Transparency, Lobbying and Fake News: how transparent are think tanks?

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Never has it been more critical to understand think tanks and their activities which often shape the news and are highly influential. But how transparent are they about who funds them? And how confident can we be in the integrity of their research and their intellectual independence? The organisation Transparify provides the first-ever global rating of the financial transparency of major think tanks and today released its 2017 report on 27 British think tanks. This is something that’s much needed elsewehere in the world in the age of ‘fake news’ and the so-called ‘post-truth era’. According to the report ‘Seven dark money groups spend £22 million to influence UK politics.’ More on dark money later.

The good news is that the Tax Justice Network once again gets top marks and is among those ranked as ‘highly transparent’. But the bad news, in the words of Transparify: ‘We identified seven highly opaque and deceptive “think tanks” in Britain that take money from hidden hands behind closed doors.’ You can see the results here:

TransparentThinktanks

You may notice that among the seven most opaque, and in one case, even deceptive think tanks, are influential voices on economic affairs that are all over the media.

There are shocking examples of all that’s wrong with opaque think tanks in the report. One example we’ll highlight is the part of the report which details the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) and its role in ‘stealth lobbying.’ They say that it is “unclear who gives the money that funds its lobbying efforts” but that “according to TobaccoTactics, ASI has repeatedly lobbied against anti-smoking policies while receiving funding from the tobacco industry.” This interests us not least because of our project Tax Tobacco for Life which is a campaign set up by the Tax Justice Network to challenge the power of Big Tobacco, especially in lower-income countries, to prevent the right tax policies that are proven to cut consumption and save lives.

There are plenty more worrying examples demonstrating the problems detailed and we’d strongly encourage you to read Transparify’s report in full.

We’d also like to draw your attention to an alarming article on this same subject written by British journalist George Monbiot entitled Dark Arts: How a dark money network is taking power on both sides of the Atlantic. Dark money, he explains “is the term used in the US for the undisclosed funding of organisations involved in political advocacy.”

He goes on,

“Soon after the Second World War, some of America’s richest people began setting up a network of thinktanks to promote their interests. These purport to offer dispassionate opinions on public affairs. But they are more like corporate lobbyists, working on behalf of those who founded and fund them. These are the organisations now running much of the Trump administration.”

He argues,

“We have no hope of understanding what is coming until we understand how the dark money network operates.”

Today’s report, in the words of Till Bruckner, Transparify’s Advocacy Manager:

“seeks to bolster the credibility of serious think tanks while flagging a minority of players whose behaviour indicates that they may have something to hide…Do we want to listen to opaque outfits that refuse to come clean about who their paymasters are, or do we prefer to place our trust in transparent think tanks that adhere to democratic norms?  The choice is ours to make.”

Indeed. We hope the media are paying attention.

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