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by James Corbett
February 5, 2013
Catchphrases and overused hype terms are constantly being generated by the political class. Often they are used to focus the public’s attention on a given topic or to distract that same public from more pressing concerns. Witness, for example, the sudden onset of the “fiscal cliff” fixation in the mainstream financial media at the end of last year.
Other times, as former President George W. Bush insightfully pointed out, these catchphrases are employed as a way to break down the public’s intellectual defenses and “catapult the propaganda.”
In the case of “common purpose,” we find not just a meaningless catchphrase but the calling card of an emerging political organization.
That organization is called, simply enough, Common Purpose, and was originally established as a charitable trust in the UK in 1989. According to its own website, Common Purpose is an organization promoting:
“[..]the advancement of education for the public benefit and in particular but without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing to educate men and women an young people of school age, from a broad range of geographical, political, ethnic, institutional, social and economic backgrounds in constitutional, civic, economic and social studies with special emphasis on civil and social awareness and responsibility in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.”
The group has now expanded internationally and provides training courses in leadership for up-and-coming politicians, businessmen, NGO workers, organizers, and others who wield or will one day wield power in society. Those who complete a Common Purpose leadership seminar are said to be “graduates” of the program. Prominent supporters of the program include BBC News Business Editor Robert Peston and Cressida Dick, the most senior police officer in the disgraced London Metropolitan Police office.
By its own admission, the group concentrates on the space that “lies between the individual and the state, between the immediate responsibilities facing each individual and the institutional responsibilities of the government.” Common Purpose aims to influence those individuals, businesses, and political parties that can directly act in that space.
Naturally, such an aim is only laudable if the agenda behind that influence is in the interest of society. Remarkably enough for a publicly registered charity that does receive public funds, however, Common Purpose – as its chief critic, retired British naval officer Brian Gerrish, notes – is remarkably opaque, conducting many of its meetings and seminars under cover of the Chatham House Rule. As viewers of this Eyeopener series will remember, the Chatham House Rule is the convention defined by the Royal Institute of International Affairs wherein meeting participants not to disclose the details of individuals or their statements.
What is possible to identify about this group, its founder, and its connections, however, is disturbing enough. The group was officially started in 1989 by Julia Middleton, a civil society campaigner who was also a co-founder of Demos, an influential think tank, and Deputy Chair of the Media Standards Trust Board.
The Media Standards Trust Board is another registered charity that says it “aims to foster high standards in news media on behalf of the public.” Serving with Julia Middleton on the board of the trust are the likes of Charles Manby of Goldman Sachs, Anthony Salz of NM Rothschild and David Loyn of the BBC. Also on that board was Sir David Bell, who stepped down to assume a position on the Leveson Inquiry which was set up to review media standards in Britain following the Murdoch hacking scandal. The MSTB submitted a report to the inquiry recommending reform to the existing regime of media self-regulation, a report that was largely adopted by the inquiry. Sir David is also a trustee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which caused the most recent BBC scandal, the airing of a report incorrectly labeling the former Tory Party treasurer as a pedophile, an error that cost the BBC nearly 200,000 pounds in damages.
Demos, meanwhile, is an organization that has made news in recent years for its attempts to warn against the dangers of the free and open internet. Co-founded by Common Purpose UK CEO Julia Middleton, it originally boasted Stephen Heintz as its president. Heintz is currently president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
In 2011, Demos launched an awareness campaign amongst British school children designed to protect them against the dangers of conspiracy theorizing on the intertet.
Unlike many of the other groups that we have outlined so far in this series, it is difficult to say directly what effect the group has had on civil society in the UK or indeed around the world. It has been estimated that over 300,000 decision makers from industry, finance, politics and the NGO community have “graduated” from their programs, with 3000 more graduating each year, but knowledge of the precise ways this network of graduates is wielding the influence they have to achieve the aims of “Common Purpose” is hampered by the group’s secretive nature. Much speculation takes place online about the group’s true intent, and the connections between Julia Middleton and some of the more ominous groups in the UK political landscape certainly mesh with those speculations.
Even if Common Purpose by itself were the most benign organization imaginable, though, it is difficult to justify the secretive nature of this public charity which receives funding and support from various public agencies. The question once again becomes: to what extent is the public comfortable having an organization of questionable aims and means training the next generation of world leaders in secretive seminars, largely at taxpayer’s expense. And, to the extent that the public is uncomfortable with the influence that groups like this have over the political and business world, what precisely can they do about it?
That will be the subject of next week’s report.