The power behind power…

City of London, construction

I wrote a complaint to the BBC today. I have never done this before, so now can make proper claim to the term ‘grumpy old man’. This was the substance of my complaint;

On several programmes recently in which current affairs spokespersons have been invited to comment, the BBC has invited comment from right wing think tanks, such as the Adam Smith Institute. One example of this was a programme called ‘University Unchallenged’, on radio 4 on Monday the 12th of November, but this is a far from isolated example.

My concern is not that members of these think tanks are invited to comment, but rather that their bias is hidden behind a veil of independent expertise. If this bias is not announced before they comment then listeners/watchers are open to deception.

When we give a platform to someone who has a fixed opinion that is vested in political and ideological bias then this needs to be explained to listeners/viewers. This is particularly the case with right wing think tanks who often operate hand in hand with government and arguably act more like lobbyists than academic researchers.

If the BBC is to guard it’s hard won reputation for fairness, it can not ignore the fact that the Adam Smith Institute, and similar organisations (for example the Centre for Policy Studies) are funded by powerful organisations who have a narrow agenda. Not to make this clear when seeking comment from them is highly problematic.

Of course, this should also apply to left wing think tanks such as the Fabian society, the Centre for Social Justice, or the New Economics Foundation.

Why did I bother? Why does this matter?

Well, I think that we are entering time of profound change. The great disruptors have centre stage (Trump and Brexit). Old stabilities and orders are being destroyed. Into this vacuum will step a number of forces and vested interests, for good or ill. They will get a chance to shape the story of our nation for generations to come.

Think about this for a moment- what defined the story of the UK over the last fifty-sixty years? What makes you proudest? For me, it was our commitment to universal healthcare and a welfare state genuinely aimed at reducing poverty. There were failures and successes, but for the most part, there was political will.

But over the last twenty or thirty years, opposition to the institutions and principles of the welfare state has been hard at work. Money has been poured in to bodies whose sole purpose was to weaponise contrary stories and ideas.The nasty face of this was the right wing press, but beyond this, silky smooth and reeking of soft power, are the Think Tanks.

It worked. Austerity was sold to us as the only rational response to economic decline, and it was sold to us in such a way that we took it like a bitter pill, necessary to treat our own sickness. It was then logical to wind back all of the tools of the welfare state. Shrink public spending. Reduce taxation. Make more and more space in the public sphere for private profit.

The effect in our society are clear to see. The rich richer, the poor ignored. Inequality is back to Edwardian levels.

Meanwhile, we see the UN special report into UK poverty saying things like this (my emphases.)

. British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society…

… As I spoke with local authorities and the voluntary sector about their preparations for the future rollout of Universal Credit, I was struck by how much their mobilization resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic. They have expended significant expense and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system…

According to the National Audit Office, local governments in England have seen a 49% real-terms reduction in Government funding from 2010-11 to 2017-18 alongside a rise in demand for key social services….

…By emphasizing work as a panacea for poverty against all evidence and dismantling the community support, benefits, and public services on which so many rely, the government has created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences….

To address poverty systematically and effectively it is essential to know its extent and character.Yet the United Kingdom does not have an official measure of poverty. It produces four different measures of people who live on “below average income.” This allows it to pick and choose which numbers to use and to claim that “absolute poverty” is falling. Seen in context, however,other measures show that progress in reducing poverty has flat lined, child poverty is rising, and poverty is projected to rise in the coming years…

The government told me that there are 3.3 million more people in work than in 2010, that so called “absolute poverty” is falling, and that the social support system is working. An elected official added that there is no extreme poverty in the UK and nothing like the levels of destitution seen in other countries. But there is a striking and almost complete disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from many people directly, across the countryPeople I spoke with told me they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children. One person said, “I would rather feed my kids than pay my rent, but that could get us all kicked out.” Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry…

…The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities. The changes to taxes and benefits since 2010 have been highly regressive, and the policies have taken the highest toll on those least able to bear it. The government says everyone’s hard work has paid off, but according to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, while the bottom 20% of earners will have lost on average 10% of their income by 2021/22 as a result of these changes, top earners have actually come out ahead…
The compassion and mutual concern that has long been part of the British tradition has been outsourced. At the same time many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centers, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined…
.

…The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead…

None of this should surprise us. Austerity allowed the Government to implement policies that had been suggested by right wing Think Tanks decades ago.  Think about that. The rationale for austerity is that we had no choice- the country was ‘living beyond its means’. But the solution chosen was one allied to a political and economic dogma emerging from… Think Tanks like the Adam Smith Institute decade before.

So, whose interests are being served? As the old adage will say- follow the money.

Not that this is easy to do in relation to Think Tanks. They keep their funding secret.

Back in 2011, George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, said this;

There are dozens of groups in the UK which call themselves free-market or conservative thinktanks, but they have a remarkably consistent agenda. They tend to oppose the laws which protect us from banks and corporations; to demand the privatisation of state assets; to argue that the rich should pay less tax; and to pour scorn on global warming. What the thinktanks call free-market economics looks more like a programme for corporate power.

Some of them have a turnover of several million pounds a year, but in most cases that’s about all we know. In the US, groups claiming to be free-market thinktanks have been exposed as sophisticated corporate lobbying outfits, acting in concert to promote the views of the people who fund them. In previous columns, I’ve shown how such groups, funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, built and directed the Tea Party movement…

…For the sake of democracy, we should know who funds the organisations that call themselves thinktanks. To this end I contacted 15 groups. Eleven of them could be described as free-market or conservative; four as progressive. I asked them all a simple question: “Could you give me the names of your major donors and the amount they contributed in the last financial year?” I gave their answers a score out of five for transparency and accountability.

Three of the groups I contacted – Right to Know, the International Policy Network, and Nurses for Reform – did not answer my calls or emails. Six others refused to give me any useful information. They are the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Christian Medical Fellowship. They produced similar excuses, mostly concerning the need to protect the privacy of their donors. My view is that if you pay for influence, you should be accountable for it. Nul points.

…I charge that the groups which call themselves free-market thinktanks are nothing of the kind. They are public relations agencies, secretly lobbying for the corporations and multimillionaires who finance them. If they wish to refute this claim, they should disclose their funding. Until then, whenever you hear the term free-market thinktank, think of a tank, crushing democracy, driven by big business.

 

Monbiot updated his analysis in 2018, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the further erosion of welfare and public service by Austerity.

The problem is exemplified, in my view, by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). In the latest reshuffle, two ministers with close links to the institute, Dominic Raab and Matthew Hancock, have been promoted to the frontbench, responsible for issues that obsess the IEA: Brexit and the NHS. Raab credits the IEA with supporting him “in waging the war of ideas”. Hancock, in his former role as cabinet office minister, notoriously ruled that charities receiving public funds should not be allowed to lobby the government. His department credited the IEA with the research that prompted the policy. This rule, in effect, granted a monopoly on lobbying to groups such as the IEA, which receive their money only from private sources. Hancock has received a total of £32,000 in political donations from the IEA’s chairman, Neil Record….

…So what is this organisation, and on whose behalf does it speak? If only we knew. It is rated by the accountability group Transparify as “highly opaque”. All that distinguishes organisations such as the IEA from public relations companies such as Burson-Marsteller is that we don’t know who it is working for. The only hard information we have is that, for many years, it has been funded by British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris International. When this funding was exposed, the IEA claimed that its campaigns against tobacco regulation were unrelated to the money it had received. Recently, it has been repeatedly dissing the NHSwhich it wants to privatisecampaigning against controls on junk foodattacking trade unions; and defending zero-hour contractsunpaid internships and tax havens. Its staff appear on the BBC promoting these positions, often several times a week. But never do interviewers ask the basic democratic questions: who funds you, and do they have a financial interest in these topics?…

…While dark money has been used to influence elections, the role of groups such as the IEA is to reach much deeper into political life. As its current director, Mark Littlewood, explains, “We want to totally reframe the debate about the proper role of the state and civil society in our country … Our true mission is to change the climate of opinion.”

 

Next time you hear ‘experts’ being interviewed on the BBC, or via any other media outlet, ask yourself this; who pays them, and what are they trying to sell?

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