Thursday, 21 June 2007

Victory: Reed-Elsevier gives in

The Morning Star published a version of this article a couple of weeks ago. It describes the successful campaign against publishing house Reed-Elsevier's involvement in the arms trade.

In March this paper ran a story about the publishing house Reed Elsevier and its connection to the arms trade. Reed is one of the biggest publishing groups in the world, publishing over two thousand scientific, medical, and educational journals. They also have a history of organising some of the biggest arms fairs in the world, including the biennial DSEi arms fair in London, Shot Show in America and a number of others.

Reed has come under heavy attack from academics, authors, scientists and doctors who make use of the journals which Reed publishes, but who disapprove strongly of Reed’s involvement in the arms trade. It has taken some time but that disapproval has finally registered: On Friday Reed announced that they were withdrawing from the arms trade. Sir Crispin Davis, Reed CEO, said:

“[I]t has become increasingly clear that growing numbers of important customers and authors have very real concerns about our involvement in the defence exhibitions business. We have listened closely to these concerns and this has led us to conclude that the defence shows are no longer compatible with Reed Elsevier's position as a leading publisher of scientific, medical, legal and business content."

Reed’s announcement has been warmly received by the academic and medical community. In an email to The Scientist magazine, Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians said "This will safeguard the reputation of the Reed Elsevier publication The Lancet and no longer undermine its role in improving health and healthcare worldwide."

The group Campaign Against the Arms Trade which coordinated the campaign against Reed said that they “welcome the decision and applaud the board of Reed Elsevier for recognising the concerns of its stakeholders.”

The financial sector has been less delighted: Reed’s announcement halted a week-long surge in their share price. It is unlikely that this decline will last long however. Arms fairs represent just 0.5% of Reed’s turnover, as compared to medical and science publishing which is around 14%. It is precisely this arrangement which had given campaigners a sense that they could win the day.

From the start the strategy of the campaign was to use Reed’s primary dependency on the scientific and medical communities as a source of leverage on the issue of arms fairs. The aim was to convince Reed that they were in danger of alienating their primary market unless they withdrew from the arms industry.

In other words the campaign succeeded because it managed to effectively link ethics with economics. Reed stood unrepentant at repeated scandals regarding cluster bombs and torture equipment being promoted at their shows; they brushed off accusations that invitees to their shows included some of the most repressive regimes in the world (most recently it emerged that the defence minister of Sudan, the representative of a regime accuse of genocide in Darfur, was invited to the Reed organised Idex fair in February); but if Reed were unmoved by these revelations, their customers were not.

Indeed, with every scandal, the level of condemnation grew. A series of scathing editorials were written by major medical journals including “The Lancet” (which is Reed published). Letters were written by prominent authors, academics, scientists and physicians to journals and to national newspapers. An online petition attracted more than 1900 signatories from the scientific and medical communities; a smaller number also pledged to exercise a publication boycott of all Reed journals. A regular weekly vigil was maintained at Reed’s London offices to ensure the issue remained prominent in the minds of Reed employees.

All of these actions reinforced Reed’s fear that they were alienating their own market. The result is that, despite Crispin Davis stating that the Reed arms exhibitions are “a high quality business, with strong management and good growth”, Reed will withdraw from a business that last year turned over more than £20 million.

Unfortunately it is not all good news. Reed’s decision to withdraw is very unlikely to affect their organisation of this year’s DSEi arms fair in London in September. This will be one of the biggest arms fairs in the world and, if past DSEi’s are anything to go by, will play host to human rights abusers of the very worst kind. As in past years DSEi 2007 will be targeted by protestors seeking to disrupt this vital link in the industry of war.

Additionally there must be concern as to exactly how Reed are to effect their withdrawal from this industry. Were their decision an ethical one, Reed would be honour bound to close down their arms fair business for good. Presumably though their profit motive will ensure that they simply sell the business to the highest bidder.

Should this turn out to be the case, that bidder will have to contend with opposition which has tasted victory once, and which has great hope that it can win again.

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