In our forthcoming report on slanting in BBC online news coverage, one component of our analysis categorises 10 think-tanks (well-known ones which cover a whole range of policy areas) as broadly being left-of-centre or right-of-centre, in order to see what ‘health warnings’ the BBC attaches to their research. The report was previewed in an article in The Sunday Times last weekend, and will be published tomorrow.
Thus far the main controversy seems to be that the Social Market Foundation dislike the fact that we have labelled them ‘left-of-centre’. Their Head of Media and External Affairs has even gone as far as writing a blog about it. And now the great and good of the centre-left Twitterati are piling in behind them.
Unfortunately, for those of you who read this blog assiduously, their blog hits all of Jonah Goldberg’s Tyranny of Cliches that I have long complained about. The think-tank is ‘independent’, ‘non-partisan’, works on ‘evidence’, can’t possibly be left-leaning because some Tories work there etc. Much of it is a re-run of the ‘No Labels’ argument in the United States – “let’s put ideology and labels aside for the good of America.” Nevertheless, I thought I’d respond briefly to a few points of the blog and subsequent discussion on Twitter.
First of all, the left-leaning – right-leaning domain has little to do with political parties. There are many Conservatives who are social democratic in their outlook, and could be described as ‘left-leaning’. Likewise there are many Labourites who could be described as right-leaning in their outlook. Thus the point that the SMF has hosted or has board members from both main political parties is largely irrelevant.
Second, the SMF has a clear ideology as outlined on its website. It says:
“We champion policy ideas which marry markets with social justice and take a pro-market rather than free-market approach. Our work is characterised by the belief that governments have an important role to play in correcting market failures and setting the framework within which markets can operate in a way that benefits individuals and society as a whole”.
The think-tank is committed to developing evidence-based policies within this framework. Just as, in the same way, the CPS is committed to developing evidence-based policies within a free-market framework, and has a different view of what social justice is and the role of the state in achieving it. Now is the SMF’s outlook left-leaning? In my opinion, it’s left of centre. Mainly because I think state- influenced progressive “social justice” is by-and-large the antithesis of conservatism and libertarianism, and what right-thinking people believe. You might disagree with me. But for the purposes of this paper, judgement was necessary. Sure, the SMF doesn’t have hard left-wing priors like other organisations, but I’d still say on the balance of output produced and its history the idea that the SMF is left-leaning is not exactly beyond the realms of possibility.
Third, the SMF make great deal of being ‘independent’ and ‘nonpartisan’. Yet so do all think-tanks. For what does being ‘independent’ and ‘nonpartisan’ actually mean? Almost all think-tanks are independent of political parties, and don’t cheer-lead everything a party does. We’ve criticised this Conservative-led government for tax rises, distorting the housing market and nanny-statism. But our framework means we are naturally closer to the Conservatives, who tend to be more sympathetic to the free-market case. Other think-tanks tend to be closer to Labour, who are closer to the Fabian-style statist case. The SMF seem to think that because they are between these two cases, they are more deserving of being called ‘independent’ or ‘nonpartisan’. But this is where the myth of the virtue of centrism comes in. Just because you can say your position is between two others, doesn’t mean it is right or should be put on a pedestal. Likewise, just because your ideology is further away from political parties doesn’t mean you don’t have an ideology or priors whatsoever. The terms have thus always been pretty vapid.
Look, we had to make a judgement on how to categorise SMF. We thought, just as other news organisations have, that describing them as ‘left-of-centre’ was appropriate. They may, and do, disagree. Fine. Our results are robust to the exclusion anyway. But I don’t really see the big deal.