Does it matter who funds think tanks?

From time to time, the perennial worry about the power of money in elections seeps through into broader areas. After all, people will say, what’s the point of controlling expenditure by political parties if voters can by influenced by big-spending campaigns by private individuals on particular issues?

The problem with that line of thinking is that it has no real end point. Just about anything can potentially be a political issue, and controlling what people can say about it is an unlimited license to trespass on free speech. Hence the alarmingly open-ended nature of the Victorian government’s recent legislation on the subject.

But a particular area of concern is, of course, the think tank. Think tanks, even if they claim to be non-partisan, set out to influence public opinion on political issues. Many of them are obviously well-funded, yet their sources of funding are usually not disclosed to the public.

Does that matter?

Julia Baird, who hosts The Drum on the ABC, argued a fortnight ago that it is important to listen to those that we disagree with, but said there was a “genuine concern … about disclosure of funding,” and that “it would be far better if think tanks were legally required to reveal all funding, so we can best assess contributions to public debate.”

This drew a response from Simon Cowan, who works – as I once did – at the Centre for Independent Studies. He argues that “ideas should stand or fall on their merits” rather than on the basis of who funds them, and that “any implication that we take our positions to appease our funders is unfair and untrue.”

For what it’s worth, I believe Cowan’s denial. I was never asked to tailor anything that I wrote or published at the CIS to meet a donor’s wishes; most of the time I had no idea who the donors were. I have no reason to think that situation has changed.

Nonetheless, Cowan’s argument misses the point. He is essentially asking the reader to take his claim of independence on trust. If readers know where the money is coming from, they can judge for themselves whether what’s being put forward is really independent of financial considerations. If they don’t, they are left in the dark.

Why is that important – shouldn’t we be dealing, as Cowan says, “with the substance of ideas; not the identity of their speaker”? It matters because the personnel of think tanks are not empty vessels: they are intelligent, articulate people, often highly qualified. Implicitly, their status is part of the argument.

The audience is being invited to think, “well, if such a thoughtful person believes this, it must be worthy of consideration.” If an alternative explanation is available that the audience is not aware of – namely that the speaker is only saying what a large donor wants them to – then something important has been left out.

It all takes me back to 2006, when libertarian pundit Doug Bandow was sacked by the Cato Institute after it was revealed that he had been taking money on the side from a crooked lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.

You can read Bandow’s explanation here; although in form it’s an apology, it seems to me that he still didn’t really get it. As I said at the time:

There’s nothing wrong with writing for money … [b]ut if you expect to be taken seriously, your readers need to know where the money is coming from, so they can form their own judgement about whether that affects what you say. If you write for a newspaper or  magazine, they can look at the advertisements to get an idea of who’s ultimately paying the bills.

The problem with “cash for comment” isn’t the cash, but the lack of disclosure. Bandow, just like Alan Jones and John Laws, was getting money that his audience didn’t know about. What looked like disinterested opinion was actually being paid for by someone with an axe to grind.

I like Bandow’s stuff, and I’m quite happy to believe him when he says “I never took a position contrary to my beliefs” and “it’s silly to suggest that a thousand dollars or so would buy my opinion.” But that’s not the point. His readers should have been allowed to make up their own minds about that, and he was keeping important information from them.

Cowan would have us believe that donors need to have their anonymity protected for their own safety, otherwise they would face “Smears, slander and even threats of violence.” But I confess that I find that implausible. It seems to me it is the reputation of the think tanks themselves that he is really shielding: the Institute of Public Affairs, for example, is more likely to be attacked for taking money from Gina Rinehart than the other way around.

While I think Cowan has got this wrong, I have little sympathy with Baird’s position either. Government-enforced disclosure would be a gigantic can of worms. Her argument amounts to passing the buck: television programmers should put on anyone they like – indeed, should positively relish the ideological diversity – and then the government should take care of informing the audience about their bona fides.

She does note that the ABC tells her guests, among other things, that “It may also be necessary to reveal funding sources of organisations you are associated with if they are relevant.” But there is no indication that this is ever enforced in any way.

Moreover, “associated with” gives quite the wrong impression. This is not like an expert who holds a visiting fellowship somewhere as a sideline to their main career. The people the critics are concerned about are employees of an organisation, whose job is to promote that organisation’s point of view. In that context, the nature of the organisation’s funding is a key part of the picture.

Instead of asking the government to do their dirty work for them, media organisations should politely but firmly insist that their guests need to do a better job at disclosure.

2 thoughts on “Does it matter who funds think tanks?

  1. Well put. To amplify the above: the identity of who’s paying a particular piper matters because it can create a strong barrier – doubtless subconscious in our own selves, but screamingly obvious when it manifests in other people – against changing one’s mind.
    Suppose I am vehemently anti-soccer and write lengthy, eloquent columns attacking soccer and praising rugby. So the World Rugby Alliance starts funding my writing. But then I hit middle age, have a mid-life crisis, and start to reconsider what I once held dear. It is quite possible that I might publicly recant – as other public intellectuals have done on issues that were once important to them (eg, David Blankenhorn, David Brock, Howard Fast, Michael Lind, Damon Linker, and Ignacio Silone, off the top of my head). But if that would mean having to find new donors (we lose the house, my children lose their health insurance and must change schools, etc), it’s entirely possible I might devote my considerable polemical gifts to devising all sorts of ingenious arguments shooting down every individual piece of contrary evidence.
    Mind you, this can still happen even when no cheques are changing hands. (I’ve got a treasured copy of an article from Green Left Weekly, early 1987, leftsplaining how Gorbachev’s democratic reforms were re-kick-starting socialism in the USSR so that it was going to totally pWn the capitalist running-dogs in the Western media any day now). But it’s particularly so when recanting puts one’s next mortgage school fees/ levy and car checkup payments at risk. Why jeopardise your family’s wellbeing needlessly based on mere intellectual qualms?

    Like

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