Think tanks and financial transparency

Last week’s Question Time introduced one of the panelists, Kate Andrews from the “Institute of Economic Affairs“. What an organisation name! It sounds so official. So governmental. So trustworthy

…yeah not so much.

The name sounded familiar to me from some recent reading on dodgy think tank funding transparency. It prompted me to look up their rankings on transparify.org:

This image is modified version of the one on the transparify blog. You can read much more about how and why transparify have ranked the think tanks on the website. Transparify have zoomed in on the issue of funding transparency because it’s important. If we are to have these “think tank” organisations dedicating themselves to swaying public opinion one way or another, then isn’t it important to know who is paying them to do it?

Well maybe it depends how influential they are. It occurs to me that “think tanks” exist as part of a fuzzily defined spectrum. An individual can set up a wordpress site and start pumping out blogs and social media posts pushing their political viewpoint. That’s a wonderfully easy thing to do, and I’m glad. But then if you name this website “Institute of X” and pretend to be an organisation not an individual, then you’re well on the way to being a “think tank”. If some wealthy backer wants to pay you to hire a team, and work on pumping the messages full time, then that is a think tank. It’s a natural progression to this situation where it feels like there’s a cost-effective way for wealthy individuals or organisations to buy influence over our politics.

But it’s OK. The key remaining barrier is whether we all grant them acceptance and influence (and whether mainstream media do e.g. by inviting them to be panelist on BBC Question Time!). We should be rejecting organisations who fail to disclose exactly what they are, who they are, and who they are funded by. If we don’t know who is paying the salary of Kate Andrews from the “Institute of Economic Affairs”, isn’t it rather sinister that she has been able to gain such a platform?

If you saw the show then you may remain unconvinced, after all Kate Andrews was talking a lot of sense on there right? She’s intelligent, charismatic, and persuasive. I was finding myself agreeing with her even as I was surfing around the transparify website! I was waiting for her to drop a right-wing free-market help-the-rich-get-richer bombshell. She talked on a lot of topics without touching on this, and when it came it was so subtly slipped in at the end of a debate on climate change, that it passed without any cross-examination.

Maybe that’s just good politics. Don’t try to ram your message down people’s throats. Say things that people agree with, and slip your message in. But I suspect that kind of obfuscation game is a think tank speciality. A while ago I followed a tweet to humanprogress.org, and it’s bothered me ever since, because again I found myself agreeing with so much of it. I enjoyed these optimistic pro-science articles, but look out! Slipped in there you’ll find various dubious messages: “inequality doesn’t matter”, “deforestation isn’t happening”, “fossil fuels are the best energy source”, “be happy with your menial existence and help us get richer”. OK I made that last one up, but the others are all messages in articles on that site, all cunningly tucked between other more enjoyable (and more correct) writing. humanprogress.org is one of many sub-brands of content pumped out by the ¬†American right wing think tank with wealthy backers:¬†Cato Institute.

But I guess that’s just dodgy politics as usual, and I’m criticising Cato Institute based on my own political views. I’m quite happy to do so, but to be fair, they do OK on financial transparency. Middling score from transparify.

What transparify do so well is to focus on just that one aspect of think tanks, financial transparency, in a non-partisan very objectively measured manner. It’s possible to do so, and while it won’t solve all the problems with dodgy think tank politics, it is a great starting point for penetrating the sinister goings on behind these organisations which influence our politics. It should be a clear “untrustworthy” red flag if organisations regardless of political flavour, are failing to disclose details of who is backing them financially.

Which dodgy characters will the BBC be inviting onto Question Time tonight I wonder?