British Council watchers will find plenty of familiar fare in the organisation’s recent evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
When I read this sentence uttered by the British Council Chair Lord Kinnock…
“It is a supreme irony, to which I draw the Committee's attention, that on the very same day that our premises in Ramallah and Gaza were destroyed, an independent survey of Palestinian youth was published, which demonstrated that of all the international organisations operational in the Palestinian territories, the British Council was by far the most trusted.”
…I felt in my water there was something wrong. How likely is it, I asked myself – as I also ask you – that an independent survey of youth anywhere would turn up such a conclusion (or even anything at all) about the British Council? How likely is it, I asked myself, that if I stopped a young Palestinian in Nablus and asked him or her which international organisation in Palestine was most trusted, how likely is it that this youth, unprompted, would answer “The British Council!” No, there were too many clues pointing to an inside job: Lord Kinnock’s references to “youth” and to “trust”, key words in the Council catechism, were pretty good giveaways, but it was above all the reported and somewhat fantastic conclusion “…of all…by far…” that clinched it.
We had a bit of a hunt for possible reports published near enough to March 16th 2006. We found, for example, a survey report that showed that Palestinians thought that Asians were most understanding of Palestinian issues with the EU in second place, and another report showing that at that moment in March 2006 46% of Palestinians thought that attacks on British and American institutions and their nationals were justified, but neither of these reports mentioned the British Council. No more did a survey of young people in the Bethlehem area published a year later. However, we fetched up on the web site of a company called Alpha International. In their own words “Alpha conducted a needs assessment survey using both quantitative and qualitative methods for the services provided by the British Council” and the work was completed in March 2006. Our further enquiries revealed that this was the report referred to.
So, since the report was “a needs assessment survey for services provided by the British Council”, commissioned by the British Council for the British Council, it might be said that Lord Kinnock was using the word “independent” a little freely, and that describing its timing and its apparently remarkable conclusions as “supreme irony” was serving his case rather well. And since the report was not and is not made available to the public, and since a request for sight of the report has met the usual non-response from the Council, you might say that the word “published” had been used rather freely as well. And without sight of the report it’s hard to see how the British Council was ranked so highly above all other international organisations. It seems unlikely, for example, that the young Palestinians were given a chance to say that they thought that likelier favourites such as the UN, or Amnesty International or the World Health Organisation or CARE International might head such a table. And would, say, the Goethe-Institut (who, unlike you know who, published a truthful account of the Asturia prize) not rate as more trustworthy? It certainly ought to.
If you work for the British Council part of your job is to produce as much evidence as you can that the British Council is wonderful. The culture of self-congratulation results in a huge volume of internal propaganda, matched only in size by a mega blind spot when it comes to the organisation’s imperfections. But there’s an embarrassing phenomenon called reality, and it is that which I commend the FAC to examine.
The bottom line is this: if you hear protestations about how trusted the British Council is, remember it’s just a British Council mantra, and it’s patent nonsense. And if you are told that such unlikely (and absurd) things are proved, whether presented as supreme irony or not, by an “independent” “published” report, it’s advisable to find out how independent, and how published, it is, and to check (if you can) what it actually says. Don’t, in other words, take what the British Council says on trust.