Tune out or wise up. Late December and January is the season for think-tanks and institutes. The time where the lack of action on the government and university fronts leaves a hole in the news agenda that third-party mouthpieces for political, industrial or religious interests are more than happy to fill.
Not sure what I mean? You will by summer’s end. Stay tuned for feminist analysis by Women’s Forum Australia (WFA), a group of women whose former and current directors have employment histories that include advising former Senator Harradine, leading pro-life agencies agencies and running educational institutions linked to Opus Dei. Thrill to reasoned and evidence-based analysis of current government policy by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), an industry-funded neo-liberal outfit with close links to the Liberal party.
We need to be clear. The problem is not with the nature of the views held by such individuals and institutions, nor their relentless promotion of them in the media. Everyone has an opinion, and the right to have it heard. The problem is the selective disclosure by influence peddlers of the full story of who they are, the basis of their beliefs and who foots the bill for their ideas to be heard.
If WFA wants the government and private sector to adopt policies on women no different to those advocated by the Pope and some evangelical Christians, that’s their prerogative. But all those hearing their case should also be told about the backgrounds of WFA’s directors and the sum-total of the organisation’s agenda so they can decide for themselves whether dispassionate feminist analysis of what will liberate women, or blind obedience to faith, is the source of their views.
To offer a misleading organisational name, some selective biographies and minimal facts about donors denies us the information necessary to make an informed judgment about how much weight to give their views, or whether to listen to us at all. It interferes with our autonomy-our capacity to choose for ourselves.
The influence peddlers know this. They understand that while a headline about conservative religious chicks opposing abortion will draw yawns, one that reads “feminists oppose abortion” will turn heads. They know that omitting information that could lead us to suspect the real reasons why they believe as they do makes us bunnies, but they don’t care. They know what’s best for us, and that is hearing what they have to say. If that means selecting certain credentials while omitting others, then so be it. All for the greater good.
Third party endorsements and selective credentialing are techniques some think tanks, many of which are just glorified PR firms, employ to influence us. To get us to listen, and give more weight to what we hear, than we otherwise would if we had the full story about who an ‘expert’ was, and where she was coming from.
What can we do? Luckily we’ve already got the necessary paradigms in place. Both journalists and citizens know how important it is to shine the light into dark corners and not to believe everything we read. We just need to be more generous, rigorous and systemic in applying what we know.
We must learn to be cynical not just about what experts say, but who they say they are, and to integrate this cynicism into school curricula, the fact-checking processes of newsrooms and the critical faculties of readers.
Women's Forum Australia is "Faking it" Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)