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Hidden Interests

The BBC’s disgraceful failure to reveal who its contributors are speaking for.

by George Monbiot

Do the BBC’s editorial guidelines count for anything? I ask because it disregards them every day, by failing to reveal the commercial interests of its contributors.

Let me give you an example. Yesterday the Today programme covered the plain packaging of cigarettes. It interviewed Mark Littlewood, director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, an organisation which calls itself a thinktank.

Mishal Husain introduced Mark Littlewood as “the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a smoker himself”.

Fine. But should we not also have been informed that the Institute of Economic Affairs receives funding from tobacco companies?

It’s bad enough when the BBC interviews people about issues of great importance to corporations when it has no idea whether or not they are funded by those companies, and makes no effort to find out.

It’s even worse when those interests have already been exposed, yet the BBC still fails to mention them.

Both the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute have for years been funded by tobacco firms. The IEA has been funded by British American Tobacco since 1963, and is also paid by Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International. It has never come clean about this funding, and still refuses to say which other corporations sponsor it.

Yet, as you can see from the IEA’s lists, the institute’s spokespeople appear all over the media, arguing against the regulations tobacco companies don’t like, without ever being obliged to reveal that tobacco companies help pay their wages.

Most of the so-called thinktanks flatly refuse to reveal their interests.

I see the IEA, the Adam Smith Institute and other “thinktanks” which refuse to say who funds them as indistinguishable from corporate lobbyists. I see them as doing the dirty work of corporations which won’t put their own heads above the parapet, because of the likely reputational damage.

I’m not the only one who sees them in this light. David Frum was formerly a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Drawing on his own experience, he explained that such groups “increasingly function as public-relations agencies.”

The veteran corporate lobbyist Jeff Judson explained why thinktanks are so useful to corporations:

“Lobbyists often work for specific clients who operate at the mercy of a regulator or lawmaker, making them vulnerable to retribution for daring to criticize or speak out. Think tanks are virtually immune to retribution. … Donors are confidential. The identity of donors to think tanks is protected from involuntary disclosure.”*

*Judson’s confessions used to be available here. They have since been removed.

Here’s what Mark Littlewood said on the Today programme yesterday:

“The evidence out of Australia, who, in their extreme unwisdom in my view, have offered to be the guinea pigs for planet earth on whether this policy works, having had plain packaging or standardised packaging in place for a year over there, the early evidence suggests no change at all on smoking prevalence. And, lo and behold, the black market in cigarettes has jumped markedly.”

Mishal Husain then remarked, “Well that’s one view, in a moment we’ll hear that of the public health minister …”

Yes, it is one view. The view of someone being paid by Big Tobacco. Should we not have known that?

Here’s what the BBC’s editorial guidelines say about such matters:

3.4.7: “We should make checks to establish the credentials of our contributors and to avoid being “hoaxed”.”

3.4.12: “We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors, and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.”

4.4.14: “We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

Every day people from thinktanks are interviewed by the BBC’s news and current affairs programmes, without any such safeguards being applied.

There is no effort to establish their credentials, in order to avoid being hoaxed into promoting corporate lobbyists as independent thinkers.

There is no effort to identify on whose behalf they are speaking, “so that our audiences can judge their status.”

There is no attempt to make it clear to the audience that contributors are funded by the companies whose products they are discussing.

I would have no problem with the BBC interviewing people from these thinktanks, if their interests are disclosed. If these organisations refuse to say who funds them, they should not be allowed on air. Their financial interests in the issue under discussion should be mentioned by the presenter when they are introduced.

I’ve been banging on about this for years, with no result at all. It seems that the only thing the BBC responds to is formal complaints. So please complain. Here are three things you can do:

a. use the corporation’s online complaints form.

b. take the issue to the BBC Trust.

c. Complain to Feedback on Radio 4.

Otherwise, expect our bastion of editorial values to keep collaborating in the time-honoured tradition of hoaxing us on behalf of corporate money.

2 Comments

  1. We have the same difficulty with our public broadcaster, the ABC, here in Australia (as George reports with the BBC in the UK).

    The ABC frequently uses, as panellists, a parade of smug creeps from “thinktanks” with Orwellian titles like “The Centre for Independent Studies” and “The Institute for Public Affairs”. I have never heard an ABC host declare the conflicts of interest of these panellists. These organisations display the trademark secrecy of business thinktanks when it comes to disclosing their funding sources, even though they never tire of criticising environment groups for supposedly being unaccountable and lacking transparency.

    Enough has slipped out over the years to suggest that the CIS and the IPA count Big Tobacco, Big Carbon, and other big miners, among their major donors and it appears likely that many of their blatantly political campaigns of science denial (regarding e.g., global warming and cigarette smoking) are funded through tax-deductable donations: in contravention of the law regarding such donations.

    Ironically, some of the best articles that I have read about these thinktanks come from the online part of the ABC TV show “The Drum”—the very show that regularly uses IPA and CIS glove puppets as panellists viz:

    https://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/32974.html

    https://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3849006.html

    And here’s another article from Crikey:

    https://www.crikey.com.au/2012/05/31/the-ipa-research-funded-by-big-tobacco/

    Given all of the above: I cannot understand why the ABC uses these people as panellists—with or without disclosure of their status as disguised lobbyists.

    Australia has one of the worst concentrations of media ownership in the western world. We have Murdoch controlling most of the press and a small group business elites and their major advertisers controlling the rest. And yet the tiny surviving pockets of rigorous political analysis that exist on the ABC so frequently feel compelled to give more than half of their airtime to these same, dull business elites out of fear that they might be said to lack “balance”.

    As comedian Rod Quantock once said:

    “BALANCE!!!! you couldn’t balance the right-wing business bias of the Australian media if the ABC’s entire content was personally penned by Karl Marx.” (well…he said words to that affect–it was a long, long, time ago.)

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