The Slugger Awards (media) pitch: The Thinker and Explainer Award

Northern Ireland has no think tanks. This is a problem because Think Tanks perform a number of valuable roles.

They take the complexity of academia, interpret / translate it for politicians and use it to help frame policies. They make complex issues more understandable.

This is a role that the media could adopt with more enthusiasm than it does. OK – newspapers sometimes call academics for a quote. Sometimes they will go to some lengths to explain a complex issue in a creative way. But they don’t do it enough.

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  • interested

    Policies-what are they-politicians here are not interested in framing policy, only ensuring that constituents access to the states facilities.

  • William Markfelt

    No Think Tanks? Isn’t that somewhat of a blessing?

    If we think of the Adam Smith Institute we think of alignment to free market economics (mainly) or if we think of the Fabian Society it’s (mainly) people pretending to be socialists. (Jack Straw, the Prince of Darkness, etc).

    If their role is to analyse and explain difficult concepts and frame them up in more simplistic terms for politicians and the public according to their initial remit/political leanings, we simply end up with conflicting advice. Two pub philosophers can do that whilst three sheets to the wind.

    Looking at the other devolved administrations’ equivalents (Scotland’s Future and Institute of Welsh Affairs), the Scottish one was set up by Holyrood, and its directors are ‘the usual suspects from the golden circle’, while the Welsh one is independent, but still ‘the usual suspects from the golden circle’.

    Quillam’s focus on ‘counter extremism’.

    Give enough monkeys enough typewriters and an infinite amount of paper and they, too, will eventually write a social strategy document.

    Realistically, if you were to plough through the millions of words written on THIS site on the NI Water saga and edit it up into some sort of readable form with conclusions, you’d pretty much have have fulfilled a think tank’s task.

    There you have it. The Institute of Slugger O’Toole. Just keep the usual golden circle culprits out of the loop for once and select a wide range of political hues to thrash the thing out. The only question that remains to be asked is how much the NIA can be tapped up for to employ some of you in a part-time capacity, and are refreshments in the sumptuously appointed upstairs lounge office of the Institute of Slugger on expenses?

    The challenge to Slugger correspondents is pick a topic, thrash out the detail, get someone to write it up and present it to the NIA as a fait accompli.

    One thing’s for sure: their ‘findings’ won’t be any worse than documents churned out by the usual suspects and quite possibly (being rather more rooted in reality), a little more valuable than the drivel churned out by many organisations, regularly referenced on these pages as ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’, at great expense.

    I think you should pick this up and run with it Mick. Document No.1…’How not to run a public utility in NI’.

  • > Northern Ireland has no think tanks.

    Is that true?

    The Centre for Social Justice has an office in NI with Ian Parsley as its adviser/consultant.

    Does the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute not count as a think tank?

  • NI had a think tank, Democratic Dialogue. But it couldn’t make enough money to keep going.

    We do have organisations doing the same sort of work, as part (not the whole) of what they do. NICVA immediately springs to mind.

    Then there are groups that spring up to deal with a particular issue, have their meetings, write their reports, then fade away. From the big (the Institute of Governance) to the small (the E-Consultation Study Group).

    There are still some small specialised think tanks going, like the de Borda Institute.

  • William Markfelt

    ‘NI had a think tank, Democratic Dialogue. But it couldn’t make enough money to keep going.’

    ‘DD is a charity which has been generously funded by the Rowntree trusts and others. It is directed by Robin Wilson, former editor of Fortnight magazine, and its management committee members are prominent in public life in Northern Ireland.’

    People prominent in public life…you just feel your life force ebbing away.

    Via the link above there’s another link to the reports they produced.

    Take your pick. I lighted on ‘Politics the next generation’ which comes to Eureka conclusions such as ‘Young people are interested in politics’ and ‘there’s a desire for an improvement in the quality of life’

    No shit. Really? Wow. The Rowntree Foundation must have been delighted with their investment.

  • A branch of an English Tory outfit doesn’t really count. As for the TJI – yes – it is a *sort* of think tank (though being based at the University actually muddies this significantly – it certainly doesn’t behave the way that the IPPR or the IEA does by any means.

    William – I completely buy the idea that it is aiming a bit low to simply want UK-style think tanks in Belfast (I’m not that familiar with what is on offer in Dublin, and I’d be interested to see if it’s much different there). But you say….

    “Two pub philosophers can do that whilst three sheets to the wind.”

    I think that describes what we have with newspaper columnists at the moment. I just think that – seeing as the media actually have cash to *pay* journalists, they could aspire to do it a bit more purposefully than they do at the moment – that they could provide something that would come close to providing an initial briefing for politicians who are addressing a particular probelm.

    On your ‘Slugger nearly does this already’ line, yes – this is what the idea behind the awards is: Crowdsource suggestions, flesh them out, put them in front of the readers to chose the best ones and publicise people and organisations that are already doing what the readers want them to be doing.

    I don’t think that crowd-sourcing opinion is *that* valuable. If you can crowdsource judgement and evidence, then you don’t need think tanks – and politicians increasingly can step into a much more judicial role – weighing different submissions that are put before them (which is one that I think would be a step in the right direction).

  • William Markfelt

    ‘I think that describes what we have with newspaper columnists at the moment. I just think that – seeing as the media actually have cash to *pay* journalists, they could aspire to do it a bit more purposefully than they do at the moment’


    Elsewhere on Slugger someone bemoans the capacity for journos to just re-hash press releases, a point of view that may have a great deal of validity.

    While I agree with what you (and Mick) say about them not doing enough, we must surely consider the economics of the local rag trade. In the current state of media flux -news being available 24/7 on the internet leading to declining newspaper sales and so on, and increased competition for advertising- can the likes of the Bel Tel or Irish News or News Letter really afford journalists who can investigate and develop a story over weeks or months, or investigate only to find the trail go dead?

    It’s going to be a brave editor who can stand by McWoodward and O’Bernstein for an eternity just hoping that he can do some column inches on the story they’re following.

    While I don’t like the idea of journalists re-hashing press releases (and sometimes not even rehashing, just reprinting and phoning a contact for a quote), I’m not sure that the economics of regional newspapers would necessarily stand up to sticking a couple of guys on £25k a year or more and then covering a story that won’t even impact on their circulation one jot.

    Realistically, the only story in 15 years that will have shifted papers locally is Iris Robinson. The local press probably can’t afford to employ in the hope of getting a sales spike every decade or so.

  • Anon

    William – I completely buy the idea that it is aiming a bit low to simply want UK-style think tanks in Belfast

    What abouit American ones? I ake it you missed the story about the Koch brothers funding practices recently, nevermind the general state of them as existing to fly kites for politicval parties whiole offerign plausible deniability.

    I know! How about we celebrate political parties who actually develop and implement policies. You seem to be under the bizarre impression that its not their job.

    As an aside, what happened to Peter Robinsons proposed Unionist think tank thing?

  • William Markfelt

    ‘what happened to Peter Robinsons proposed Unionist think tank thing?’

    Oh, come on! A bunch of flat-earth Creationists warbling about God in Museums and on the curriculum. Plus Jim Allister. What the hell do you think happened to it? 🙂

  • William,

    “…we must surely consider the economics of the local rag trade.” Yes. But the press spend half of the day claiming a spurious ‘fourth estate’ cachet and the other half lecturing us on how their business model (one that isn’t backwards in shovelling short-term profits to shareholders) can’t do it.

    Something has to give. We – the consumers of news media – are a good deal more forgiving of the suppliers than we are in other areas of our consumption – this is partly due to the way that the media is very good at justifying it’s unwillingess to invest while holding a near-monopolistic position in the market. Granted, the internet is chipping away at the ‘barriers to entry’, but still….


    Parties already fly their kites on blogs. In NI, they don’t regard it as their job as they find that communal politics is often a wiser investment. I’m not suggesting that we should applaud them for that (quite the reverse). I just think that – if they had a few competitors on this front, they may start to feel the heat a little bit and start doing what we both think they *should* be doing?

  • Ah yes I remember sir Solly Zuckerman in charge of the CPRS in the mid 70s. His fame, arising from his research work on spermatazoa, preceded him and the think tank became known as the **** tank or ***** tank depending on which coarse epithet you used.

    A highly appropriate innovation here I feel and I can nominate several contributors but I won’t, you know who they are. If you’re having trouble then just start at the top.

  • joeCanuck

    Two pub philosophers can do that whilst three sheets to the wind.

    Of course. They can produce solutions to all of the world’s problems. The let down comes the following morning when they can’t remember what the solutions were. Then they feel silly.

  • Rory Carr

    Time to reprise a revised version of that old ballad I think:

    Armored cars, think tanks and guns…

  • William Markfelt

    We need to be sure to differentiate between the national papers (bigger circulation, bigger profits) and the local variant, because we aren’t comparing like for like in some respects.

    The News of the World can ‘sting’ alleged cricket match fixing with a lot of resources, and can maybe do it knowing that the camera footage will sell for enough dosh to justify the money spent on it. It’s shown on every national news broadcast for the next 24 hours. The Bel Tel can’t do that because, unless it’s an Iris Robinson type story, it’s not going to be able to justify the costs. So ‘what you can get away with’ may be dependent on how regional or local you go.

    I have to say I don’t pick up any sense of the Bel Tel pulling the ‘fourth estate’ line either, that’s more a Fleet Street sort of claim, and one they can occasionally back up with actions.

    The national and the local press would serve largely different functions in many aspects. Of course, that said, it is still incumbent on the likes of the Bel Tel to pursue investigative journalism and act as a brake on the politicians or rogue traders or poor public services. And yes, you’re right, I think we’d all welcome a different approach within the local papers to the pursuit of even poor public service stories on the basis that bad publicity is going to keep this Health Trust or that council on their toes. It could certainly be done.

    ‘Tyrone woman waits eight days in hospital corridor: Health Trust is investigating’ is pretty much the extent of it. Only a slightly different approach is required. Too often we don’t hear the result of the investigation. The Trust can sweep it under the carpet. Simply getting a journalist to follow up on that ‘Investigation finds notes went missing/doctor went on holiday/whatever’ would qualify as investigative journalism as a start, and we could maybe escape this culture of bodies making the right noises and then forgetting it. To know that a reporter WILL be coming back to the story and WILL be asking questions, without massive resources coming into play, would certainly benefit all of us and also lead to a greater respect for the local media.

    As things stand, unfortunately, the Bel Tel appears to be a cut and paste job for items nicked out of the Independent, to the extent that its only real value is the death notices.

  • William Markfelt

    If you can relocate it to Liverpool and make the second line run ‘Came to take away The Sun’, I think you have a hit on your hands.

  • Anon

    I think it would make approximately bugger all difference to the communal game.

    and politicians increasingly can step into a much more judicial role – weighing different submissions that are put before them

    This is impossible, because politicians have ideological beliefs – and so they should, as long as it is constrained with pragmatism – and different preferences and priorities. It’s not simply a matter of filling some kind of quasi juidical role. They also shape the country in a fashion they believe is nto simply more efficient, but morally superior. Theer are technical questions, but most have more than one “right” answer.

    The modern think tank exists to give a veneer of academic respectability to subjects that should be the subject of disinterested research. The right is particularly skilled at this game but lets not forget various lobbies that are skilled at using them too.It’s not all entirely useless. It’s not however, something I am inclined to celebrate. We have political parties. We should be encouraguing them to have the balls to do it and take responsibility for it.

  • I get the rhyming ****. But *****?

  • William Markfelt

    sputnik with some letters taken out

  • William Markfelt

    Yeah, Paul. Putik. You got it. 😉

  • Armani in cars, think tanks and nugs

    A golden guinea (is that still 21 shillings?)goes in the charity box if you spot the cross reference to nugs

  • William Markfelt


  • very cold

    no clues unless people start getting frostbite

  • William Markfelt


    How dull. I prefer the idea of Armani suits and drugs.

  • I agree drugs is better than nugs


    Tossed salad

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The absence of Think Tanks is one of the best things about Norn Iron politics. We already have a surfeit of advisors and PR men, opinion polls and focus groups.
    “Save Ulster From Think Tanks” sounds like a cause with which many would identify.

  • Dr Concitor

    Joe, I think your being unkind to drinkers. Did not Winston Churchill produce solutions to some of the worlds problems after a drink or two?

  • *doh*

  • joeCanuck

    I was thinking about myself.

  • Greenflag

    All the Think Tanks
    And all the Feds men
    Could’nt stop Wall St
    From falling again
    And of elected representatives
    There was scarce one or two
    Who had a credible notion
    Of what to do .
    Except obey the Banks
    And Goldman Sachs too :(.

  • Greenflag

    PE ,

    ‘They take the complexity of academia, interpret / translate it for politicians and use it to help frame policies. They make complex issues more understandable.’

    That would be the theory . In the real world as we should have seen from the economic crisis -the academics and think thanks have been press ganged into supporting the ‘Wall St ‘ agenda. Economists are dragged out to give ‘expert ‘ opinions’ as to why policy a) or policy b) or policy c) are neither practical or make economic sense .

    And yet where were they when the world economy was being pushed over the edge by the Gadarene swine of Wall Street and the City ??

    At the trough of course -they had their piggy snouts in the tanks of ‘private ‘ consultancy arrangements with the powers that were and be .

  • joeCanuck

    Very good, Greenflag.
    And, no, I don’t trust any Goldman Sachs alumnus. That place is a breeding ground for the greedy.

  • interested

    reduced to name calling-oh dear-mabye you can next assign little yellow stars to posts-or is it rail policy that is your issue

  • Yes – I’d agree with that. ‘The Washington Consensus’ etc. That – in itself – is a problem for think tanks. A lot of their bluer-sky thinkers spend the early part of the last decade talking about ‘evidence based policy making’ and admitted that this usually became ‘policy based evidence making’ instead. At the end of the day, the customer is central government and it knows what it’s in the market for and what it isn’t.

    Even bearing that in mind, think tanks can either sell the centre’s ideas (if we have to go along with them, at least it helps to understand them and be able to push them along yourself) or they test them to the point where they come up with the least-worst course of action that is consistent with the centre’s prejudices.

    The problem is political centralisation which has it’s causes and they’ll be there if we have lots of effective think tanks or not (we’d be better off with less of it IMHO though)

    I blogged about the causes of decentralisation on my own site ages ago – here;

  • Greenflag

    A breeding ground ? I’d have said the post graduate school of Avarice Unlimited 🙁

    Senator Levin’s questioning of Goldman Sach’s executives at the congressional hearing has now faded away from front page news . It should be re- run on every American and European TV station on the anniversary of the amending of the Glass Stiegal Act every year for the next decade .

    Goldman Sachs of course were not alone . The entire ‘financial investment industry’ were in on it . It’s just that GS came top of the piggy pyramid 🙁

  • Greenflag


    I’m not against ‘think tanks’ in principle . It’s just that in practice whenever their well thought out conclusions are put into ‘report’ format for ‘action’ they end up mostly being shelved for ‘review’ which is shorthand for ‘good ideas’ but contrary to the immediate and longer term interests of the established elite -political, corporate and financial.

  • Greenflag

    Now heres a proposition /theory for some think tank to consider but probably not one in NI where the ‘reformation’ and ‘enlightenment ‘ are still in their infancy 🙁

    Should China i.e so called Communist China ‘a.k.a One Party Authoritarian Capitalist China more properly be referred to as Fascist China and if not why not ?

    Considering the close relationship between the State in China and the large corporations and the absence of political parties other than the one ? Not that different from Mussolini’s Italy bar the blackshirts of party cadres . The Chinese have not yet adopted the dopey racist ideology of ‘nazism’ but it or something similar can easily be switched on when and if the ‘one party’ finds it necessary .

    Considering the oligarchic nature of party politics in the USA with only a minority voting in elections and with Wall St and the large corporations effectively ruling Congress and the Senate by financial ‘bribery’ (legalised of course ) why should the USA not be considered more properly a two party clone of Fascist China ?

    Bet there’s no think tank out there prepared to consider those nomenclatural possibilities. Their ‘funding’ would disappear like snow off a ditch in July.

    George Orwell’s East Asia and Oceania coming to life 50 years late 🙁 A case for reversing the old adage ‘better late than never ‘?

  • ronanpeter

    Is this to be considered a think tank?

    What is the exact definition?

  • That’s really *not* what think-tanks are for. It’s an interesting historical question or a philosophical one, but one that is well served by existing academic processes. For me, the interesting thing about think tanks is that they can be understood within the context of what modern political parties are.

    For instance, I – as a member of the (UK) Labour Party am in a party in which I dislike my party comrades less that I dislike members of the other parties. The party has dynamically created an alliance of people who are united in this one position. I may be a light-industrial trades unionist (generally socially conservative and economically pragmatic). I may be an ethical socialists (some class of CofE perhaps?) or a liberal Fabian … and so on.

    Think tanks often coalesce around the different nodes within political parties and create competition within the membership that drives up the quality of policy-making.

    Then there are the neutral ones that could work with any party or subset of a party – like (for example) the IFS (serious) or Demos (a bit more trivial). They all act as expert witnesses.

    That’s what newspapers need to do more of in public debate – expert witnessing.

  • Greenflag


    ‘that drives up the quality of policy-making.’

    Is there any actual evidence in recent years say the last 20 where any ‘think tank’ in the economic or social or health areas has brought lasting benefit to the British people i.e one which is not presently in danger of being cut back by the present administration under the aegis of the IMF/Wall St unelected regime ?

    “That’s what newspapers need to do more of in public debate – expert witnessing.”

    You might think that and I might even agree with you but newspapers are an endangered species and even ‘political debate ‘ on issues has been reduced to soundbites and spin because that’s what the meeja and ‘capital ‘ want . Politicians are terrified of live debate less they make a single slip up which will be ‘expanded’ to milk every ounce of advantage whereas anything positive they may have said prior is consigned to the ‘good news’ department and promptly disappears from view or listeners or readers .

    In the words of public policy analyst /expert Yzekiel Dror -public policy is mostly a matter of ‘muddling through’ by the ‘mandarins’ while the revolving doors of political reality keep turning and spit out the political failures on a regular basis .

    Now and again a major advance is made to the benefit of society as a whole and I would think that Aneurin Bevan’s reforms in the 1950’s would be a case in point . What did all the think tanks of the 1970’s and 80’s produce for the UK except a de industrialised society and a financial sector dominated by greedy financial speculators and now culminating in an apparent return to ‘university education’ for the rich .

  • Greenflag

    There is of course the eh ‘Big Society’ which is probably code for ‘rule’ by the ‘biggest ‘ i.e banks , corporations and global minded asset strippers and market control oligarchies feted by their political man servants i.e those elected in the main by corporate interests- more so in the USA than UK but sooner or later there as well.

  • joeCanuck

    I’ve actually never seen a lot of differences between communist and fascist states.
    A few years back I read a biography of Stalin and Hitler comparing their lives and misdeeds. Remarkably little difference. Is it the leaders or their parties?

  • Greenflag

    Differences there are and also similarities . Both can live with ‘slavery’ either in the gulag or concentration camp and if you are unlucky enough to be an enemy of either – it’ll be the same difference .

    Communism does not allow for ‘independent’ corporations whereas both Fascism and Nazism did . Corporations under the latter two ‘ideologies’ were however ‘intimately’ involved in pursuing the State’s objectives . HItler’s night of the long knives removed any socialist tendencies which the Brownshirts might have imposed on the emerging nazi State.

    Capitalism (post WW2 ) both in Europe and to a lesser extent in the USA can be seen to have had two phases . The one pre 1980 can be viewed as broadly social democratic with the State still being viewed by the electorates as having the final say in matters ‘economic’ in the broadest sense .

    The advent of neo conservative economics post 1980 and the growth of Chinese authoritarian ‘capitalism’ are both ‘ideological’ branches stemming off the pre 1980 social democratic trunk of what used to be called the acceptable face of capitalism .

    We have seen in the past decade or more where the neo conservative ‘ideology’ has led . Those who support that view will of course excuse their ‘ideology’ on the grounds of it best fits the ‘global economy , the market and the new technologies’ of the internet age .

    The Chinese authoritarians will use the same argument as their excuse for maintaining their one party state .

    Former Chinese Prime Minister in Mao Tse Tung’s time was asked whether or not he thought that that the French Revolution had been successful or not -replied (circa mid 1970’s) that it was still too soon to say .

    It still is . What we like to call ‘democracy’ is under threat from within and without and I don’t mean the Taliban or fanatical Islam .