised with the poor sold into slavery and the profits used to subsidise fox hunts, the SMI will make sure that those arguments are out in the public arena and attributable to someone. For far too long, straw men have been ad hoc creations, summoned only for one article or argument and then dismissed. Now, with the SMI, the straw man will take its rightful place alongside all the other nebulous concepts that drive institutes, foundations and think tanks. Let a thousand straw men bloom!

Of course, I’ve since realised that it should be called the Jonathan Swift Institute, just to cover the tracks somewhat.

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