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June 19, 2012 / Stephanie Vermillion

Class trip to Chatham House, a British think tank

Chatham House, London, England, from The Guardian

Chatham House, London, England, from The Guardian

Chatham House (picture from The Guardian) Our International Political and Media Systems class ended for the semester today with field trip to the Chatham House, a think tank and home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs for 90 years. It’s best known for “Independent thinking on international affairs,” as stated in its slogan.

While getting out of the classroom to learn is always a welcome option for us, this Chatham House trip was especially interesting because we saw firsthand how British think tanks work and learned the history behind the Chatham House rule.

The visit started with the class sitting in on a panel discussion about Iraq’s current situation and future with several prominent speakers. While the panel was quite interesting, I think my favorite part of that session was question time (always a fun time), when the panel host made clear that questions must be quick questions – and definitely not statements.

Thankfully for our enjoyment, the first question-asker, a little old English man, disregarded that rule and went into a two-minute statement about why the panel was completely wrong on basically every issue. I’m not sure if hearing his cute, angry accent or watching the annoyed panel host’s face was more enjoyable, but it definitely reminded me why question time at any open meeting is always worth staying for (think neighborhood association meeting, Dad).

In the second portion of our tour, we talked with Chatham House employees who told us a little about what they did on a day-to-day basis in this well-known, independent British think tank. Much of the work at Chatham House is research, followed by developing suggestions for policy makers in hopes of creating a prosperous, more secure global world. Their mission statement is as follows:

“To be a world-leading source of independent analysis, informed debate and influential ideas on how to build a prosperous and secure world for all.”

After learning a bit more about the organization, including development and membership options (took me right back to Nonprofit PR class), they gave us insight on what exactly the Chatham House rule is. It’s basically a journalist’s worst nightmare.

In short, the rule states that whatever is said in the Chatham House, even with journalists present, is off the record and no attributions can be made to any statements. Conversation materials can be used for articles, but sources must remain anonymous (and anonymous sources are like nails on a chalkboard in the journalism industry).

This Chatham House trip was a great way to end our official final day of CM 744 class (although somehow we have another out-of-classtime CM 744 trip next week?), not just for the inside scoop we got on British think tanks, but also because hearing the words anonymous source and off the record made me remember how happy I am I switched to the world of PR!

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