Case Study: Taxpayers’ Alliance
For the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, and its modus operandi, the moment of reckoning arrived on the first Tuesday of August 2009, when the result of Scottish Enterprise misreading one of their many Freedom of Information requests exposed a culture of less than total honesty, backed up by deceit, petulance, and a ready appetite to smear those who passed adverse comment on the organisation.
Earlier that day, Iain Dale told his readers, under the headline “Extent of Government Funded Lobbying Revealed” that “A new report from those excellent people at the Tax Payers' Alliance has revealed that taxpayers are paying £38 million for the government to lobby itself. The report, Taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning reveals the extent of taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in the UK”.
That Dale took this approach was important: although he can be described as at least small-c Conservative, he was, and remains, a generally mainstream pundit and broadcaster. For him to describe the TPA so positively shows the extent to which this body had, by 2009, gained acceptance by that mainstream.
The report to which Dale referred has since been deleted from the TPA’s website, but an archive copy can be seen HERE. It is the culmination of a number of FoI requests, the information from which was then used to support the claim that Government was paying lobbying firms to lobby itself. The media coverage was just as the TPA wished.
An example of this can still be seen atMail Online, where lifelong Conservative Harry Phibbs likened the TPA’s findings to the “sleaze” that had engulfed his own party in the 1990s. The TPA’s Matthew Sinclair proclaimed his findings toGuardian readers via a Comment Is Free article. The TPA’s claims were given sympathetic and comprehensive coverage by Christopher Hope at the Telegraph.
However, there was a problem underlying the TPA’s exercise: their claim that Government was paying firms to lobby it could not be proved. It was an assumption, a “logic leap” if you will, that work given to firms whose competencies included lobbying was indeed lobbying. The report lets slip this non-trivial flaw on Page 4.
Here, readers are told “The New Economics Foundation was paid £601,518 in 2007-08. Much of that funding seems to have been intended to turn its ideological position into a decision making tool for the Regional Development Agencies. This is remarkable, as the organisation has a radical platform and is responsible for the Happy Planet Index”.
The Happy Planet Index is not lobbying. The cat was well and truly out of the bag.
But much worse was to come, as Mick Fealty at the Slugger O’Toole blog discovered the mistake by Scottish Enterprise and proceeded to call out the TPA. As Fealty observed, the TPA had claimed “Stratagem as being in receipt of £900,000 from Scottish Enterprise. This was not Stratagem, the lobby group, but Strategem the events company”. Someone at Scottish Enterprise had misread the FoI request.
What this meant for the TPA’s report, Fealty added, could be put directly: “the TPA did not actually have the data stand up the headline claims in its dodgy dossier … it was clear from the Scottish cock-up that they’d simply been identifying companies that have lobbying as one their core competences, and then taking the money spent on them by government and calling it lobbying. That gives us a series of lump sum payments but with absolutely no indication of what services it might have been spent on”.
The TPA, generally, does not engage with organisations which it targets via its FoI searches. So it had no idea what was on the invoices for which all those payments had been made. The whole exercise was a glossily presented sham.
This presented a problem for the TPA. Admitting their deception would have generated very bad publicity indeed. So the decision was clearly taken to use a mix of persuasion and smear on Fealty in the hope of persuading him of the error of his ways.
This task was undertaken by Matthew Sinclair, who began with a mixture of astonishment and ridicule: “You're getting utterly ridiculous. Those firms don't just have lobbying as ‘one of their core competences’. They are political consultancies, members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants … To be honest, I've tried to engage with you on this, as your initial criticism was substantive and worth addressing, but I'm rapidly getting the impression that you aren't remotely listening and don't really care. You're angry that your mates at Stratagem have had a hard time [this firm sponsored the Slugger awards] and are on some kind of misguided attempt to avenge them”.
Sinclair then switched to straightforward abuse: “If your point is about the quality of the Irish blogosphere compared to the Westminster media, then I'm afraid you're not doing a great job selling it. I was a blogger before I ever worked at the TPA and, to be frank, I've seen better”.
Later, Sinclair appealed to authority: “Almost all empirical, real world, research involves a certain amount of uncertainty … I think that keeping to the hiring of political consultants, trade associations and payments to primarily political campaigns is a very cautious method … I know enough about lobbying firms to know that they are very clear cases”. We should take him at his word. He later claimed “Part of making our research media friendly is to make it robust and reliable”. I’ll show in a later case study that this claim is bunk.
Note also the use of the term “empirical”. This is much-used in TPA reports, and in their defence. It is worthless spin, and does not excuse the deceit that was exposed here.
Sinclair signed off his attempt to persuade Fealty and his readers by letting them know “I won't be responding to any further comments on these threads. I've tried to engage but I've got better things to do with my time than hang around to take unwarranted anonymous abuse. Clearly you have no idea how research in the social sciences is conducted and are just interested in fleshing out some absurd theory about the TPA being some kind of LSE conspiracy theory”.
Those in and around the New Conservatism like to characterise those of opposing view of advancing “conspiracy theories”, or on occasion “left-wing conspiracy theories”. So Sinclair gives an insightful tutorial on the behaviour of himself and his colleagues here.
Mick Fealty, meanwhile, had made a further observation on the TPA: “the [question] I’d like an answer to is how did a pressure group (ie private lobbyists) get to be treated as a respectable, peer reviewed research institute by a whole swathe of the British press corps ... Fairly embarrassing when the group did not bother to check the veracity of the information”.
Once again, the TPA’s response was enlightening. Matthew Sinclair used the platform given him to smear Fealty: “Don't let your relationship with Stratagem cloud your judgement about the TPA's work”. This was echoed by Sinclair’s colleague Mark Wallace, who replied to Fealty on Iain Dale’s blog with “I know that you have a personal relationship to Stratagem yourself, but it would be wrong to let that cloud your judgement on this serious issue”.
He concluded his attempt at persuading Fealty with this: “I'm not going to continue this indefinitely though, as you appear to have lost all perspective and I'm not sure it is possible for me to get anywhere when you've made your mind up to such an extent. At this stage, all I can really do is sound patronising, ask you to take a deep breath and read our report again with a clear head”. This did not make the report any less suspect.
The interventions by Sinclair and Wallace showed a willingness to bluster, smear, and above all pretend for the TPA’s research something it does not merit: credibility. As I’ll show in a later case study, shoddy work and false assumptions are part and parcel of how this group gets its propaganda out there.
And while it’s clear the claims made by the “Taxpayer Funded Lobbying and Campaigning” report were well and truly busted by Mick Fealty and others, one must not lose sight of the fact that not only did the claims made by the TPA get out into the media, the busting of them hardly registered. The old adage that a lie is half way around the world before the truth gets its socks on was never more effectively demonstrated.
As I suggested in my post introducing the TPA, their approach to generating and presenting propaganda has spread to other parts of the New Conservatism. In the next post of this series, I’ll give a further example of this by way of another case study.