Corporate Tax Evasion: What can we learn from those campaigning against it?
Like many others, I was dismayed to hear in the news that big multinational corporations like Amazon, Vodafone, Google and Starbucks aren’t paying enough taxes – taking advantage of complicated regulations and unchecked loopholes to avoid paying their fair share. Recent headlines in the mainstream media, as well as lip service paid by politicians looking to curry favour with angry voters, indicate that the issue has at least entered into public discourse, and that changes might be forthcoming. While this is heartening, I had to wonder: how did this happen? How did a seemingly complex – and rather boring – issue like corporate tax evasion become headline news?
The Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy recently hosted a lively forum featuring campaigners who have been on the front lines of the fight to hold these corporations to account and motivate governments across the EU to commit to clamping down on the biggest offenders. As someone who has worked in promotional media on the corporate side for many years, I was very interested to hear what they had to say.
Tim Street spoke on behalf of UK Uncut, a loose but disciplined affiliation of grassroots activists who have staged creative, headline-grabbing actions in the streets of UK cities to bring to light the effects of austerity on public services. Guppi Bola, a Global Campaigner from Oxfam, presented a more macro view, offering her experience working on large multinational campaigns to increase public awareness and target heads of state and other political elites to change the system from the top. The talk was punctuated by Dr. Clea Bourne, a lecturer in Promotional Media in Goldsmiths Media and Communications Department whose research focuses on discourses of power and trust in the financial sector. Although each brought their unique perspective to the issue of publicizing the misdeeds of corporations and holding governments to account, I was particularly interested in the key learnings they offered about how to create real social change in a complicated and mediated public sphere.
Oxfam utilized the ‘political elites theory’ of social change, looking to change the political calculus of key leaders and powerful groups through lobbying and public engagement. Their Robin Hood Tax campaign leveraged celebrity endorsements to target political power players like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, and to lend widespread credibility and exposure to the cause. They took a global view, campaigning country by country, with a multi-faceted strategy that utilized powerful coalitions with union groups, other NGOs and public figureheads to shape the discourse on the topic. Their IF campaign centred largely around the G8 conference in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, and dedicated large resources to the dissemination of broad key messages, high level political action and symbolic wins that gave the campaign credibility and established its underpinning role in the larger public debate.
UK Uncut gives activists the tools to do what they can, with the resources they have, where they are. Employing a grassroots approach to campaigning, their actions have been nimble, swift and effective at street level – staging highly dramatic actions on High Streets and in retail outlets of large corporations in cities and towns all over the UK. They arm a decentralized, loose affiliation of various activist groups with a target – a day of action to shed light on the unfairness of corporate tax dodging while citizens suffer under the crippling weight of austerity cuts. The actions occur in the streets where people live and work and are creative and innovative in their approach. By broadening their range of tactics, they become more accessible for anyone to get involved, with whatever time and resources are available to them. UK Uncut’s success in garnering national media attention stems from the fact that they are able to quickly and easily corral grassroots activists across the country under one banner, in a show of solidarity – combining the power of otherwise disparate groups at the local level into a visible national movement.
Do your research
In effective campaigning, timing is everything. Both Oxfam and UK Uncut were able to leverage a growing feeling of public discontent about corporate malfeasance that grew out of the Occupy Movement and the global financial crisis. Public attitudes were shifting, and politicians were looking for a way to get ahead of the issue. The media naturally followed suit, and were hungry for stories that aligned with the expanding discourse. By keeping their finger on the pulse of public opinion, arming themselves with relevant stats, examining corporate financial statements, and being aware of the power players, both groups were able to strike when the iron was hot. Further, by staying on top of the issues, both groups were able to position themselves as an alternative voice when media came looking for quotes. When reviewing the campaigns online, I was really impressed with how comprehensive and well-researched they were.
An online presence is non-negotiable
UK Uncut utilizes an active blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, along with strong visuals in Youtube clips and photos to quickly mobilize its thousands of followers. Oxfam’s extensive online resources extend to a comprehensive campaign website, online petitioning and they have adopted digital storytelling as a campaign tool. Both organizations admit that without social media, it would be much more difficult to mobilize people as quickly, easily and as cheaply. An active, conversational and engaging online presence allows them to garner direct feedback, assess the success of their campaigns, and to maintain their momentum outside of direct street level action. It’s also the first place media go when looking for tools to build their stories – a savvy and successful campaign is one that uses the entire social media and online toolkit to complement its actions on the ground.
Use a clear, strong narrative
UK Uncut credits some of its success in garnering early media coverage to the fact that they used bold, confrontational and aggressive language in their outreach. They developed a simple convincing narrative anyone could find relevant and action-worthy. Their discipline in maintaining that narrative has led to a sort of ‘brand awareness’ for their actions – people know what they stand for and how they can get involved. Oxfam also understands the importance of cutting through the clutter in a very crowded media universe – by giving their campaigns memorable and relevant names and sticking to a highly disciplined message script in all points of influence (media interviews, briefings, web materials, news releases) they ensure that their messages resonate with a variety of target audiences.
Always Question Everything
Clea Bourne left the audience with this parting thought: ‘Who actually started this global discourse on the tax crisis? And who said it’s a crisis anyway?’ In a world where finance has increasingly become merely an abstract concept, and the use of taxation as a disciplining mechanism to constrain money within geographic borders becomes an increasingly obsolete construct designed to maximize shareholder value in capitalist countries, who is actually running the show? While activists focus on corporations on the High Street, what’s happening behind the closed doors of the real power political players? Are activist groups simply a pawn in the game, keeping themselves distracted with campaigns designed to make them think they’re actually making a difference? What have these campaigns actually achieved?
I don’t know the answer. I do know that the world needs grassroots passionate activists like UK Uncut to keep us engaged at street level, and large connected NGOs like Oxfam to help shape public discourse at a political level. As someone who used to work ‘on the other side of the fence’ helping to place stories in the media, I think it’s important that we strive to do our own research, ask our own questions, and never accept what’s packaged as ‘truth’ just because we read it in the news headlines. However, without the important work of dedicated activists, perhaps these issues would never garner media coverage in the first place. That we have easy and efficient access to information, that public discourse has turned towards issues of equity and fairness, and that corporations are even questioned at all is owed to the dedicated work of those who refuse to accept the status quo. For this I think we owe them a debt of gratitude.
1st Year PhD Student
Media and Communications
Goldsmiths University of London
Get the arms trade controlled for human rights!
1830 - 2000
28 November 2013
Brian Wood, Head or Arms Control and Human Rights, Amnesty International
Discussant: Eyal Weizman, Department of Visual Cultures