The Hand that Feeds

Though the Libyan crisis has not completed its first month there does not seem to be a British multinational or institution that hasn’t taken money from Muammar Gadhafi. Even Prince Andrew, the UK’s "Ambassador for Trade," is implicated. 

The first to fall have been the universities. There isn’t a top British university that has not taken money from a nasty Middle East leader and what is more embarrassing is that their names are emblazoned on libraries, laboratories, technology parks, and research centers for all the world to see. Worst hit, so far, is the London School of Economics. 

Is it plausible that Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, a multimillionaire with more money than anyone is able to spend, has spent four years copying other people’s work? A doctorate based on extensive plagiarism is still hard work. The claim is a way for the academic authorities to perhaps conceal a much greater fiasco. The rumor at the LSE is that, far from plagiarism being the problem, the School arranged for a "mentor" (ie ghost writer) to assist Saif Islam with his studies. That is, the School provided the means to subvert its own procedures. 

The way the sons of the rich handle PhDs at many Third World universities is to pay a bright but unemployed PhD graduate to write it. The system in the UK is similar, though a tad more subtle. On the notice board of any university, including the LSE, one can find discreet adverts providing "drafting services" for students with poor English. In the Sciences this is not too much of a problem, because much of the writing is technical or mathematical and "drafting" is restricted to laying out findings. Science PhDs are almost always laboratory-based, requiring daily engagement with teaching staff. A PhD thesis also has to be defended "viva voce" before a panel of doctorates who are expert in the thesis subject. It is much more difficult, if not impossible, to bluff in the Sciences. In the Humanities it is a different matter altogether. Beyond correcting bad grammar and punctuation, it is virtually impossible to provide much assistance in "drafting" without actually doing original writing.

Of course, professors know only too well when a PhD thesis is not someone’s work, particularly when a candidate who is semi-proficient in English, and is a poor contributor in doctoral seminars, submits an eloquent thesis written in perfect English, complete with idiomatic expressions and a command of the intricacies of the subject. Anyone supervising doctoral theses soon becomes able to distinguish the "different voices" at play. 

So why don’t academics expose the fraudsters? One would have to be a die-hard sentimentalist of the old school (as is yours truly) to refuse to accept that universities are now just businesses. There is tremendous pressure on academic staff to "earn their keep." At £6000 per annum or more, doctorates for foreign students are an easy way of making money, particularly if a grateful student leaves behind a £1.5 million tip to set up a research foundation.

But the problems at the LSE, which every day looks more like a Marriott Hotel than a university, are not restricted to the Saif al-Islam fiasco. 

According to Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship current affairs program, the LSE is closely involved with a London high-level political PR agency — Monitor Consultancy – that in 2007 took on a £3 million contract to improve Libya’s image in the UK and to present Gadhafi in the West as "a thinker and intellectual." Remember that year – 2007 – it keeps cropping up. Monitor’s "talent" includes the former head of the Security Services, Sir Richard Dearlove, and Sir Mark Alan, also a top ex-spy, who was involved in Libyan operations and now works for BP.

Part of Monitor’s program was to fly out to Libya prominent "opinion formers" on all-expenses-paid "fact finding" trips. On their return, presumably for a fat brown envelope, they would write glowing articles about Libya. One such jolly tripper was LSE Director Howard Davies, who was sent out in 2007 to comment on Libya’s financial system. As I understand it, Libya’s only "financial system" entails Gadhafi handing out large amounts of cash to families, clans and tribes that behave themselves, and giving a good kicking to those that don’t. Still, Davies came back with glowing reports of what he saw and was even taken on as a financial consultant by the regime. 

A more interesting recipient of Gadhafi’s boundless generosity is Anthony Giddens, LSE Director 1996–2003 and one of Europe’s most highly regarded and highly overrated intellectuals. Giddens is the inventor of The Third Way, the European version of the US neocon outlook, except that ours has a sugar-coated exterior and a soft chewy center (ie the usual tosh about "European values," modernity, and avoiding dogmatism) which means it is palatable even to people who consider themselves to be of liberal ideals. Giddens is said to be Tony Blair’s philosophical mentor, though it is not clear why this should impress anyone. 

In March 2007, having returned from a trip in which he was able to have a tête-à-tête with Gadhafi, Giddens wrote the obligatory article for the Guardian, often wrongly described as a "center" newspaper. It reads like a Graham Greene travel sketch about a nasty country which the great writer has decided to say nice things about for reasons only known to himself. "As one-party states go" – Giddens wrote, reassuringly – "Libya is not especially repressive… Gadhafi seems genuinely popular." He is impressed to find that Gadhafi "accepts the need to reform banking, diversify the economy, train entrepreneurs, and dismantle inefficient state-owned enterprises. Impressive progress has been made towards these objectives in the past three years."

This is not the first time a Director of the LSE has made a king-size boob over celebrating a nasty regime. During the 1930s, the director was Sidney Webb, who along with his partner Beatrice had been the School’s co-founder in 1906. In 1934, after returning from an extensive research trip to Russia, they wrote up their findings in Soviet Communism: A new civilization?, 1,174 pages of arguably the most turgid piece of mistaken prose in the English language.

The difference between the Webbs and Giddens is that the former were confused ideological fools desperately seeking a new social model, whereas the latter was motivated only by the purest of motives: cash. 

The more one digs, the worse the smell gets. A small storm is brewing in Britain – with serious repercussions in the US — over the exact circumstances in which Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, the man convicted for the Lockerbie bombing, was released on health grounds from a Scottish jail. The suspicion is that a dirty little deal was done in the interests of oil. Many of the same people are involved, and it all kicked off in 2007.

BP, which in May 2007 signed a £900 million offshore drilling contract with Libya, denies that it pressed for a deal, but now admits that "it is a matter of public record that in late 2007 BP told the UK Government that we were concerned about the slow progress that was being made in concluding a prisoner transfer agreement with Libya."

This one will run and run. More to follow.

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Author: Susil Gupta

Susil Gupta is a London-based lawyer and writer.