By Kam Sandhu @KamBass
While most thinktanks are transparent about funding, some of the UK’s most influential versions remain opaque about where their money comes from. We spoke to Till Bruckner, Advocacy Manager for Transparify which aims to promote financial transparency amongst think tanks, about his work, how UK think tanks stack up against the rest of the world, and why it’s important to have transparency from the organisations hoping to influence UK policy.
What kind of influence can think tanks have on society?
At their best, think tanks expand and deepen the range of policy options under consideration, and stimulate public discussion of these options. They are a vital component of modern democracies. Imagine a world without think tanks. The state, state-funded universities and (maybe) political parties would have a virtual monopoly on conducting policy research and advocating for solutions. I don’t think many people would want to live in a polity like that.
Also, it’s useful to remember that ‘think tank’ is a blurry concept. For example, Oxfam do a lot of policy research and advocacy, so in some respects, they could be considered to be, in part, a think tank. Democracy thrives on multiple voices and viewpoints being heard.
Internationally, where have you found the worst examples of opacity in funding and how does the UK fare against these?
Spain probably has the least transparent think tank scene for which reliable data exists. Even many think tanks officially linked to political parties in Spain do not disclose their funding. In the UK, most major think tanks now disclose who funds them, often in great detail. The number of transparent think tanks keeps growing. Clearly, most UK think tanks do not feel that they have anything to hide.
However, there are exceptions to this rule. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London has secretly taken at least £25 million from the oil-rich Gulf monarchy Bahrain over the course of several years. The IISS is one of the largest national security think tanks in the world, with around 110 employees, and over a number of years it concealed that a large share of its money comes from a foreign government located in a politically and militarily volatile region on which the IISS frequently provides policy advice.
Have thinktanks also been responsible for fake news?
Yes. The prime example is the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA), a fake think tank based in Paris. In December 2016, the CPFA nominated the Russian president for a Nobel Peace Prize, claiming that “[Putin] is the only one who is truly fighting terrorism.” The story was carried by at least one global wire service and got traction in the mainstream UK media as well as in news outlets as far away as India and Japan.
The CPFA describes itself as a think tank, thereby giving the impression that it is an institution committed to serious research and intellectual integrity, and thus a legitimate voice in policy debates. However, the CPFA does not disclose its funders. Its president Fabien Baussart has frequently been described as a former lobbyist for Russian oligarchs in French newspapers and intelligence journals. In hindsight, the entire Nobel nomination appears to have been a pro-Putin propaganda stunt launched by a front group for Russian interests, and multiple media outlets blindly ran the fake news it generated.
To give another example, in the run-up to the recent UK general election the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in London released a statement denouncing one party’s manifesto as “delusional and incoherent”. (The IEA has since taken down the statement from its website, but an archived version is still available online.) Even though the IEA did not back up its claims with a study, and refuses to disclose who funds it, at least two major UK news outlets covered its commentary, thus providing traction to a dark money group’s apparent effort to tilt the electoral scale.
Using a fake think tank to generate fake news seems to be easy to do, and can be done without breaking any existing laws.
UK think tank Policy Exchange has had a lot influence on social policy, including housing. Environment Minister Michael Gove was chairman when it was founded in 2002, yet according to Transparify the institute is ranked as one of the three least transparent thinktanks in the UK. Can you tell us what you came up against in trying to find their funding sources?
Transparify does not investigate think tanks. We simply visit think tanks’ websites and note whether they themselves voluntarily disclose who funds them. In the case of Policy Exchange, two of our raters could find no funding information on their website. As with all think tanks, we emailed Policy Exchange and invited them to point out any link we might have overlooked. They did not flag any such link, so we concluded that Policy Exchange is financially highly opaque and gave it a zero-star rating.
Also, rather than ranking think tanks, we rate them. It’s a small but important distinction. Leaving aside the IISS, which we rated as “deceptive”, Policy Exchange is in the lowest category of transparency.
Is the Adam Smith Institute the worst for transparency in the UK? Can you tell us a bit about your experiences in dealing with them/trying to find out about their funding.
The Adam Smith Institute also received a zero-star rating. It seems to be importing ‘dark money’ techniques long practiced in the United States into the UK.
When we looked at the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), the most striking thing is that it doesn’t even appear to formally exist in the UK. The Charity Commission website does not list the Adam Smith Institute as a charity. However, it does list the Adam Smith Research Trust, a charity (number 802750) founded in 1989 whose trustees are also the co-founders of the Adam Smith Institute. On an ASI donations page, the Adam Smith Research Trust is named as the recipient for donations. The Trust’s 2015 expenditures were £224,176. Nearly all of that money was spent on research grants and “researcher payments”. ASI disclosed neither the sources nor the destinations of these funds.
Meanwhile, in the United States, there is a private foundation called the Adam Smith Institute which also lists the London ASI’s co-founders among its trustees. It is registered as a tax-exempt non-profit. The foundation’s most recent available tax filing shows that it received over $1.2 million in funds over the course of 2015 alone. Its funders included the JP Humphreys Foundation, which has reportedly also bankrolled the US-based Heartland Institute, notorious for launching a campaign that claimed that “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” The U.S. tax filing also reports that against an income of $1.2 million, the American offshoot of ASI only spent $5,118 inside the U.S. during the whole year. It lists nothing under the heading “charitable activities”.
So was some or all of the $1.2 million transferred to London to finance political advocacy within the UK? We simply don’t know. That’s how dark money works.
Adam Smith Institute is very influential and essentially is the namebearer of the free market economics which dominates the UK. What do you think it says when it is also one of the most opaque thinktanks we have?
The Adam Smith Institute seems to feel that it has something to hide. You’ll need to ask ASI itself why it refuses to disclose its funders.
What have been the key motives for thinktanks to hide their funding sources in your experience?
The main reason is institutional inertia, because until a few years ago, most think tanks did not disclose their funding sources. Now norms and expectations have changed, but some think tanks have yet to catch up. Remember that opacity is not necessarily the result of actively ‘hiding’ something, it’s what results by default if you don’t actively disclose your funding, which takes a bit of effort.
However, in the UK, that explanation no longer applies. WhoFundsYou? and Transparify have for years called on British think tanks to disclose their funding, and Transparify has directly contacted all think tanks covered by our study multiple times over several years. It’s safe to assume that the think tanks we rated as highly opaque remain so not by accident, but because they made a conscious decision to keep their funding sources secret. Funders themselves very rarely request anonymity – we know this from the experiences of dozens of think tanks in the UK and beyond that did chose to open their books. Apparently, a small minority of think tanks feel they have something to hide.
We recently interviewed journalist Adam Ramsay who is investigating the use of Dark Money in the EU Referendum. He said unless thinktanks reveal where money comes from, we should think of them as corporate lobbyists. Would you agree? Would it create change if we were to think in these terms?
The single-minded focus on corporate funding is misplaced. All funders have interests, not just corporate funders. Opaque think tanks could equally be lobbying for a foundation, for a foreign dictatorship, or for a wealthy individual seeking to promote a pet cause – nobody knows because they are opaque.
Having said that, accepting policy advice from an opaque think tank at face value is like eating in a halal restaurant that refuses to tell you where it sources its meat.
Dark money feels like a new and intense phenomenon, but have opaque thinktanks essentially exploited this method for some time? Should we think about that in the same terms?
The dark money technique involves creating a network of opaque organisations whose collective money flows are untraceable, so the public and policy makers can no longer tell who is funding supposedly independent non-profit groups. In the U.S., dark money techniques are already well-established across the political spectrum – the Koch Brothers on the right and the Clinton Foundation on the left are maybe the most famous examples.
In the UK, dark money is a comparatively new phenomenon and it’s extremely worrying because the current legal and regulatory environment leaves the British political system wide open to abuse by hidden manipulators. With some minor legal tweaks, American dark money techniques can easily be copied and applied in the UK and across Europe, and many players are waking up to the opportunities this presents for hidden manipulation. We need a public debate about whether there is any way we can tackle the problem without curtailing freedom of association and freedom of speech.
A first and simple step would be to demand that the BBC and other mainstream media outlets stop citing studies and ‘experts’ from opaque outfits. If you are financially opaque, you are refusing to play by universal democratic rules, so you are not a legitimate participant in democratic debates. The British media justifiably complain about falling advertising revenues, but at the same time, they often provide free advertising for policy ideas pushed by opaque think tanks that take money from hidden hands behind closed doors.
When citizens see a TV programme or newspaper doing this, they should contact the responsible editor and flag the issue. Transparify did this once with the New York Times and the newspaper promptly pledged to be more careful in future about whom it quotes and whose op-eds it runs. This is an area where individual citizens really can, and should, make a difference. Just send an email or Tweet to the person responsible and tell them that you care – not because you don’t like the ideology of think tank X or Y, but because you care about the media’s role in upholding core democratic principles.
Is there any similarity between the thinktanks in the UK who are more opaque? Are there any common threads?
Some commentators have noted that Transparify’s 2017 ratings showed that a handful of free market think tanks in the UK take money from hidden hands behind closed doors. However, there are transparent and opaque think tanks across the political spectrum. For example, left-of-centre Policy Network did not disclose up-to-date donor information when Transparify assessed it. (Policy Network has since listed its 2016 funders on its website.) Across the Atlantic, the world’s most prominent conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, has long been transparent about where it gets its money from.
London’s Institute for Economic Affairs is highly opaque, but Kenya’s prime free market think tanks, also called the Institute for Economic Affairs, is one of the most transparent think tanks in the world. IEA Kenya has argued that if it is not transparent itself, it cannot legitimately demand transparency from the Kenyan government. I think that really hits the nail on the head. It’s not about your political leanings, it’s about whether you play by democratic rules or not.
How does the US fare against the UK in this area?
Our website features four bibliographies discussing examples of dubious conduct by think tanks in the U.S., the UK and beyond, but it’s important to emphasize that most respectable think tanks are appalled by this kind of behaviour.
In fact, respectable think tanks are the biggest victims of the handful of rogue players who can give the entire sector a bad name. For this reason, most major think tanks in the U.S. and UK have decided to voluntarily disclose who funds them – they want to draw a clear line between themselves and the stealth lobbyists who abuse and devalue the think tank label.
At Transparify, our team is made up of current and former think tankers, and our mission is to support respectable think tanks in publicly drawing that line. While we should remain watchful, we should also welcome the positive contributions that intellectually independent and transparent ‘ideas factories’ can make to our democracy.