Hard pressed journalists, as Nick Davies has observed in the excellent Flat Earth News, are vulnerable to lobbying and Public Relations (PR) groups. Pressure is built in a variety of ways: one of these is what Davies terms the Astroturf group, so called because, ostensibly, it appears to be based on grass roots support, whereas in reality it has little in the way of roots, being just another lobbying tool.
And there is no finer example of Astroturf in action than the Taxpayers’ Alliance. It sounds very grass roots indeed, but its membership of 20,000 is a mere 0.04% of the taxpaying public. Its income in 2006 – the last year in which this was declared – was just 130k. Yet it manages to keep a staff of ten, and offices in London and Birmingham. And they get their message into the media every day.
So who is behind this group? A look at its “Academic Advisory Council” reveals the usual suspects: Patrick Minford, formerly of the University of Liverpool and now at Cardiff Business School, arch Friedmanite, Poll Tax apologist and Europhobe, is one. Madsen “Dr Mad” Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, a museum of economic thought which practises fraudulently in the name of the founder of economics, is another.
What do they want? Ah well. They want to cut out waste in Government spending. But this is a no-brainer – we all want that, whatever our political affiliation. What they really want – and for the two mentioned above, this is their life’s work – is for there to be a lot less Government spending, and therefore a lot less taxation. At first this seems a reasonable idea, until some thought is applied to the proposition: what gets removed from that spending, and if it is removed, how is the service otherwise provided?
Who wins from this approach? The key to answering that question comes in the group’s advocacy of flat tax. What that? Well, this is the idea of having a constant rate of taxation on, for instance, incomes. It sounds appealing at first, until you realise that, as the progressive element of that taxation is removed, this is a move that favours the rich over the poor. A look at the Taxpayers’ Alliance list of “Business Supporters” shows that it is backed by a number of very wealthy people. The rich lobbying to make themselves yet richer? Well, well.
So how does the media respond to the propaganda? Well, given that the group gets an average of thirteen mentions per day across the board, it seems to be lapping it up. As Nick Davies has shown, there is the ever present pressure of deadlines to make, and space to fill. PR, all too often, works its way into that space masquerading as real news. But the saddest tale here is that of the blogosphere: many apparently leading blogs transmit Taxpayers’ Alliance propaganda as unchallenged fact.
And that’s not good enough.