There’s a £23m fake news industry in the UK, and the BBC gives it a tonne of airtime

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There is a fake news industry in the UK. The huge sum it spends is unknown, but it’s well over £23m annually. And the BBC gives it a tonne of coverage. As do other outlets in the corporate media.

The shadowy industry

A new annual report from Transparify, an organisation promoting transparency, calls out dark money thinktanks in the UK. The report deems six thinktanks in the UK ‘highly opaque’ and one outright ‘deceptive’. Without revealing their funding, these million-pound thinktanks indicate they lack confidence in their intellectual independence and integrity. There are documented cases of a number of these organisations producing misinformation for shadowy financiers. But the BBC still consistently uses them as legitimate sources, without questioning their agenda.

The Adam Smith Institute

The Adam Smith Institute (ASI) recently responded to the findings from Oxfam that showed that eight billionaires now have as much money as half the entire world. On its website, the thinktank boasted about how the “full spread” of national outlets covered the response, “including The Daily ExpressThe Evening Standard, Metro, City A.M, The Sun and The Telegraph, as well as national magazines, such as The Spectator and The Week. ASI staff also wrote op-eds in “City AM, IB TimesHuffington Post and Verdict and CapX.

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But the sheer volume of BBC coverage on the ASI response is perhaps the most striking. Transparify pointed out [pdf p9] that a spokesperson for the ASI got airtime on BBC World News, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Wales, BBC World Service Radio, “appearing in the hourly news bulletins across every BBC regional station”. That extensive BBC coverage all happened on a single day in January.

So one would expect the ASI to be an honest contributor; if it’s receiving so much unquestioned media coverage. But Transparify’s report [pdf p8] shows that the ASI not only hides who funds its lobbying, but also who receives the funding. Its organisational structure is kept secret.

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What is known is that the organisation has a history of stealth lobbying. According to TobaccoTactics, ASI has repeatedly lobbied against smoking regulation while receiving funding from the Tobacco industry. In at least one case, an actual tobacco industry employee reportedly wrote the anti-smoking section of an ASI report. But, in a system where corporate lobbyists write international trade deals, that’s not too surprising.

There are also some cracks in the institute’s “highly opaque” funding today. The ASI has a US counterpart. One of the donors Transparify found in its most recent tax filing is the JP Humphreys Foundation. This foundation reportedly bankrolled the US Heartland Institute, notorious for spreading misinformation on climate change. Transparifiy says the purpose of the ASI’s US counterpart seems to be to receive tax-deductible funds from US donors. The money is then used to influence politics in the UK.

The foreign influence may go further than this. Transparify’s research suggests that most the ASI’s outputs and activities are funded from abroad.

Despite the many questions surrounding the ASI, the thinktank is consistently used as a major source by the BBC and others in the corporate media.

At the time of writing, ASI had not replied to The Canary’s request for comment.

The Institute of Economic Affairs

The BBC and the media also regularly refer to the The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). The IEA joins the ASI in receiving lots of funding from the tobacco industry, according to TobaccoTactics. It also joins ASI in producing content favourable to the tobacco industry.

As George Monbiot recently wrote in The Guardian:

When the Institute of Economic Affairs, as it so often does, appears on the BBC to argue against regulating tobacco, shouldn’t we be told that it has been funded by tobacco companies since 1963?

In late 2016, the IEA produced a report accusing the BBC of “left-wing bias” in its Radio 4 coverage. It called for privatisation to remedy this.

Subsequently, the BBC agreed to privatise 60% of BBC radio. Now, our public service broadcaster has also appointed a new Editor for Radio 4′s flagship political programme. The new editor, Sarah Sands, backed Zac Goldsmith’s racist London mayoral bid in her previous job as Editor of the London Evening Standard.

The IEA’s influence is well documented. Andrew Marr described the IEA as “undoubtedly the most influential thinktank in modern British history”. It has strong links to the Conservative Party.

Speaking to The Canary, the IEA claimed its funding is not transparent because it respects the privacy of donors. The organisation says it leaves it up to individual donors to decide to keep their donation public or private. Also, it does not accept government funding. The IEA concluded:

We are totally confident that our output is rigorously independent and free from any conflicts of interest

But skeptics would argue that intellectual independence trumps donor privacy. We don’t need to know what they had for breakfast. Nearly all UK thinktanks analysed by Transparifiy received [pdf p6] high transparency ratings.

The Policy Exchange

The IEA is not the only leading think tank with big ties to the Conservative Party. Tory heavyweight Francis Maude set up the Policy Exchange in 2002. Its first chair was Michael Gove. Many Conservatives, including current Prime Minister Theresa May, have spoken at Policy Exchange events.

One of its reports claimed “the most comprehensive academic survey of such literature ever produced in this country”. The report accused several leading mosques of selling extremist literature. But it was later revealed that the Policy Exchange created the receipts from the mosques. Apparently in order to smear them.

Still, the BBC continues to cite the Policy Exchange without properly questioning its agenda. Along with a lot of the corporate media.

The Canary had received no response from Policy Exchange at the time of writing.

Transparency is key to democracy

A BBC spokesperson rejected the idea that it isn’t doing enough to scrutinise these sources:

The BBC has clear editorial guidelines on impartiality that include how and when to report findings from think tanks.

The BBC said reporting of thinktanks will normally include some context so the audience understands its point of view.

But these organisations receive untold millions in shadowy funding. If they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they reveal who the donors are?

What these thinktanks might have to hide is a correlation between corporate funding and favourable results. If the results depend upon cash rather than evidence, we are not dealing with thinktanks, but misinformation factories designed to place the interests of wealthy individuals above the public good.

Or maybe these organisations are legitimate researchers. Then why not prove it? The majority of UK thinktanks have transparent funding.

Media outlets should boycott these institutes until they are honest about who funds them.

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