The BBC had decided that it would no longer promote pundits from opaquely-funded and invariably right-wing lobby groups as if they were mere disinterested observers; they would henceforth be identified as the partisan operators that anyone who knows their modus operandi knows them to be. So the alphabet soup of TPA, CPS, IEA, ASI, PX and the rest would be flagged up to viewers. Except someone didn’t get the message.
To no surprise at all, the programme not getting the message is the still supposedly flagship debate show Question Time, which last night offered its audience, and anyone looking in at home, the dubious benefit of seeing Kate Andrews of the IEA, an Astroturf Lobby Group whose disclosed donors include the tobacco industry, the oil industry, a group called the “American friends of the IEA”, and the Templeton Foundation.
The IEA was well and truly busted in a Greenpeace sting last year, with Director Mark Littlewood claiming grandly to be in “the Brexit influencing game” and effectively offering wealthy potential donors the opportunity to “shape policy”. Cui Bono, and all that. Later last year, the Charity Commission ordered the IEA to take down a pro-Brexit report from its website, although the organisation retains its charitable status. Just about.
Among the more creative - some might say screamingly batshit - IEA ideas has been the claim that paving over railways and making coach-only roads out of them would increase their passenger carrying capacity. This, and other drivel, has come courtesy of the group employing the services of Richard Wellings, a known rail-hater, as its “transport expert”.
So the BBC knew who they were inviting on, and should have told their audience accordingly. They did not. Hence Ben Goldacre (the Bad Science man) asking “Just turned on [QT]. I love the IEA (libertarians are more fun at parties) but what are they doing on this show? I thought the BBC had a new rule requiring thinktanks to declare their income from British American Tobacco? Did I misread? Is there a delayed implementation?”
Christopher Snowdon of the IEA sniffed “Yes, you misread”. Peter Jukes of Byline Media wanted to know more. “Oh, so opaquely funded think tanks (taking money from Oil industry, Tobacco, Koch Bros and random Russian oligarchs) should be allowed on all BBC TV programmes without declaring their (albeit opaque) financial interests? Have you an interest in this too?” I suspect Jukes knew the answer to this one.
Snowdon, who claims he is “not an unreasonable man”, which is an interesting way of saying “breathtakingly arrogant”, sniffed a little more. “Er, yeah. Read my profile”. And who pays for him to sniffily dismiss such questions? “Donor privacy, m8”. The arrogant man never learns. And Snowdon has clearly decided learning is not for him.
Thus the assurance that the money is going to keep coming in, and the influence will continue to be enjoyed, despite the claims of Lord Hall-Hall and his minions that groups like the IEA would appear alongside an appropriate health warning.
“Donor privacy” is not an adequate excuse. Viewers should be informed whose influence is being bought via organisations to which broadcasters give a platform. That is all.
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