Johann Hari: We need policy wonks, not corporate pimps

If British think tanks are to avoid ethical collapse they need to introduce full transparency
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The Independent Online

The idea of think tanks is strangely romantic - at least to political nerds like me. Groups of ultra-smart people, huddled together in ideas factories, dedicated to creating new and interesting policies for government! I imagine them standing around the water-cooler, arguing about Stage Two of House of Lords reform, or talking at West Wing-style super-speed on little silver mobiles about new and original ways to redistribute wealth.

Now Stephen Twigg, the man who earned a place in the nation's heart by spearing Michael Portillo out of office in 1997, is set to take over the Foreign Policy Centre. I can imagine him thinking - very intensely - about Middle East peace or eroding poverty in Africa.

There's only one problem with this mental image: it doesn't correspond with reality. At all. To understand what is increasingly happening to Britain's think tanks, we need to look across the Atlantic to the world's imperial capital, Washington DC. Think tanks there have long ago ceased to be dispassionate analysts of US politics. Instead, they have become - as The Washington Post put it recently - "corporations' quiet weapon", churning out policy proposals friendly to any mega-business that can pay their bills.

Let's look at a few examples. The Microsoft Corporation recently paid for a US think tank, called (ironically) the Independence Institute, to run hundreds of full-page newspaper adverts supporting - surprise! - Microsoft in its fight against federal anti-trust charges. The adverts boasted that they were formed according to "the highest standards of scholarly inquiry" and motivated only by the common good; readers had no way of knowing who had picked up the bill.

The Progress and Freedom Foundation launched a project to weaken the powers of the Food and Drug Administration that turned out to be very influential with Republican Congressmen. How was it funded? Donations worth $400,000 from agribusiness and the drug and biotech companies. This could be a long list.

This form of influence buying is now so prevalent that a popular DC-based university course on lobbying lists think tanks as the second item on a roster called "Lobbyists' Tool Kit".

Of course, all these think tanks claim they reach their conclusions independently, and are not swayed by financial donations in any way. But Steven C Clemons - a think-tank head turned whistleblower - recently revealed the contents of one staff discussion at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). They were discussing telecom deregulation, and the telecoms companies were lined up on different sides of the debate, according to their own interests. Several staffers suggested the EPI should simply take the side that would generate most income for the think tank. "This story is not unique. It is commonplace. It's how Washington think tanks work," says Clemons.

But could this form of soft corruption - or "deep lobbying", as it is euphemised - come to Britain? Some people believe it already has. A few years ago, Demos - invariably dubbed a "Blairite think tank" - notoriously issued a report calling for BT to be broken up - sponsored by its main commercial rival, Cable and Wireless.

But, although there have been several whistleblowers in the US who found the encroachment of corporate demands into think tanks to be ethically unacceptable, there has been none in Britain - until now. As editorial director of the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC), Rob Blackhurst was one of the most senior figures in British wonkery. But earlier this year, he quit and wrote a remarkable exposé of the scene in the New Statesman magazine. He revealed that the FPC - patron, T Blair - had become "unofficial lobbyists", selling access to politicians in exchange for corporate cash. There are few ethical limits: they took money from a Russian oligarch (filtered through a series of PR firms) to fund their Russia research.

They have refused to respond to my questions about whether they took money from a wing of the tyrannical Chinese government to fund their research (and Downing Street seminars) on China.

But why do corporations and dodgy governments hand over their cash? Aren't think tanks small and powerless? Clemons explains: "One reason why think tanks are so attractive to moneyed political players is that the intellectuals who work for them seem more legitimate than corporate spokespeople or lobbyists. Part of what's being bought is credibility."

Blackhurst says it works in exactly the same way in Britain now: "'Cable and Wireless call for the break-up of BT' isn't a story, it's just naked self-interest. But 'Blairite think tank Demos calls for the break-up of BT'? Now that's a story. That has credibility, at least on the surface."

This is just one more way in which British politics is becoming a lop-sided playing field, tilted in favour of those who already have wealth and power.

The corporate hijacking of think tanks creates a new, manufactured "common sense", in which the interests of a handful of corporations and very rich people seem to be espoused by everyone - and the interests of the rest of us go unheard.

If British think tanks are going to avoid the ethical and intellectual collapse of their American cousins, they need to introduce - at the very least - full transparency. All political parties declare their income publicly. Why should think tanks be any different? If the FPC are going to take money from Russian oligarchs, they should at least tell us in large letters on their website.

But transparency is only a first step. If government ministers want a fresh and intelligent think-tank scene uncontaminated by the private interests of a few billionaires, then they should be prepared to pay for it. Funding four or five state think tanks as an autonomous part of the civil service would cost a tiny amount of money, but would harvest policy ideas that benefit us all. Then think tanks could fulfil the remit I daydreamed about earlier.

As Blackhurst puts it, "At their best, they bridge the gap between the rarefied circles of academia and the bite-sized proposals demanded by politicians and the media. Contemporary politicians hardly get time to see their families, never mind come up with workable policies. That's where think tanks come in. They have a really important role to play."

But if we want think tanks like this - rather than pimps for corporations or corrupt foreign governments - then we will have to pay for them.