Sound corporate PR needs to be backed by research. Across Europe, funders like Pfizer and Exxon Mobil are directing increasing sums to fund more US-style pro-corporate ‘think tanks’; they are relatively cheap to fund, and ‘wonk-slotting’ – setting friendly experts up with companies – is an open secret.
Sensing a lucrative business opportunity, PR consultancy Market House International (MHI) have recruited around 130 free-market European think tanks, including the Adam Smith Institute, into a coalition: the Stockholm Network. It offeres ‘both local messages and locally-tailored global messages’, backed by ‘Europe’s brightest policymakers and thinkers.’ Many members of the network do not understand just how commercial it is. Sacha Kumaria, the network’s director of programmes, admitted that it does take corporate funding, from Pfizer and others, but declined to say how much.
MHI and the Stockholm Network (SN), were set up by ex- journalist, Helen Disney and Nicole Gray Conchar, formerly of right wing American tank, the Cato Institute. Ms Conchar is also linked to the pro-corporate Stockholm Network member the International Policy Network (IPN), as its contact for donors. The IPN specialises in climate change denial and pushing drug and software patents, aiming its message mostly at international bodies such as the United Nations and WTO. It is known to be funded by Exxon and widely believed to be funded by Pfizer, Merck and Microsoft.
Nicole Conchar spoke on raising funds from corporations at a Stockholm Network conference in Brussels in Feb 2005. More fund-raising advice for the Network’s members was given at a seminar in 2003, by Catherine Windels, director of SN policy communications, who talked about business sponsorship. Windels is a patron of the Stockholm Network and also sits on the board of the Centre for the New Europe (CNE), another SN member group. A source in Brussels told Corporate Watch that the CNE receives 50% or more of its funding from Pfizer. The sums involved are very large. The Netherlands-based Edmund Burke Foundation took over $400,000 from Pfizer in 2001-5 and imploded when Pfizer stopped funding them.
Many free market think tanks, including SN members, prefer open software and generic drugs and are sceptical of corporate control. John Blundell, of the neo-liberal Institute of Economic Affairs, criticises corporate funded colleagues; ‘an energy study funded by an oil company or a pharmaceutical study by a drug company hardly has the credibility we wish’. Corporations such as Pfizer clearly see think tanks as an excellent investment and are cultivating them keenly. In the long run however, it could backfire. As more of them sell out their independence they will soon be recognised as corporate mouthpieces.