Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 17 August 2009

Why are the Taxpayers' Alliance quoted so often?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

What have all these recent stories got in common?

They all include a quote or comment from a spokesperson for the Taxpayers' Alliance.

I have noticed this for quite a while now. It seems like almost any story that involves tax or even the BBC license fee in any way will likely have a "response" to the story from the TPA. It was brought home to me quite acutely when I was on holiday in Ireland and I happened to read a few UK newspaper articles. Every single one of them had a quote from them. I even heard them mentioned on Irish radio!

According to Wikipedia they employ 13 staff and have been around for 5 years or so and have around 18,000 members. They have been accused of being a front organisation for the Conservative Party but they deny this.

Don't get me wrong, I am very impressed with the TPA. They are a campaigning organisation who have positioned themselves very well and clearly know how to get coverage for their views. In some cases I even agree with them!

The problem is that they now clearly have disproportionate influence. They represent one sort of view from a particular political perspective and yet they are called upon for comment on virtually every story that involves tax payers money which is a lot of stories!

I suspect there is a fair bit of "Flat Earth News" going on here too. I am not naive enough not to realise that at least some of the stories will have been fed to the media by the TPA themselves and therefore they are almost bound to get a quote under those circumstances. The point is, why do the media so often run with stories like this along with the obligatory TPA quote which invariably makes it seem like tax payers money is always, always wasted?

There needs to be more balance. If lots of these stories are originated by the TPA then journalists need to come up with their own stories more rather than have them fed to them by an organisation like the TPA who are clearly prolific in this field and will continue to be so. If they are sourcing the stories themselves then they need to look around for more quotes to achieve a bit more balance.

Oh and I am happy to give my tuppence worth on stories if the media are stuck for someone else to quote....


UPDATE: Mick Fealty writing on Slugger O'Toole has also provided his view on this.

37 comments:

James said...

Hmm. Not convinced that TPA will have originated all that many of those stories - though they do the odd piece of good original FOI research.

TPA is quoted so much simply because they're predictable and reliable.

They have a 24-hour press mobile which is almost always answered (not left to voicemail), typically get quote within an hour or so, quote colourfully and have a very, very predictable point of view.

Their ubiquity says something about the formulaic writing style a lot of us use (yes, I've used them as quote myself and will do so again), and so is worth questioning.

But there are also times when they're the right source for comment, too: a lot of stories are about the misuse of public money. Can journalists really be blamed for turning to them for stories on that theme?

James said...

"will do so again" should read "will likely do so again"

Minor correction posted in order to tick 'email follow-ups' box...

Mark Reckons said...

Thanks for your comments James. Do you mind if I ask who you work for? No worries if you'd rather not say, I am just interested.

Just because they are available and willing to give their views on every story about tax does not mean that the media should always use them. It is a cop-out to say that journalists cannot be blamed for using them, they should try harder to get more balance.

Inevitably what is now starting to happen given the sheer volume of stories and TPA comments that a general feeling that much tax payers money is wasted is now being allowed to take hold.

I am not saying there is not potentially a problem that needs to be addressed but the whole debate is becoming very distorted. There is very little balance now and the TPA's agenda has been allowed to take root almost unopposed.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

They aren't a "Tory front" but the clearly are a conservative organisation and much of their original funding came from the Tory-funding (and Tory-run) Midland Industrial Council. It is therefore hardly surprising that they have a "West Midlands" branch.

It suggests journalistic laziness and the importance of having a strong press team. Liberty have acquired the same status in recent years.

James said...

Mark - I'm a freelance for the nationals. You can see my stuff at www.journalisted.com/james-ball

It's a tricky one. You can be sure the government and ruling party will *always* defend spending, however tricky.

So when you do unearth stories about wasted tax money - and there genuinely is plenty of it - you need someone to comment on it, especially if you find it yourself.

Stories got through Freedom of Information or similar about money that's possibly mis-spent needs some outside comment.

For health, agencies like the King's Fund or IFS are always the first choice for insight, but for opinion on public funds, should we really not quote a pressure group built around campaigning on tax?

If you want a couynterveiling view, on way is to set up such a group.

Solely towing the TPA's, or anyone else's, line is lazy journalism. So would only running stories they spoonfeed.

But pointing out where tax money is genuinely wasted right now benefits everyone, wherever they are on the political spectrum.

With the kind of spending cuts we've got coming up, every penny that we identify is badly spent is one penny less cut from the substantial majority that is well spent on essential services.

The TPA is an effective lobby (though with a strong right-wing agenda) that helps get such stories out. They're a decent rent-a-quote, essentially.

Matthew Huntbach said...


TPA is quoted so much simply because they're predictable and reliable.


And because they say the sort of thing that the rich people who rule us and use newspapers as part of that like. The SWP is predictable and reliable and well, and the newspapers don't tend to quote them, do they?

A lot of stories are about mis-use of public money, yes. And why are these stories and stories about rich people exploiting poor people not stories? The agenda is set in a biased way by those who profit from that. Why were a few MPs making a few thousand through dubious expenses claims considered so much more an important story than financiers who individually took money which would pay every MP's dubious expenses claim - and did so just for being there? Because there's an agenda to knock politicians and democracy for the sake of making solutions which involve the private rich becoming richer being seen as better.

I'm not entirely dismissing the "libertarian" line, but it's becoming more and more clear now just how heavily this line is being pushed by the powers-that-be, picked up by the sort of young and impressionable type who can always be persuaded to follow the latest fashion by making them think it's hip and different and rebellious (the classic teenage line is "I want to be different, just like all the others"), and is just so sloppily being accepted because various forms of it are being peddled by people who have a vested interest in peddling it. Our eyes may just about be getting opened to this by the lies being told about our NHS in the USA.

marksany said...

I suppose the ubiquity of TPA shows a lack of other bodies pushing the view that taxpayers' money isb eing wasted. Most lobby orgs are calling for the govt to spend more money, not less.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

It's a shame journalists so often go for this 'yes/no' idea of political balance and so rarely take an interest in views that are more nuanced.

I think Matthew has a point about the establishment pushing libertarianism. At a time when social immobility is entrenching we are all being told to swallow the idea that we live in a classless society where Eton schoolboys have no more advantages than people who went to a run down inner city comp and that it is not merely wrong and "statist" but actually sinister and even evil to suggest otherwise.

Scott said...

Disproportionate influence?

That is just about the most absurd thing I have heard today.

Are you aware of the state of the public finances or not?

If we’d listened to them for the last ten years instead of denouncing them as a “front for the Tories”, we might not be in the position we are now in.

Given the stifling orthodoxy around issues of public spending that we have had to endure under Labour, how anyone can argue that the TPA enjoy disproportionate influence is beyond me, it really is. The truth is rather the opposite: they’re not nearly influential enough.

burkesworks said...

It's a mixture of lazy journalism by the MSM and the Taxpayers' Alliance knowing exactly how to pitch their press releases. It's for similar reasons that Iain Dale has become de-facto the go-to guy for anything blog-related, why Shami Chakrabrarti is the one the MSM always turn to in civil liberties matters, etc, etc. That's the kind of trick LibDems need to learn - how to aim for the right market. So far, of the major figures in the party, there is really only Vince who has mastered this art.

Ewan the liberal beardy said...

The major problem I have with the TPA is their name. It implies they are representing the views of many more people than they actually are. As a scientist, I was fairly horrified to see the Scientific Alliance present their views on climate change on Newsnight recently. Their views were unhelpful to say the least and it angered me that they could get away with having such a catch-all organisation name.

Who's for starting up the Human Alliance?

James said...

"Everyone who isn't a moron Alliance", anyone?

Mark Reckons said...

Scott, I agree that the public finances are in a mess but that doesn't invalidate my argument.

You might well agree with the TPA and their agenda but they are a small group that has way too much influence for their size and membership.

Imagine if it was a group whose aims were not aligned with your political views. Would you still think it was OK for them to wield such power and influence and be quoted all the time?

It should be the opposition parties making the running on this. They are supposed to be representing our interests and they can be voted for or not accordingly.

Who elected the TPA? Where can I cast my ballot for or against them?

Scott said...

With respect Mark, what has the size and membership of the group got to do with it?

They are either right or wrong, so quit getting hung upon obscure and irrelevant detail and deal with the substance of their argument.

If everyone could just get beyond party for a minute, maybe we could get on to the real issues rather than obsessing over trivia.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Well, their overall approach (opportunistically attack all public spending except on unspecified things like the monarchy and attack all taxes aimed at the rich - taxes paid by the poor, not so much) IS wrong but that is not the point.

The question Mark was asking was why they are relied on so much as the media's rent-a-quotes.

Mark Reckons said...

With respect Scott, the size and membership is exactly my point. Who are they representing? All the taxpayers in the country? That's the impression they are trying to give but this is nonsense.

I am happy to debate the substance of what they say but their whole agenda is geared towards framing the debate in a way that anybody who wishes to defend public spending is on the back-foot. Why should they get to set the terms of the debate in this way?

I should reiterate at this point that I don't always disagree with them, I sometimes agree with them. That is not my point. They do have disproportionate influence and it is lazy journalism that seems to be the major culprit.

I am not sure why you say "get beyond party". I am not making a party political point. My party is actually in the vanguard of identifying potential spending cuts.

Scott said...

@James Graham

maybe because they seem to be just about the only group prepared to challenge the crushing orthodoxy around public spending.

The public sphere is hardly flooded with people putting the argument for lower taxes is it?

The Tories are scared of their own shadows when it comes to the issue.

The debate needs people prepared to challenge the cosy consensus around spending and taxation. Labour have had things their own way for too long on fiscal policy, with ruinous consequences.

and so I think the TPA should be applauded. I say again, a little more of their fiscal discipline over the last decade and we'd all be in a lot healthier position today.

Scott said...

Mark,

The idea that fiscal conservatives are anywhere near 'setting the terms of the debate' in this country is laughable.

The Tories are frightened to death of the issue precisely because of the way the debate has been framed over the last ten years.

Only now, on the back of the expenses scandal, and in view of the collapse of our entire fiscal position, is that consensus beginning to break down.

and yet still - after everything we know about the culture of excess in the public sphere - the argument for lower spending struggles to get heard.

So I just don't accept your premise. The truth of it is that we need to hear more from the TPA, not less.

And to suggest that there wasn't a party slant to your original post is disingenuous in the extreme Mark. How else are we to interpret you charge that they are a 'front' for the Tories except in party terms?

Voter said...

Mark, you say people defending will be on the back foot.

This suggests that having a defense for an action in politics is the exception rather than the rule. To me, this is the wrong way round.

I want to see thoughtful politics not just blindly spending money.

Perhaps you feel that your party does not have the talent to be able to defend their proposals. If so, then the solution I suggest tentatively is to reform your party and its policy process, not to say you feel you are on the back foot.

I find this feeling of acceptance towards "guesswork government" misplaced.

Mark Reckons said...

Scott - It isn't disingenuous and it wasn't my charge. I was quoting from the Wikipedia article that I had linked to!

I have posted previously about how spending cannot continue to rise and needs to be controlled. I run my own business and am at the sharp end of this myself at the moment.

You are still missing my point. Why should a body like the TPA be able to garner so much coverage and become the default go-to organisation for any story about tax? It should be political parties doing this, not pressure groups.

If a left-wing non-party aligned organisation was getting this much coverage I bet you would be up in arms about it but because you agree with them it's OK.


Voter - you are misunderstanding me. I am very much not making a party political point and I am not trying to defend anything! I just think having a body that does not answer to anyone or the public having so much influence is not right.

Voter said...

You said "their whole agenda is geared towards framing the debate in a way that anybody who wishes to defend public spending is on the back-foot"

This implies a criticism of TPA.

I was simply responding that anyone who is sure of their position will not be on the back foot.

Mark Reckons said...

Their whole agenda is! I wasn't saying I was one of those on the back-foot though.

And it isn't a criticism of them. If anything it's a compliment that they have managed to position themselves like this. The problem I have is with the media who have allowed them to do this and continue to do so.

Voter said...

Well, if we agree that those who are sure of their position will not be on the back foot and this is good, then we do not have a problem.

Seems like the media are doing a good job.

What I would like to see is some media emphasis on the lack of a government "exit strategy" for support for the banks.

At the moment, my impression is that we are underwriting the banks while they are permitted to continue gambling on the stock market

Kalvis Jansons said...

Basically, the press are lazy, and like a story handed to them.

James said...

While I'm sure it feels lovely to criticise the MSM for laziness on the comments field of a blog, it's also lazy to assume that just because the TPA is quoted in a story, it's because a journalist has been spoon-fed a story by them.

It's also wrong.

When journos find stories involving wasted taxpayer money, we try a range of sources: indepedent experts, political parties, economists. In many stories where the TPA is quoted, you'll find stuff from them.

But, we also need colourful quote, and in many cases political parties don't want to be seen to criticise public services (especially the tories, who are being careful position-wise).

In those instances, TPA are a handy source for a quote. Are they used too often? Probably.

Does this mean they control the MSM or its agenda? No.

Also worth noting: being quoted a lot in the papers is almost completely uncorrelated with being genuinely influential.

Brian E. said...

"The TPA have around 18,000 members"; I would suggest that this is a lot more than many organisations that are quoted in the media with regular monotony. (Out of curiosity, how many does the Liberal party have?). Indeed I can think of quite a few such organisations which don't seem to have any genuine members at all and are simply small, but vocal, pressure groups who claim to represent large numbers of people, whether they are members or not.
And surely it is time that some organisation started to identify government waste; not necessarily the type of waste that an audit produces, but waste due to the unnecessary expenditure of taxpayers' money. I fully support the TPA.

Scott said...

Mark,

I am not missing your point. I just consider it a minor and irrelevant one. Where I do agree with you is that the Tories should be out in front on the issue. Ordinarily – and historically, of course - they would be. The reason they haven't been is not because of ‘lazy’journalism, but journalism of an altogether different sort. The real villain is the type of attack journalism that Labour have pioneered over the last decade. There is nothing lazy about it, quite the opposite in fact. In pursuit of its agenda it is quite vigorous, exceptionally energetic in fact, and utterly ruthless.

And it has successfully managed to close down debate. For 10 years a consensus has settled around the proposition that public spending is a good thing; that government knows best, that the political class is a better judge of how to spend taxpayers’ money than taxpayers themselves. Engineered by Labour and supported by its friends in the media, this consensus has effectively had a lock on issues of taxation and spending. The counter argument simply has not been allowed a look in.

It is this artfully constructed consensus that is undemocratic. So instead of attacking the TPA for being unrepresentative, maybe you should look at the type of attack journalism that produced the sterile debate about ‘Tory Cuts!’ in the first place, because without that, there wouldn’t be the need for the TPA. The Tories could make the argument in an atmosphere of restraint. As it is, the merest whiff of an attempt to curb the culture of excess in the public sphere is enough to trigger the full fury of Labour’s attack machine. In response, the Tories have run scared of the issue.

For me, that is the real root of the problem. Thankfully, the collapse in our fiscal position is so total, so utter and complete that Labour’s friends in the media can no longer put an effective gloss on it for them. The argument for spending restraint is now effectively unanswerable. Over time, as Tory confidence grows and they begin to make the argument for restraint with more vigour and energy, expect to see less reliance on organisations such as the TPA. They will always feature, but the main argument will be fronted by the Tories.

marksany said...

A lot of the rent-a-quote bodies are fakecharities, TPA isn't. TPA is probably the only anti-tax group that the MSM don't consider to be nuts.

Mark Reckons said...

Scott - a very well argued case and it cuts to the heart of the issue.

I am well aware of the nonsense that has been going on for years regarding these "TORY CUTS!!!11" cries and have bemoaned it on here more than once. I am a consistent advocate of sensible debate devoid of soundbites and dealing with the issues, not appealing to emotion and/or throwing up straw men all over the place.

For that reason I despair when the Tories fight shy of a proper debate. It is political cowardice not to engage with it. If the Tories really believe that spending needs to be cut they should come out fighting on that issue. Not rely on a proxy organisation to do the spade-work for them. No-one voted for or can vote for the TPA.

When Liam Byrne and Andy Burnham tried to defend their latest attempts at characterising Tory cuts they looked like idiots. They were literally incomprehensible as they tried to say they would increase spending and TEH EVILE TORIEZ would slash all kinds.

If the Tories can't take that nonsense face-on then what is the point in anybody voting for them?

Matthew Huntbach said...


For 10 years a consensus has settled around the proposition that public spending is a good thing; that government knows best, that the political class is a better judge of how to spend taxpayers’ money than taxpayers themselves.


Well, yes, a consensus apart from the top circulating quality newspapers, all the middle market newspapers, the top-selling low-market newspaper, the top-selling political weeklies, almost every business organisation, the main opposition party, the most influential political blogs ...

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I just "joined" the Taxpayer's Alliance. It's free. They don't seem very interested in my views though.

For the record, the Lib Dems have around 60,000 members. I have no idea how many members the Liberal Party has. Maybe 200?

Kalvis Jansons said...

James said: "While I'm sure it feels lovely to criticise the MSM for laziness on the comments field of a blog, it's also lazy to assume that just because the TPA is quoted in a story, it's because a journalist has been spoon-fed a story by them."

You are making false assumptions about my state of mind. I am happy with comments on what I said, but not on how I feel or guessed assumptions, etc.

Clifford Singer said...

There is an even easier way to get a TaxPayers' Alliance-style "outraged" quote: use the Other TaxPayers' Alliance random quote generator:
http://taxpayersalliance.org/quote/

Voter said...

You say "If the Tories can't take that nonsense face-on then what is the point in anybody voting for them?"

I assume (correct me if I am wrong) that you would say there is a point in voting Lib Dem.

Do you see the Lib Dems as credible on the bank situation? I see the odd quote from Mr Cable but I would like to know that the Lib Dems have a plan.

Is the current position on an official web site?

Mark Reckons said...

Voter - I don't usually get all partisan but you are forcing my hand here.

Vince Cable is widely acknowledged across all parties as having called this crisis correctly from the start (and been warning about the potential for it for years) and to have come up with the best ideas of how to deal with it, many of which have been belatedly implemented by the government.

I think you are confusing us with the Tories who really did seem all at sea during the crisis.

We are also the only major party to have seriously identified major savings and been willing to say we will do it. The other parties seem terrified of being accused of "CUTS" and have fought shy of being too specific, or in Labour's case admitting that spending needs to be controlled at all.

Voter said...

I have seen people give credit to Mr Cable (such as Alix). However, the devil is in the details and vague warnings of doom may be of no greater value than astrology.

What do you think of the 2005 manifesto section on the economy in this regard?

Mr Cable has been getting good press but, for me, this is not the test of economic leadership.

One test is what the manifesto actual said.

I have read the section starting "When Labour was first elected, they seemed" and ending "Britain's future prosperity". The section does not "call the crisis", as you can verify for yourself.

To support your position, can you cite the part of the manifesto that provides adequate warnings and details of reasonable actions to take to avert disaster?

Mark Wallace said...

An interesting piece and an interesting discussion. Sorry it's taken a while to get round to commenting - it's been a pretty hectic week so far!

I think there are a number of reasons why we have a strong media profile. Obviously I'm biased but I do think it's in many ways down to hard work on our part rather than laziness on the part of journalists. If anything there is a good dose of laziness in other press offices rather than newsrooms...

A few thoughts from the TPA perspective:

- we do produce large quantities of interesting, newsworthy research. Particularly in pioneering new uses of FoI we reveal stories that would not otherwise be exposed. It's true that effectively this is what was once known as investigative journalism. Sadly, most papers simply cannot afford to spend the time and effort doing these large scale investigations. However, I'd argue there is a difference between pure "churnalism" (where people simply do a lazy opinion poll or say something and make it into a press release) and producing quality research that is reliable and headline-worthy.

- We have a good USP - our mission is clear, and we don't have any party whip or kingpin paymaster whose interests we need to tiptoe around. Contrary to James Graham's lazy assertion, we are consistent regardless of topic or party. (PS, James, if you want to see whether we comment on the Royals, try googling: "site:www.taxpayersalliance.com prince")

- As marksany says, most groups are constantly begging for more taxpayers' money to be spent on their particular interest so we stand out.

- Now is a particularly strong time for the low tax message. People's money does mean more to them, and the public/private divide has opened up even wider. People, and therefore the media who need to sell papers, are interested in finding ways to save money - our work suggests those ways.

- A lot of our campaigns, warnings and predictions have been proved right, while the establishment consensus is opposed to us. When we started talking about MPs' expenses, we got hate mail from politicians saying it was a non-issue...

- As James says in the comments above, we do work very hard to be available 24/7, to respond promptly and provide useful and interesting comments. You'd be amazed at how many (particularly quango and council) press offices won't respond to journalists for days or even weeks, and then produce some limp copy which straddles the fence without saying anything of interest.

- we innovate, combining think-tanky research with protests, novel stunts and a grassroots campaign of over 30,000 people. We're trying to combine the best ideas from lots of different groups elsewhere.

- we put in a lot of hard work. It's easy to sit around and moan that everything's unfair and the media are biased or the facts about your pet policy are unnoticed, but if you want something to change you have to put in the effort.

PS Matthew Huntbach's idea that the people running this country are low tax libertarians is frankly bonkers. ID cards? DNA database? 1,162 quangos? £175 billion borrowing this year? If there is a secret libertarian conspiracy running Britain, then they're not doing a very good job of it...