Getting Good Media Coverage of Your Tax Resistance Campaign

A tax resistance campaign can benefit its recruiting efforts, engage public sympathy, and constrain the response of the government, by getting a good spin out in the media. Here are some examples:

  • The Bardoli tax strike was media savvy, both in terms of national establishment media, and in terms of local, down-to-earth outreach methods:
    • “A campaign like this could not be carried out without a publicity department,” wrote Mahadev Desai. “The peasants could not be asked to subscribe to daily papers or even to the weekly Navajivan, and outside papers could at best give an outside view of the campaign. … The arrangement was to issue a daily news bulletin and publish Sjt. Vallabhbhai’s speeches in pamphlet form and to distribute them free to the agriculturalists all over the taluka. … The arrangement answered most admirably, the villagers waiting anxiously for the patrikas every morning and devouring the contents with avidity. All the Gujarati and almost all the English dailies of Bombay reproduced them verbatim, and as the movement gathered force, every important town and village in Gujarat began to get copies of the bulletin with the result that over and above ten thousand copies distributed in Bardoli, four thousand copies were subscribed to by places outside.”
    • In the course of describing the organizational structure of the nonviolent resistance army, Mahadev Desai noted: “[U]nder these officers were privates ready to march anywhere and everywhere, at any hour of the night and day, and ready to do the lowliest of duties, from carrying a message to drawing water from the well. … The round of duties of most of them began often as early as 3 A.M., when they started with their orders for the day to the various villages where they would distribute the daily news bulletins issued by the Publicity Bureau. … All were to go amongst the peasants, acquaint themselves with their needs and difficulties, cheer them up, and explain to them the instructions of the Chief.”
    • Mahadev Desai continues: “And at the head of them all the Sardar, ever on the move, without haste and without rest, ever vigilant, his iron discipline ever unrelaxed, paying the penalty of his exclusive prerogative — speech-making — often at midnight, and often at three or four places in a day.” … “The Bardoli victory was not won by a miracle. It was the inevitable fruit of patient and incessant toil, the inevitable result of the teaching that the Sardar wore himself out to impart day in and day out. During the first two months he gave three days in the week to Bardoli, but as soon as the Ahmedabad Municipality released him, all his waking hours were given to the people of Bardoli, the day usually beginning at 5 P.M. and ending at 2 A.M., with four or five speeches a day on average.”
  • The case of Valentine Byler, an Amish man who refused to participate in the American Social Security system for conscientious reasons, was notable for how it played out in the media. Part of this was due to the clumsy heavy-handedness of the IRS, which seized Byler’s horses out from under him literally as he was working his field. Asked about this, the IRS Chief of Collections said: “Plowing never occurred to me. I live in an apartment.” The frame of thoughtless-urban-bureaucrats vs. godly-heartland-people attached itself to the story, and editorialists across the country who were already skeptical of welfare state policies jumped on it. “What kind of ‘welfare’ is it,” wrote the New York Herald Tribune, “that takes a farmer’s horses away at spring plowing time in order to dragoon a whole community into a ‘benefit’ scheme it neither needs nor wants, and which offends its deeply held religious scruples?” Byler got letters of support from around the country. And Congress eventually felt enough of the pressure that it carved out an exception for the Amish exempting them from the Social Security law.
  • Abby and Julia Smith, who were taxed excessively by an unscrupulous local government for which they, as women, had no voice in electing, knew how to make their struggle attractive to the news media. Julia prepared a speech for the town council, which fell on deaf ears — but she then released it to the editor of a nearby newspaper, which reprinted it and compared the sisters’ actions to those American Revolutionaries who fought for the principle of “no taxation without representation.” An accompanying editorial concluded: “It will not be creditable if Abby Smith and her sister are left to stand alone… to fight the battle of principle unaided.” Sure enough, they found support — rhetorical and practical — from many quarters. “[M]uch of the nation’s interest in the Glastonbury case was the work of Abby,” wrote Elizabeth George Speare in recapping the case, “who willingly took pen in hand to keep her public informed. Though she once reminded a Toledo editor that she could not give quite so much time to answering such distant requests, she seems to have welcomed every opportunity to recount, in her pungent style, a tale which lost nothing in constant retelling.”
  • The Women’s Tax Resistance League in Britain made sure to have speeches and propaganda ready to deliver at any events — such as tax auctions — that the media might cover. Such speeches might form the core of an overtaxed reporter’s coverage of such an event. When Dora Montefiore barricaded her home against the tax collector in , she recalled:

    In a bailiff had been put in my house, a levy of my goods had been made, and they had been sold at public auction in Hammersmith. The result as far as publicity was concerned was half a dozen lines in the corner of some daily newspapers, stating the fact that Mrs. Montefiore’s goods had been distrained and sold for payment of income tax; and there the matter ended.

    When talking this over in with Theresa Billington and Annie Kenney, I told them that now we had the organisation of the W.S.P.U. to back me up I would, if it were thought advisable, not only refuse to pay income tax, but would shut and bar my doors and keep out the bailiff, so as to give the demonstration more publicity and thus help to educate public opinion about the fight for the political emancipation of women which was going on. They agreed that if I would do my share of passive resistance they would hold daily demonstrations outside the house as long as the bailiff was excluded and do all in their power outside to make the sacrifice I was making of value to the cause.…

    …From the day of this simple act of closing my door against the bailiff, an extraordinary change came over the publicity department of daily and weekly journalism towards this demonstration of passive resistance on my part…

    On the morning following the inauguration of the siege, Annie Kenney and Theresa Billington, with other members of the W.S.P.U., came round to see how we were getting on and to encourage our resistance. They were still chatting from the pavement outside, while I stood on the steps of No. 32 Upper Mall, when there crept round from all sides men with notebooks and men with cameras, and the publicity stunt began. These men had been watching furtively the coming and going of postmen and tradesmen. Now they posted themselves in front, questioning the suffragists outside and asking for news of us inside. They had come to make a “story” and they did not intend to leave until they had got their “story.” One of them returned soon with a loaf of bread and asked Annie Kenney to hand it up over the wall to my housekeeper, whilst the army of men with cameras “snapped” the incident. Some of them wanted to climb over the wall so as to be able to boast in their descriptions that they had been inside what they pleased to call “The Fort”; but the policeman outside (there was a policeman on duty outside during all the six weeks of a siege) warned them that they must not do this so we were relieved, in this respect, from the too close attention of eager pressmen. But all through the morning notebooks and cameras came and went, and at one time my housekeeper and I counted no less than twenty-two pressmen outside the house. A woman sympathiser in the neighbourhood brought during the course of the morning, a pot of home-made marmalade, as the story had got abroad that we had no provisions and had difficulty in obtaining food. This was never the case as I am a good housekeeper and have always kept a store cupboard, but we accepted with thanks the pot of marmalade because the intentions of the giver were so excellent; but this incident was also watched and reported by the Press.

  • When I read stories from newspaper archives about the tax strike in Beit Sahour during the first intifada, I’m struck with how much more sympathetic the English-language press was toward the Palestinian people at that time. They are depicted as human beings, with families and aspirations, and their grievances are taken seriously and explored and analyzed and given credence. The contrast with the coverage in today’s media is stark. Beit Sahour was a high water mark of sorts. This can partially be explained by the fact that most of the resisters were Palestinian Christians, and so did not trigger the anti-Muslim bias that shapes much of the English-language reporting from the area — one news account made much of the fact that the Israeli military had seized “Christian crosses carved of olivewood and the statuettes of the Good Shepherd and the Madonna” from one resister. But the resisters were also very deliberately media savvy: they stuck to nonviolent tactics, which, besides being tactically sensible under the circumstances, also made the draconian Israeli crackdown seem particularly bullying; and they used slogans, like “no taxation without representation” that could not help but fall on sympathetic ears in the English-speaking world. Another article noted that when the Israeli military lifted its siege of Beit Sahour, “hundreds of residents gathered at a central intersection to celebrate and to escort journalists to homes and shops from which troops had seized goods.”
  • During the campaign against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax, the very name “poll tax” was a propaganda coup. Thatcher had launched the tax under the benign name “community charge,” but the opposition movement used “poll tax” right off the bat, and the name stuck. That name had resonance with anti-poll tax campaigns of the past, dating back as far as the rebellion of Wat Tyler. The movement also pitted the government against pensioners, the disabled, student nurses, families with live-in elderly relatives, and other such victims that made for a sympathetic media narrative. “Stories like this flooded both the national and local media,” writes movement historian Danny Burns. “One minute the focus was on the nurses, next on the disabled, then on the pensioners.”
  • The IRS includes a publicity strategy with their enforcement actions, and grades itself with how much publicity it gets when it cracks down on a tax evader, thus “sending the message to taxpayers that violations of the Internal Revenue Code and related financial crimes are being investigated and prosecuted.” Since the IRS is already doing the work to make sure the press is aware of the action, and of course giving out their own spin, it makes sense for tax resisters to be prepared with their own message. “Never let a lien, levy, seizure, auction, summons, Order to Show Cause, or indictment pass without taking the opportunity to publicize opposition,” advise the authors of the book War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military. “The IRS is very sensitive to adverse public opinion. It is probably the most disliked agency of the government. You may be surprised at the amount of support and sympathy you will get from the general public and media when struggling against the IRS — if you take care to organize properly.”