trollingSo, the Taxpayers’ Alliance have finally found the point at which they say something so outrageous that they actually have to apologise for it. There’s an even more shocking claim at the start of that report, however, when it refers to the TPA as a ‘think tank’, which future lexicographers may well come to regard as the point at which that term lost all meaning. Whereas a think tank used to conjure up images of dour and serious policy wonks lost in deep contemplation about the future of the country, now it appears to refer to anyone with an opinion and a non-personal website. (I’m still accepting donations to the Straw Man Institute, by the way)

Describing the TPA and their ilk as think tanks is a real misnomer, as those who work there are being paid to actively not think. There’s no pretence of objective investigation and enquiry going on, merely a process centred around mass-generation of Freedom of Information requests, the results of which are then splattered into a spreadsheet, attached to a press-release and hawked mercilessly around the lazier corners of the press. There’s no attempt to generate independent or original thought, they’re merely a conduit for providing PR to serve their donors’ needs by generating headlines favourable to their causes.

Their role is nothing more than trolling on a grand scale, derailing any attempt to have serious discussions about government, politics and society by shouting ‘but what about the rich people, eh?’ into any discussion. There is a role for genuine think tanks in political discussion, but that role is continually weakened by their association with what are nothing more than shills for whoever’s willing to pay them that week. When groups like the TPA get called ‘think tanks’ it denigrates and weakens the output of any organisation given that title, implying that they’re all nothing more than cheap PR flacks, eager to tell you exactly what you want to hear.

To try and solve this I recommend that any organisation that clearly doesn’t care about thinking should be referred to solely as a ‘troll tank’ (though some may perhaps be better referred to as ‘troll factories’ given how much their alumni crop up across the media). It’s a much better description of what they do and their role in debate, and might just lead to people understanding that they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

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Question Time needs a wider variety of panellists

BBC_Question_TimeBecause I’m a masochist, I watched Question Time last night, where one of the panellists was a representative of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Contrary to the image they present, the TPA isn’t a membership-based grassroots organisation, but a privately funded lobbying group that doesn’t represent anyone but its donors – what’s normally known as an ‘astroturf‘ group. However, like other lobbying groups and corporate shills that pretend to be ‘think tanks’ (the ones with ‘Institute’ in their names), it often gets invited to go on Question Time and other news programmes as though it has some kind of impartiality and objectivity, rather than being something established to campaign for a specific purpose.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with campaigning for something, even if that is to ensure that addressing the concerns of the wealthy and privileged is even more over-represented in political debate, but why aren’t other campaigning groups given a seat on the Question Time panel? I can’t recall anyone from organisations like Friends of the Earth or Amnesty – groups with actual memberships, often larger than any of the political parties – ever sitting on the panel, while the TPA and their ilk regularly get a seat there.

Alternatively, if the producers of Question Time are actually incapable of doing any sort of research into the people they invite and accept the spin that these people are some kind of impartial experts, why not invite some genuine experts on the programme? There are hundreds of academic experts in politics and public policy and at least some of them are safe to put on television before a general audience. Naturally, I’d suggest someone like David Sanders from Essex, but other academics and academic disciplines are available. I have been told by reliable sources that there are historians with opinions out there who aren’t called ‘David Starkey’.

They can still have the astroturf lobbyists on there occasionally if they want to, but surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find a wider range of panellists that might actually allow some facts to be interjected into the discussion occasionally?

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Bored? Then it’s time for some linkage:

Colonel Albert Bachmann – Telegraph obituary of a Swiss spy, whose life resembled something from a black comedy about the Cold War.
The Lib Dem Leadership Don’t Get It – But I Do – Jennie explains the elephant in the room that the party leadership aren’t acknowledging.
TPA – Pretence of Authority – Tim Fenton notes that the Taxpayers Alliance’s policies only seem to be for a very small number of taxpayers.
Some Advice to New Councillors – Useful advice from Richard Kemp.
Thirty Books from Interrupted Worlds – Lawrence Miles provides some humorous reinterpretations of classic books from alternate timelines.

Burning of the heretics may now recommence.

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Worth Reading 35: Tetrahedral photography

Walking, joking, sponging, whitewashing and precedent-setting:

A whitewashed Earthsea – Ursula K LeGuin on how her characters changed from non-white to white once they appeared on TV
The ‘only known joke about collective nouns’ – From local copywriter Ben Locker
New Kosovo president Jahjaga sets a precedent – You know how a sign of getting old is that the police look younger than you? Well, Kosovo’s new president is a police officer, and she’s younger than me, which makes me feel doubly old.
EXCLUSIVE: TPA sponging off the taxpayer – Tim Fenton finds the Taxpayers Alliance aren’t averse to taking advantage of taxpayer-funded resources.
Jane’s Walk comes to Colchester – “A weekend of local walks led by local people, taking place simultaneously around the world, celebrating the ideas and legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006). Jane’s Walk takes place on the first weekend in May each year (marking the anniversary of her birthday) and invites local people to get out into their neighbourhoods and to host free local walks on any theme, bringing people together to share stories and to talk about the local places in which they live, work and play.”

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Worth Reading 30: Into middle youth

There are now officially 150 things worth reading on the internet.

The people disarmed – Chris Bertram’s take on the Libyan no fly zone.
TPA – Sinclair the Shameless – An excellent post from Tim Fenton of Zelo Street on the many ways you can describe Matthew Sinclair of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth ‘Crying In Rage’ – The fascinating story of Vladimir Komarov’s death on Soyuz 1, his friendship with Yuri Gagarin and the Soviet politics that surrounded them. (via) Warning: there’s a pretty nasty picture of human remains at the start of the story.
Let’s look at the facts about Mayors – Richard Kemp outlines many of the reasons why elected mayors are a bad idea.
Written by a Delta pilot on approach to Tokyo during earthquake – does what it says on the tin, but fascinating to see what happens in the cockpit during a situation like that. (via)

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Rent-a-quote inflation

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the costs to councils generated by the Taxpayers Alliance. I just looked at the time spent by press officers dealing with the queries caused by their stories, but now PoliticalHackUK has gone a bit further and looked at the cost of the various Freedom of Information Act enquiries that generate TPA and other stories. It’s not cheap.

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The Taxpayers Alliance have got their calculator out again, this time to spuriously calculate the ‘cost to taxpayers’ of public employees being allowed to take part in Union business. But, this got me thinking about what the cost to the public sector – and hence the taxpayer – of the Taxpayers Alliance might be.

Let’s assume that Taxpayers Alliance-originated churnalism, generates around 500 media enquiries to various public bodies a week. That might sound a lot, but across the various councils, police authorities, primary care trusts, government departments and whatever else they have in their sights, it averages out at less than one TPA-related press enquiry a week. Let’s also assume that each of these enquiries take up an average of around half an hour of public employee time, either in searching for the right elected person to provide/authorise a quote, tracking down the relevant spending figures for that body and other work it might generate.

We can see that from those entirely accurate and not at all spurious figures that an average of 250 hours a week (about 7 full-time staff) are spent responding to these queries. Now, let’s assume that these hours come from employees earning around the national average salary of £25,000 and working a 35-hour week (though I’m sure the TPA would claim they’re all earning at least double that for half the work) which equates to an hourly rate of about £13.70 and an annual total of £180,000. I’m sure you can use your own spurious costs to calculate just how many police officers, nurses, teachers, doctors or soldiers that money could employ instead.

Of course, that’s using some relatively low figures – I’m sure I could tweak quite a few of those numbers using logic that seems entirely reasonable to get the figure up into the millions, but proper made-up research like that takes time to generate the seemingly relevant statistics and links that purport to support it and I’ve already spent half an hour on this.

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