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OPINION6 October 2009

Self-styled experts like me

I get invited to counterfeiting conferences to say things that the people who attend won’t say to each other, even though they tell me afterwards that they agree with me.

A few years ago I wrote a book about counterfeiting and piracy called Knockoff. Since then I’ve acquired two regular gigs: people interview me when there’s a counterfeiting story for their TV shows or radio programmes; and I get invited to counterfeiting conferences to say things that the people who attend the conferences won’t say to each other, even though they tell me afterwards that they agree with me.

This week there’s an example of the first one – I’m one of the experts on Black Market Britain, ITV, 10.35pm on 6 October. I’d love to tell you what I say, but it’s been stuck in legal for such a long time that when they called me to tell me the transmission date, I’d clean forgotten the interview.

It won’t make what I’ve said obsolete. The anti-counterfeiting/anti-piracy business has a sort of Groundhog Day consistency. The people whose job it is to market anti-counterfeiting ( at least 30 organisations, last time I counted ), all say the same thing every year. Their figures are pretty consistent, because they’re more or less made up by these organisations for the purpose of lobbying. The terrific work done by journalist Felix Salmon here and here to highlight this deserves to be recognised, not least by other journalists. “The fact is that the statistics AREN’T generated, as opposed to simply conjured out of thin air,” he told me.

I used some of these stats in my book, and I now know I should have asked more questions. What troubles me more is what goes on at the conferences organised by the people who come up with the stats, and the law-makers that they lobby. It’s not that they’re making agreements in secret that are undemocratic, unaccountable and might have negative impacts for developing countries – they have the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement for that. It’s what’s never mentioned that bothers me.

Almost all anti-counterfeiting and anti-piracy conferences I have attended, and it’s quite a few by now, are from the group hug school of conferences: experts quote their own figures ( and each other ) and lament the state of the problem, but no one involved will blame anyone who might be in the room, for example. And so it goes on: an identical conference, with the same people involved and a different sponsor, will be held a few months later in a different hotel.

Talk Normal’s going to get on to the appallingly low standard of trade conferences as soon as I get the time. But for now I’m thinking about something that Felix Salmon said to me: "It never ceases to astonish me what the press will print if it’s asserted with enough bravado from a self-styled expert."

It occurs to me that on this subject I’ve occasionally been both the credulous hack and the self-styled expert. I’m hoping that I’m neither on Tuesday night.