What Tony Blair should have written to Saif Gaddafi
According to this morning's papers Tony Blair, who had been sent a chunk of Saif Gaddafi's thesis, wrote back to him, thanking him for showing him his "interesting thesis" and giving him a few examples that might help his research (ill-fated research, as it turned out, in more ways than one).This has apparently been revealed in documents that have turned up in Tripoli, and a Blair spokesperson has explained that (although the letter was signed by TB) he hadn't actually read the thesis and the whole thing had been drafted by "officials".
Let's assume two things. One (this is fairly likely): that Saif had written to Blair asking him to read his work and also asking for a bit of help. Two (rather less likely -- but you never know): that any graduate student who wrote to number 10 asking for some help with their thesis would get the backroom boys and girls finding them some good examples for their doctorate.
On those assumptions, my reaction is that Blair and his team hadn't learned the lesson that most academics quickly learn... who tend to be deluged with requests by people (from novelists and doctoral students to primary school kids writing a project) asking them to read their work, and/or to give a bibliography, or to "tell me what you know about".
It's always a tricky one, but you begin to get a nose for a right answer.
You are weighing up (in my case at least) two considerations that pull in very different ways. On the one hand, I think that I have a duty to the subject and to helping people find out about it. If a kid who seems to have got enthused about ancient Greece and wants a bit of advice about how to take that further, surely you should help. At the same time, if a masters or doctoral student at some other university is working on a subject that is part of your "territory"... then I think that there is a presumption that you should be interested in them and give a hand (and I think I have a pretty good record at that).
But if I read everything I was asked to, and gave a full bibliography to everyone who emailed in for one, I wouldn't have any time for any of my own work at all. And just occasionally I get the feeling that I am being a bit "used" -- whether to compensate for someone who is not doing their superivisory job elsewhere (and whose university is taking the fat fee), or to be an innocent weapon in some battle between a student and their long suffering supervisor ("Mary Beard said..."), or just to save the person's time of half an hour googling. And sometimes I get the feeling that the innocent inquirer has actually written round to half the classical world asking for a bibliography on gladiators or whatever. (Those I guess are the ones who cant be bothered to send an email to thank you, even though they could be bothered to email you to ask you the question.)
So I have a variety of strategies, while still trying to be helpful ... I sometimes ask how many people have they sent the "I am doing a project on Roman London..." email to. Sometimes I suggest they start with their own teacher, then come to me. Sometimes I ask what they have already done to find out about the subject... This doesnt work badly, and actually I have made some good friends this way. As I say, you get a nose for it, and how to help those who need/deserve the help -- while not being a complete mug and spending an hour assembling the information that they could have done themselves. (The same goes with requests for how to visit Pompeii... it's great when you have some feedback and people tell you about how it worked )or not); when you give a load of advice about places, sitesm transport and hotels, and you dont even get an acknowledgment... AAGGGHHH.
So what should Blair have done? Well, my hunch is that he should have written back suggesting that Saif's supervisor at LSE was the best resource on this (he or his staff ought to have wanted to get a scent if there was a problem here -- there clearly was). Anyway sending off some half relevant example never really helps anyone; that's not what a PhD is about really.
And he (or his staff) should NEVER have sort of implied that he had read the work sent in by Saif when he hadn't.
Any academic would have told him that trouble always comes that way -- as indeed it has in this case.