Richard North, 31/07/2018  

There is some irony in the fact that Greenpeace UK's journalism operation, Unearthed, is exposing the dealings of the IEA think tank, and complaining that a registered charity is acting as a political advocate.

That is precisely the role in which Greenpeace has been accused of occupying, so much so that a few years ago the Indian Intelligence Bureau was expressing concern about the effects of foreign-funded NGOs, while New Zealand had already stripped the organisation of its charitable status.

Nevertheless, I'm not going to shed any tears at the news has triggered a much overdue investigation into the IEA, after the explicit claims of "cash for access".

In the late 1990, I had a short book published by the IEA, co-written with Teresa Gorman MP, with a foreword written by my PhD supervisor Professor J P Duguid. Called Chickengate, it set out to be an independent analysis of the salmonella in eggs food scare, triggered in December 1988 by the then junior health minister Edwina Currie.

Very much in keeping with the ethos of this "free market" think tank, I observed that the Thatcher government – "this hands-off, free-enterprise Government" – had been panicked and then pushed into fielding the most comprehensive array of legislation on food since the war, of a scale and nature that would make any socialist government justly proud.

Thus, my association with the IEA goes way back and relations had in the early days been cordial. It wasn't until 2014, however – with the organisation under the management of Mark Littlewood – that I came across the dark side. This was when it quite deliberately rigged its own Brexit competition, with multiple undeclared rule changes, partisan judging and plain dishonesty.

It thus turned out that a supposedly free-market think tank was not in the least interested in a free market in ideas and, to prevent the "wrong" ideas gaining currency was quite willing to suppress ideas which had been submitted to it in good faith. Yet, later, it was quite willing to steal my work when it suited its particular agenda.

Nevertheless, apart from triggering the production of Flexcit which might never have happened without the competition, the events of 2014 had the merit of exposing me to true nature of the IEA, confirmed by this report which dismissed the think tank as an "ideologically motivated PR organisation". Rather than producing independent reports, it was simply "masquerading" as a "sort of scholarly institute" in order to promote a pre-determined agenda.

Over term, the insidious role of think tanks was becoming more apparent and when, exactly a year ago I reported on the phenomenon of "disaster capitalism", it came as no surprise to find that the concept was being facilitated by the Legatum Institute, another think tank, working within a network of like-minded organisations.

After a raft of unfavourable publicity, when the Institute came under fire from the Charity Commission for its failure to provide "balanced, neutral evidence and analysis" in keeping with its charitable status, the sponsoring Chandler brothers took fright, forcing their star player, Shanker Singham, to move on.

Given the shoddy, inchoate nature of Singham's work, it was entirely predictable that he should decamp with his team to the IEA. In terms of moral dereliction and poverty of scholarship, they had found their natural home.

Now, even Newsnight is questioning the egregious Singham while its reporter at large, Chris Cook, has been pondering over the role of think tanks in general – and not before it's time.

Needless to say, Littlewood is entirely unrepentant – but then he always is. He told the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme that: "We want politicians to listen to us. I don't apologise for that". When asked whether the IEA was sufficiently unmindful to the interests of its donors, he said: "We have to find people with whom we have synergy. We have to raise money from companies, individuals, foundations".

In a formal statement published by the IEA, he embellishes this outline by saying:
We also make no apologies for seeking to inform and educate politicians at the highest levels of government. Indeed, this is a particularly vital audience given the huge issues thrown up by the Brexit process and, in particular, the fact that trade expertise is now so vital in the UK, given we have not operated an independent trade policy since joining the European Union.
Pete, however, takes a less sanguine view, calling the IEA "a dagger in the soft underbelly of democracy". To him, what has been dubbed the "IEA tapes scandal" touches on the same "Toryboy clique" which encompasses the Taxpayers' Alliance, Vote Leave Ltd and others.

This is "a slick PR team" softening up the public and manipulating Brexiter sentiment. This, says Pete, "is why they hire presentable but ever so slightly dim dollybirds like Low Fact Chloe, Hugh Bennett and Kate Andrews".

Combined with the efforts of BrexitCentral, the intention is to put a presentable front on what is essentially a corporate heist. This is why they keep their output on a very superficial level, churning out the "respect the will of the people" mantra as an alternative to substance, weaving a narrative that the harder the Brexit, the more it respects the vote.

With its teeth firmly into the issue, the Guardian isn't letting go, doing something useful for a change.

It has discovered that the National Casino Industry Forum (NCIF) had donated £8,000 to the IEA after the think tank had published a report on gambling policy that called for restrictions on the number of casinos to be lifted.

Senior officials at the forum had met the author before the report had been written and received feedback on its conclusions before its launch of the report, which was then published as an "IEA discussion paper" with no mention that casino owners had in any way been involved.

This is so typical of the IEA, and exactly what it did with the Brexit competition, steering the conclusions in the direction it wanted to go, while suppressing alternative views – all the while pretending to be research-led and impartial.

Where such organisations score, though, is in their Faustian deal with the media – and especially the newspapers. With specialist staff and correspondents having been drastically cut back, the newspapers rely of the think tanks to provide them with free copy and a diet or reader-interest stories which they would otherwise have to produce from their own resources.

In return, the papers give the think tanks a platform, allowing Littlewood to boast that: "Our advertising value equivalent on the media last calendar year was £66 million".

This privileged access to the media, the assumed prestige and the pretence of scholarly impartiality make think tanks a potent weapon in the shaping of public opinion. And when we can now see how easily they can be bought, they have become sinister mechanisms for promoting their sponsors' interests, pretending to be something they are not.

At the very least, one now hopes that these organisations will no longer get such an easy ride, and that their relations with government will come under greater scrutiny. And, if they are in the business of political lobbying – which indeed they are – there is no case for them to be given charitable status.

That, at the very least, can be stopped, even if it is too late to undo all the damage they have done.

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