George Monbiot nails it in two paragraphs here (the bold is mine):
Jeff Judson, who has worked for 26 years as a corporate lobbyist in the US, has explained why thinktanks are more effective than other public relations agencies. They are, he says, “the source of many of the ideas and facts that appear in countless editorials, news articles, and syndicated columns”. They have “considerable influence and close personal relationships with elected officials”. They “support and encourage one another, echo and amplify their messages, and can pull together … coalitions on the most important public policy issues.” Crucially, they are “virtually immune to retribution … the identity of donors to thinktanks is protected from involuntary disclosure.”
The harder you stare at them, the more they look like lobby groups working for big business without disclosing their interests. Yet the media treats them as independent sources of expertise. The BBC is particularly culpable. Even when the corporate funding of its contributors has been exposed, it still allows them to masquerade as unbiased commentators.
It does seem time to rein in the think tank, doesn’t it? But, as I mentioned in my previous post which – amongst other things – touched on strategies around how to deal with immense software monopolies such as Microsoft’s Word, when you wish to attack anti-democratic matters such as these you can choose one of two ways to advance your agenda: firstly, restrict through the application of the law the behaviours you judge to be anti-democratic – this we could describe as being the 19th century way; secondly, provide alternative and parallel structures which serve to release the people and the crowd and allow them to take affairs into their own hands – this, unsurprisingly, I would term the 21st century way.
It’s highly unlikely, then, if we take a realistic view of current circumstances, that anyone could reasonably propose dealing with these cleverly underhand corporate lobbyists. They are here to stay is really what I am saying. Understand it, accept it and move on. (In fact, I’m beginning to consider advising we should all do the same with Cameron’s blessed Coalition – but that, I think, is definitely a subject for a completely different post …)
So move on we must. But move on to where? If we cannot restrict the operations of these in-everything-but-name lobbyists, then, following the logic of my previous example, we need to provide alternatives instead – alternatives which, in the hands of an empowered populace allow us to set up parallel networks that serve to gain the attention of the mainstream media in much the same way. And here I think we have a knight on a white charger.
[...] So I think the answer here should be somewhat self-explanatory, which is to start moving towards virtual think tank models drawing the best thinkers in to solve the problem at hand.
Obviously that’s a simplistic statement and needs more thought, but it can be done – this model works in other disciplines (I know, I’ve done it).
We can draw on ideas of social networks, crowd sourcing and gaming theory to manage the people, process and to produce intellectually rigorous work.
Such an idea would not only serve to make it possible to set up intellectually competitive alternatives to existing think-tank models – with all the tools needed to generate the above-mentioned intellectual rigour and reputational recognition – but would also allow such systems, properly implemented, to rapidly eat away at the business models of those think tanks which actually, and in reality, aren’t.
Thus allowing us, in turn, to deal with the dysfunctionality already described whereby mainstream media, looking for those easy and quick rent-a-quotes from allegedly reputable organisations, end up stamping their unfortunate seals of authority on institutions which, essentially, tell porkies about their real purpose and funding.
If you can’t beat them, join them? Absolutely – yes, that’s what I mean. Not by telling equally convincing porkies, though.
By following the historical journey and example of virtual battles such as Wikipedia versus Encarta, we can surely outline a similar strategy which convinces yet again through its ability to prioritise true ingenuity and distributed intelligence over brute money and slick marketing.
We may want to create an alternative model of think-tank process because we’re interested in the intellectual challenge of making it work properly.
But the practical challenge of eliminating distortions to a wider democracy may shortly become a far more important reason to move ahead with this project.