Foundation funding reveals murky world of farm subsidies

Case study by Tim Dawson.

Michael Heseltine always enjoyed being considered one of the ‘big beasts’ of British politics.  Less well known, until recently, is that he has long been a recipient of around £90,000 of annual funding from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  Lord Hesseltine, who founded the magazine company Haymarket, is thought to be worth around £200m, farms around 1,255 acres in Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire.  

That it is possible to find out about these payments – and those to other farmers all over Europe – is thanks to farmsubsidy.org, one of the few examples of successful foundation-funded journalism outside the United States.  For the past six years it has been publishing details of where the European Union’s €55 billion farm subsidy budget is spent. A parallel project, run under the unberella of EU Transparancyfishsubsidy.org does the same for the €6 billion Common Fisheries Policy.

Since its establishment, farmsubsidy.org has received approximately $800,000 from foundations, the largest portion of which has come from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  This has been used to pay a small team of journalists, researchers and website authors in countries around Europe to fund freedom of information requests, and to develop the website on which details of farm funding are published.

The initiative is the brainchild of Jack Thurston, a former special advisor in the British Ministry of Agriculture and Nils Mulvad a Danish journalist.  Inspired by the US Environmental Working Group, Thurston wrote a pamphlet in 2002 suggesting that the recipients of CAP funding should be made public.  This led to a Fellowship with German Marshall Foundation, during which time Thurston made a successful FoI request for the British subsidy data.

“Around that time I convened a meeting at the offices of the German Marshall Fund”, he explains.  “We realised that few media organisations had the time or resources to do this kind of FoI work or to analyse such big data sets.  The Danes were a bit ahead of me, but we agreed to work together to establish a network to help journalists and researchers make effective requests for the data and to provide a publication platform.”

Since then FoI requests around Europe now mean that nearly every territory is covered, and the organisation’s easy-to-use online website makes it simple to find out who has received what. 

With the raw data on tap, farmsubsidy.org has also worked with journalists from the traditional media to make sense of the great gush of information.  In the UK this has produced a steady steam of stories about subsides paid to the well-known and the well-heeled like Heseltine.  In the US, reports on the Washington Post and the New York Times – and here and here – have undertaken significantly more radical work on how US agricultural multinationals have moved into east European farming – in part, with funds provided by the EU.

farmsubsidy.org makes it clear that while it is in favour of transparency, it does not adopt a particular stance on the desirability of particular funding decisions. “We do have to operate a kind of Chinese wall between data provision and more work that is more policy-based,” says Thurston.

He attributes the organisation’s success in fundraising to a pre-existing relationship with the main funders. “I sense that foundations fund people as much as they fund projects – which could be the worst kind of old-boys network – but it has meant for us that we have not had to devote all our time to chasing funds … It has made a difference having funders who trusted us for a few years.”  Although there are some foundations that will fund journalism in Europe, there are far fewer than in the US, he adds.

But despite its success, the future of farmsubsidy.org is in doubt.  Last November, a group of German farmers took a case to the European Court of Justice which ruled that publishing the names and addresses of CAP payment recipients breached the farmer’s privacy. 

Thurston believes that the judgement can be overturned, but even if the ruling stands, Thurston and his colleagues have directed a considerably shaft of light in the hitherto murky world of EU agricultural subsides, and shown that foundation-funded journalism can work in Europe.

About the Author

www.tim-dawson.com