Who funds you? Series 72743657393, Episode 293474565839
It’s more unusual to see it on TV, as was the case last week on BBC Question Time, when our Head of Media’s debut was interrupted by the SNP politician Alyn Smith MP intoning the stock line, before being swatted away with “how boring of you”. Chastised, he quickly moved on, perhaps suddenly remembering he was there to answer the audience’s questions rather than craft tweets for trolls.
The IEA’s stock answer to this question is to direct people to the extensive Q&A on the website. Due a post-pandemic update, it nevertheless sets out the debate between donor transparency and privacy, discloses some donors who wish to be disclosed, highlights the difference between the work of think tanks and paid lobbyists, and directly addresses the question ‘who funds you’.
The stock response to receiving this link, almost without exception is to claim it does not answer the question, and again suggest everyone working for the IEA must be a paid mouthpiece for a shadowy interest with malintent. Underlining the conclusion:
“Sadly, the expression ‘who funds you’ is almost never deployed by people wishing to debate these issues, but as an attempt to delegitimise the other ideas being debated”
It’s a pity because the transparency question for think tanks is nuanced and can be interesting. It would for example be perfectly reasonable for the IEA’s critics to set out how they wish to change to law to encourage greater transparency across all think tanks and related bodies, and to debate that change with those impacted. It’s the sort of thing a think tank might write a paper about, if they could fund it.
A typical error on the left is to assume that because think tanks comment on public policy issues and sometimes very visibly they must be subject to the same rules of transparency as elected politicians, who must disclose their interests and funding, particularly around elections, or when speaking in Parliament.
But this isn’t correct. The rules governing transparency in the public realm are there because politicians and senior civil servants are making decisions about the law and expenditure of public – i.e. your – money. They are prohibited from representing paying interests and must uphold published standards in public life. Think tanks are private organisations publishing their own material. They cannot influence the law or do anything that results in the expenditure of public resources unless a politician likes their ideas. The lynchpin for public scrutiny is the politician not the think tank.
A second, marginally more sophisticated (albeit silly) level to the complaint is that think tanks are just ‘dark money lobbyists’, and we do regulate lobbying transparency (poorly in my view). So why not think tanks?
A major difference is that we don’t and can’t lobby on behalf paying clients. Our research is peer reviewed, our researchers and their output protected from donor influence by high standards. Both types of organisations do meet with politicians, but so do thousands of other bodies, meaning the only way of sensibly regulating transparency of contact is again by focusing on the politician, not the type of body.
Some think tanks may have lower standards, but anyone caught writing conclusions or offering ministerial access for cash would see their brand trashed and likely face closure. You’d have a hard job finding such examples, let alone public scandals, on the scale of ‘cash for questions’ or similar. The self-regulating free market for thought in that regard is working well, think tanks are not major sources of scandal and controversy. The best funded think tanks further tend to be the ones that look after their reputation by publishing good quality material free from influence, beyond their guiding ideology, in our case free markets and the free society.
The apex of the Who Funds You campaign from the IEA’s perspective was 2018, when Greenpeace invented a claim that the organisation was engaging in cash for access. This was based on 15 minutes of footage from a 6-month sting that unremarkably showed the Director General talking about what think tanks do (including pointing out that donors cannot influence which conclusions we are going to reach). Their subsequent complaints were reviewed by the respective regulators of lobbying and charities, investigated, and dismissed without action by both. A fact that is often curiously omitted by those referencing the incident. The WFU campaign website disappeared about a year later, and Transparify, another campaign, stopped updating theirs around the same time.
One difficulty both campaigns had is that they were essentially asking for think tanks to set their own disclosure standards without defining what those should be, how they might be consistently applied, or for what benefit, with what unintended consequences. This makes a mockery of the notion that if only the IEA etc. did ‘X’, the partisan attacks would stop. But it is worth considering ‘X’.
For example, many think tanks are charities, many are not, and some have a dual structure. The reason for this has nothing to do with funding, but the ambiguity of charity law around activities that might be considered ‘too political’. The IEA’s Plan A+ case, for example, where we overturned an improperly applied direction to destroy a book, highlighted bias in the regulator and the absurdity of state regulation of words that boiled down to whether we said ‘should’ or ‘could’ when proposing ideas.
Should (sorry could) all charities be required to declare their donations? Should only education charities, including for example all schools and universities? Or just think tanks, in which case how do you define a think tank? Are for example university public policy departments or trade union research arms think tanks? What then about non-charitable think tanks? Is the issue activities not structures?
Should all donations be transparent? Or only those over a threshold? Should this be aligned with lobbying rules, third party donations to political parties, or some other standard, and why?
How do you deal with disguised donations? The Adam Smith Institute for example noted that if they created a body called ‘The Dark Money Trust’, directed all former donors there, and then declared 100% of their donations to be from that source, they would get the top transparency rating from both WFU and Transparify. How many donations to Greenpeace for example have come indirectly from state subsidies to renewable energy companies? Would knowing that encourage you to believe that Greenpeace only support the environment for that reason?
How do you deal with the utilisation of such data to incite targeted hate? If I give money to a body helping in the Ukraine, I quite reasonably do not expect to have my name plastered on a website that can be read by Russian state actors. The comparison may seem extreme, but IEA staff were getting threats of violence, both physical and sexual, during the height of the 2018 disputes. Regulators and campaigners pursued some people rightly or wrongly associated with winning the 2016 referendum pathologically, attempting to achieve their destitution through lawfare, rather than accept they lost a fair vote.
The toxic hate that can be incurred by dissenting from societal orthodoxies is not a fantasy, there is a reason why donors may wish to preserve their privacy. And there is a reason why they may prefer to support think tanks, whose job is to think the unthinkable rather than be a target for hate.
More mundanely if you yourself ask this question what does it say about you? Was Alyn Smith telling us that he himself is purely a mouthpiece for SNP donors? That he has no agency, no ability to think for himself and can only act as a cipher for others? That the only thing that keeps him true to himself is the level of transparency applied to MPs? If he’s not saying that, then what point is being made? That he doesn’t think free market, liberal or conservative views can be held independent of sinister paying interests? That he doesn’t think young women can think for themselves? That he has some idea how to answer all the questions above with a sensible proposal for consistent reform?
More likely he was performatively regurgitating the line, handed to him by a researcher looking for punchy attack lines for his big day on the telly, and hasn’t got the first clue about any of this stuff. I could be wrong though, and if so, we’d like to invite Alyn and a second of his choice to debate think tank funding transparency with the IEA team, and maybe we can find some common ground on reform?