How the Taxpayers' Alliance is making headlines

As overstretched newsrooms fail to resource investigative reporting, lobby groups are stepping in to do the leg work. By Jamie Merrill

'Inheritance tax is theft", screams the framed tabloid front page hung in pride of place in the Taxpayers' Alliance's smart Westminster offices. It's not unusual for pressure groups to celebrate their press coverage and campaign victories but the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA) isn't exactly your usual political pressure group.

Since its foundation in 2004 by three "libertarian" Conservatives, in response to David Cameron's refusal to commit a future Conservative government to tax cuts, the TPA has quickly become one of the most quoted pressure groups in the British media, getting on average 10 hits a day in the print media alone. It now claims to have become "Britain's grass-roots campaign for lower taxes."

The alliance's small office, in Old Queen Street near the Houses of Parliament, is crammed with framed newspaper headlines and a team of eight young researchers, analysts and press officers. TPA reports have hit the headlines recently on MP's expenses, the cost of crime and local government salaries. Stacks of newspaper clippings add to the feeling that you are in a buzzing newsroom not the headquarters of a pressure group. Those clippings represent just a few of the 2,376 media hits the alliance claims to have received in the last six months.

Matthew Elliott, the co-founder and chief executive of the TPA is frank when detailing how the alliance has built up this media profile, doing the work that once would have been done by journalists themselves.

"What we've tried to do since 2004 is understand how the media works, so we've tried to give news stories to journalists on a plate. Journalists have 101 things to do in their day and don't often have time to read long and dry reports from think-thanks. So we use the Freedom of Information Act and a team of researchers to get fresh figures from government and local councils, which we package up into brief, media-friendly research papers, complete with eye-catching headline figures to give reporters a ready-made top line".

It is this ability to package and sell its reports that has been central to the TPA's high profile, as has its ability to make spokespeople available to national and local newspapers and broadcasters at every opportunity.

"You can't be a campaigning pressure group and expect to work office hours", says Elliott. "The Today programme doesn't decide its agenda until late the night before, after they receive the first editions of the newspapers so if you are mentioned in the press you've got to be ready and available for interview that night or for 6am the next morning."

Paul Lashmar, an investigative reporter and lecturer in journalism at University College Falmouth, sees a direct relation between the rise of the TPA and the pressures on news organisations. "Journalists are often now so overstretched that a lot of work that used to be carried out in the newsroom is carried out by groups like the TPA. You don't see extensive research anymore whereas it used to be commonplace in Sunday papers to have exercises where, for example, you would ring around every MP for their opinions as the TPA has done numerous times.

"What you see now is journalists who are grateful for news which is almost perfectly packaged to go into the paper with a ready top line. In that sense, journalism is becoming very passive. It is a processor of other people's information rather than being engaged in actively seeking out and determining what the truth of a situation is in an energetic and inquisitive way."

The TPA thinks ahead as to how its stories can have as long a tail as possible, rippling across local media outlets with the help of the activity of a network of 2,500 grass-roots supporters. "We tailor our reports to encourage local participation," says Elliott. "For example, by ranking local councils by waste or salaries we encourage local papers to pick the story up. This in turn causes a stir locally, which gets the locals groups agitated and brings us new members and supporters."

Rather than launching itself as a traditional think-tank, mostly ignored outside of the Westminster bubble, the TPA decided to set itself up as a campaigning organisation with an innovative communications strategy spreading its core message that the State has become too large and wasteful and that Britons are paying too much tax. To some, the whole process is alarming. Many on the left have attacked the TPA and Elliott and its co-founders, Andrew Allum, a former Conservative Councillor and Florence Heath, a former Young Conservative and exploitation geologist for a major international oil company, for being unrepresentative of the 30 million British taxpayers. Richard Murphy, founder of the rival Tax Justice Network, an independent coalition of researchers who focus on exposing tax avoidance and tax havens, is stinging in his criticism of the alliance. "A new financial elite are seeking to capture the resources of society to promote their new form of wealth accumulation through financial services... The TPA is massively helpful to this. The tax system it promotes, claiming it has popular support, is regressive and will widen the poverty gap because it promotes tax reduction, flat tax, tax simplification, which always allows more scope for tax avoidance for the wealthy, and all in the name of ordinary people."

However, it isn't just right-of-centre groups such as the TPA which are using new techniques to increase their media coverage. As Lashmar points out, groups like Global Witness, a non-partisan NGO which tries to break down the links between resource exploitation, conflict, poverty and human rights abuses worldwide, now dedicates its resources to work that once would have been carried out by specialist or investigative journalists.

"There are very few investigative journalists around now and they have very meagre resources. This failure is very clear and groups like Global Witness and the TJN, which carries out research into offshore banking and tax evasion, as well as environmental groups such as Greenpeace, are filling the gap.

"And regardless of one's views of where the TPA is coming from politically, it has carried out some absolutely crucial work. Recently, in one report on the role of management in government, they have revealed one of the great malaises of our time; that we have a government that can't manage. You won't see a newspaper doing that kind of research work anymore. Savvy groups like the TPA and others are filling the void."