News & Media Opinion Pieces The successful campaign (2005-2007) to force the publisher of the Lancet to divest itself from the a

The successful campaign (2005-2007) to force the publisher of the Lancet to divest itself from the a

Cleaning up a dirty business: the successful campaign (2005-2007) to force the publisher of the Lancet to divest itself from the arms trade
 by Colin Butler

Introduction by David Shearman
“This article should be read in conjunction with the the letter posted above
It is an inspiring story of decisions forced upon the recalcitrants by the activism of NGOs and professional organisations. DEA is proud that its Committee members have been involved”

Reed Elsevier and its role in promoting sales of arms and torture equipment

The Lancet was founded in 1823 by the physician, surgeon and activist Thomas Wakley. Wakely envisaged his journal as a vehicle to campaign for social justice and human rights, such as to support the Tolpuddle Martyrs – six agricultural labourers who were sentenced to seven years’ transportation for campaigning against a wage cut.1 On the whole, the Lancet has honoured this tradition, including through its pioneering recognition in 1989 that climate change is a health issue.2 Furthermore, the Lancet’s position as a consistent publisher of groundbreaking clinical material has exposed many conservative medical readers to its more subversive material.

In 1991, the Lancet was acquired by the Dutch publisher Elsevier (founded in 1880). Two years after this acquisition, Elsevier merged with the conglomerate Reed International, a pulp and paper manufacturer which had expanded into publishing and other lines. Some time after this – but no later than 2003 – Reed Elsevier got involved with the arms trade, through its subsidiary Spearhead Exhibitions, which hosted one of the largest military exhibitions in the world, called the Defence Systems and Equipment international.3

Reed Elsevier boasted of this 2003 exhibition as a “key event for the total supply chain” of arms.3 Weapons on show included cluster bombs, widely deplored by UN agencies and human rights organisations. By 2006, arms fairs hosted by Reed Exhibitions (note the name change) were run in the United States, the Middle East, Brazil, Germany and Taiwan as well as the UK. The 2006 fair held in the US included the display of torture equipment sold by Security Equipment Corporation, a company whose slogan is ‘Making grown men cry since 1975’.4 Other exhibitors at some of these fairs included manufacturers of electroshock batons, stun guns, and stun belts, items banned by the European Union because their use amounts to torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.5

Until late 2005, the editors of the Lancet appear to have been unaware of the unsavoury practices of its owner. They were alerted through a letter which they published in September of that year, signed by representatives from six lobby groups – the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Europeans for Medical Progress, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), MedAct [the UK affiliate of International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE)], Physicians for Social Responsibility and Scientists for Global Responsibility.6 Accompanying this letter, the Lancet published a strongly critical editorial, imploring its owners to abandon. Unusually, this article was signed by The Lancet and The Lancet’s International Advisory Board.3

Commenting on the cluster bombs that Reed Elsevier was helping to promote, the Lancet wrote:

“Cluster bombs have high failure rates, creating de-facto minefields. Their effects do not discriminate between military targets and civilian populations. They are the worst kind of weapon. The UN Mine Action Strategy specifically includes unexploded cluster bombs in its vision of a mine-free world. UNICEF reported that over 1000 children were injured by unexploded ordnance, including cluster bombs, after the Iraq war in 2003. Human Rights Watch has called for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs until their civilian effects have been resolved. The Lancet has consistently opposed the use of cluster bombs. It will be incomprehensible to the journal’s readers that our owners are engaged in a business that so clearly undermines not only principles of public-health practice, but also the policies of intergovernmental agencies”.3

In response, Reed Elsevier directors and publicists simply argued that the arms business was legal. Reed Elsevier also claimed to be committed to the “highest ethical standards in all (its) business activities”.7 Graham pointed out the similarities of these with arguments used in 1806 to support the legitimacy, morality and job-creating virtues of slavery.8

However, the main criticism of Reed Elsevier was never that the arms trade is illegal. The real argument was that Reed Elsevier’s involvement with the arms trade compromised the independence and standing of its publishing business. For Reed Elsevier, the crucial question was: to what extent would its involvement in promoting arms (approximately 0.5% of its business) compromise the profitability and value of its suite of medical and scientific journals? (approximately 14% of its business).9

Initially, Reed Elsevier seems to have judged that the protest against its arms business would fade or at worst remain a minor irritant, which could be swatted aside like a mosquito. This decision proved very naïve. Reed Elsevier grossly underestimated the tenacity and conviction of its opposition, particularly among sectors of the health profession. Its responses simply fanned the flames of protest.

However, it has to be said, the distribution of this protest was extremely unequal. Reed Elsevier’s publishing stable includes numerous (probably thousands) of journals other than the Lancet. Its website ( lists almost 400 sub-disciplines, and it publishes many journals in each of these. It also publishes Australian Doctor and New Scientist. To the credit of its editors, contributors and readers, the campaign against its parent company was fought mainly in The Lancet. I know only of one other Reed Elsevier journal (Political Geography) that was also publicly critical of its owner.10 The issue appears to have been totally ignored by the other Reed Elsevier journals. (Please advise me if you know of any exceptions, especially as to whether this issue was ever reported by Australian Doctor).

Reed Elsevier, ecology and sustainability

In 2005 Reed Elsevier advertised that it was to host an ‘ecosummit’ in 2007 ( On being invited to submit an abstract for this meeting my response was to argue that any conference concerning sustainability hosted by an organisation involved with promoting arms would be tainted. I wrote to numerous VIPs among the ecological community, whose names were listed as endorsing this meeting, arguing the conference should be boycotted until Reed Elsevier divested themselves from arms promotion.

Readers will be unsurprised that at that time I received virtually no response, and certainly none that was sympathetic. In fact, apart from the editorial in Political Geography [and the involvement of MedAct, Drs for Environment Australia (DEA) and ISDE] the response by the environmental and ecological community response to this campaign has been muted.
For several years I have sensed that the academic ecological community has expressed little understanding or concern for social justice. These doubts grew during my four year long involvement with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.11 To further explore this impression, I analysed one of the two major on-line petitions opposed to Reed Elsevier’s involvement with the arms trade (, counting the academic discipline of the petitioners. Of 1915 signatures (this petition is now closed) 33% worked in health, but only 2% worked in ecology or earth sciences. Another 6% were geographers.1 Of course this survey does not prove my suspicion that ecologists are under-represented in such issues, but nor does it alleviate my concerns. I continue to worry that the links between violence, environmental change and sustainability are poorly understood by the ecological community.

2007: the campaign against Reed Elsevier grows

In 2007 the campaign against Reed Elsevier’s engagement with the arms trade continued to build. In early 2007 Reed Elsevier announced that it would stop exhibiting cluster bombs.12 Despite this, opposition continued to build, embracing increasingly influential individual and groups. In 2007 the campaign spread beyond the Lancet to two other leading journals: the British Medical Journal (BMJ)13 and the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.4 By mid 2007, declared opponents included a former president of the Royal Society, 38 senior staff at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,14 the Royal College of Physicans15 and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which sold all of its shares in Reed Elsevier, following three years of critical engagement on the company’s role in the arms trade.14

The BMJ editorial provoked eleven e-letters ( Almost all of these e-letters opposed the practices of Reed Elsevier, although two argued that the BMJ’s stance was tainted by conflict of interest, in that criticising the Lancet could increase the BMJ’s market share. A couple of others argued defended the legitimacy of arms sales.

The two web-petitions eventually attracted 2024 signatories (a few people signed both petitions). An increasing number of articles appeared in the British press, including one in The Times co-authored by JM Coetzee, a Nobel Laureate in literature.16 One of the petitions was signed by Sir Michael Atiyah, a former President of the UK’s Royal Society. Another signatory was Jack Steinberger, a Nobel Laureate in physics.

By the northern hemisphere summer of 2007, Reed Elsevier had had enough. Their decision to withdraw from the arms trade was widely reported in Britain, including in the Lancet 7 and the BMJ.18

The role of lobby groups – including DEA

Many health, peace and social justice lobby groups published letters in the Lancet which appealed for Reed Elsevier to divest itself from its arms businesses. In addition to the six mentioned above6 these organizations included Doctors for Human Rights,5 Doctors for Iraq,19 Medsin (a medical student organization)20 and the People’s Health Movement.21
Drs for the Environment Australia (DEA) members will also be pleased to know that DEA contributed in several ways to this campaign. On behalf of DEA, Bill Castleden wrote directly to Reed Elsevier (this letter received the standard response). DEA representatives also contributed to two letters co-authored by representatives of ISDE, the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW), MedAct and IPPNW.22,23 One of these letters23 is re-posted on the DEA website, (above) with permission of the publisher, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. This letter calls for publishers to declare their conflicts of interest, whether real or reasonably perceived as genuine.

Thousands of individuals were eventually involved in the campaign against the policies of Reed Elsevier. The role of organizations in marshalling this support was vital. Reed Elsevier is a multi-billion dollar business. Corporations such as this can easily dismiss individual protests, but it is much more difficult to ignore the efforts of well-organised and persistent lobby groups and organisations. Individuals can easily burn out. The support which members of groups can provide to each other and to other groups is important to sustain morale and to attract new interest. As the campaign grew, the role of the lay press also became increasingly important.

Lessons for Australia

How would such a campaign have progressed in Australia? My sense is that it is unlikely to have progressed at anything like the same rate. To date, I am unaware of any significant coverage of this issue by the Australian press or academic journals, including the Medical Journal of Australia. In contrast, two recent editorials have been published in leading international journals critical of the muzzling and timidity of Australian expression24 including through the censoring way in which Australian science is funded.25

Australians were once renowned for their larrikinism and questioning spirit, while the British population was bound by conservatism and class structures. The Australian population is now more than one third that of the UK. Yet, my impression is that we now have nowhere near one third of the activists and dissenting intellectuals of that country, some of whom – such as Geoffrey Robertson and John Pilger – are Australian expatriates. The reasons for the recent Australian trend to self-censorship and timidity are complex, and beyond the main scope of this article. But I think they lie partly in the history of post-Aboriginal Australia, and partly in our post World War II alliance with the US. Cut off from motherland of Europe, those of us with European ancestry look to our near North with a curious mix of fear, contempt and fascination. This dries a cultural shift towards the US, where dissent is also difficult. Our dispersal within this vast continent may also hinder the development of clusters of intellectual dissent of sufficient critical mass.

I can’t speak for the increasing proportion of Australians of Asian origin, but I suspect their voice in calling for greater Australian activism for human and environmental rights (including in Asia, such as the current egregious oppression of the people of Burma) is also muted. Perhaps this is in part because they fear or sense an anti-Asian racism, which perhaps might be heightened if they were to challenge the dominant Australian ethos with regard to human rights. Whatever the reasons, I close this essay by appealing for Australians, of all origins, to be more courageous. We need to speak out against the arms trade, the corruption of publishers, and the failure to tackle climate change. We need to think that advancing the sustainability transition might entail at least as many opportunities as risks. Finally, we need to form broad coalitions, within and beyond health. Health needs to link not only with the environmental and peace lobbies but also with those concerned with development, human rights, and all other forms of social justice. The campaign against Reed Elsevier shows that, if we are united and persistent, a great deal can be accomplished.


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