Look, I know it's easy. It's the easiest thing in the world. You're doing a story about the public sector, you need someone to be able to say "Wuuuuuuurgh, isn't it awful, our tax pounds are being wasted by this" and you're five minutes away from deadline. Sure, a phone call to the Tax Payers Alliance might seem like the most sensible thing in the world. You know they're going to say whatever you want them to say. You know they're pretty much going to complain about public expenditure on anything ever, whether it's justified or not. Sure, it's a piece of piss story.
It's the same with broadcasters. You need someone to put the point of view that spending money on things is bad, if that money has come from the public taxes at some stage. It's a no-brainer, isn't it? Get on the blower to the TPA and they'll have someone droning away at you on radio or TV within seconds, no matter what the subject - they'll always have someone ready and waiting to be called into action to complain about taxation. Just send up the bat-signal and they'll get racing into action. Problem solved!
But do you know who you're dealing with? How transparent are the Tax Payers Alliance? They've become more and more popular in the media, thanks to the fact they're the go-to guys for a hack in a hurry who needs some derogatory quotes about the public sector spending money on things. But are they as transparent as they'd like the public sector to be? And if they aren't, why not? What possible reason might there be for them to be so coy about where their money comes from - particularly when their whole reason for existing is to complain about where money comes from?
Recently the TPA have been frothing at the mouth over MPs' expenses, particularly the redacted edition.
After MPs themselves have been allowed to go through all their own claims "redacting" information, there are some glaring gaps in what the public are being told. It turns out that "redacting" is a technical term for "obscuring potentially embarassing information with a big black marker pen".
Sounds fair enough, doesn't it? But then you have to remember this:
It’s simply not true that all political organisations are secretive about their funding. Most declare their income and expenditure, and some give a break-down of income sources, including donors. The TPA does neither. It publishes abbreviated accounts which means income and expenditure are withheld. The last time it published full accounts was in 2006, when it recorded an income of £130,000. But the current organisation has ten full-time staff across two offices, which suggests either its income has jumped substantially or it is loaded with debt.
But we don't know for sure, because the TPA are very shy. Is it fair enough that journalists harvest quotes from the TPA about transparency and probity, while at the same time they're extremely shy about where their own money comes from? Sure, it's not taxpayers' money and they have no legal obligation to disclose it - but then again, why not? What on earth would be wrong with letting us all know who is funding the TPA and where that money is coming from?
After all, they appear on the BBC, the taxpayer-funded broadcaster, often enough. Shouldn't we as licence fee payers know where this pressure group, which gets hours and hours of coverage thanks to
lazy journalists at the BBC, is coming from? Shouldn't we be told what its aims are and why it's complaining about tax, rather than just that it is?
The way the TPA gets presented by journalists is as if it's some kind of independent think-tank which just happens to be really concerned about taxpayers' money. Which might be true, who knows? But what if there was another agenda there? Which people are funding the TPA, and what are they hoping to get out of it? Surely it would be fair enough that we should be allowed to know that - or does transparency only work one way?
There's a story there for a journalist who really wants to find out - rather than just ringing the TPA up every time they 'need a quote' about how bad the public sector is.
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