Think Tanks and Media Manipulation

Guest blogger Nicholas Jones, a former BBC journalist, describes how think tanks’ efforts to shape news coverage and the political agenda in Britain have evolved over time. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the rise of a modernising faction within Britain’s Labour party, reports from sympathetic think tanks helped to drive the reform of the party’s policies while it was in opposition. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in particular helped to drive the rethink from which the revamped ‘New Labour’ party emerged. Reporting the IPPR’s work for the BBC – which is a public broadcaster – could be rather tricky. I always insisted on including a clear health warning indicating that these were policy proposals being made by a “left of centre” or “Labour-leaning” think tank.

On reflection, I could have been even more explicit when commenting on the agenda for change being proposed by an array of think tanks sympathetic to ‘New Labour’. I probably did not explain that their work had probably been financed by Labour party donors and therefore could hardly be described as “independent research”.

When Labour won national elections under Tony Blair’s leadership and the Conservative party went into opposition, think tanks on the right stepped up their efforts to promote a Euro-sceptic agenda in parallel with a push by the right wing of the Conservative party to limit the power of the European Union and curb immigration.

These Euro-sceptic think tanks developed new ploys to manipulate the news agenda.  In an attempt to influence the BBC’s reporting they often commissioned surveys of broadcast output that backed their view that the BBC’s coverage was biased. They published interviewee counts per programme which purportedly showed that pro-European speakers far outweighed those arguing from a Euro-sceptic perspective. Such surveys were then seized on by right-wing newspapers to attack the BBC.

Today, the commissioning of public opinion polls is perhaps the most effective think tank routine for influencing the news agenda in Britain. Releasing the findings of such surveys can often generate considerable publicity, especially over holiday periods.  If the timing is right, the party donors who paid for the surveys will have given their favoured politicians a ready-made platform. Publication of a topical study or report on a controversial issue can also present a timely opportunity to influence the news agenda. Political parties get the chance to join in the debate, float policy ideas and test out public opinion.

The pressure on journalists to deliver exclusive stories has now become so strong that frequently there is a degree of collusion that readers, viewers and listeners are not aware of.  In return for being first with a headline-grabbing story line, news outlets will often fail to show due diligence and do not give an adequate health warning about the covert links between a think tank and the politicians involved; nor do they dig deep when it comes to explaining why the research was commissioned and precisely who paid for it.

Nicholas Jones worked as a BBC political and industrial correspondent for thirty years. His books include Soundbites and Spin Doctors (1995), Sultans of Spin (1999) and Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs (2006).  His commentaries can be accessed as his news archive.