Television Review

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The Independent Culture
Spare a thought for Gordon Stewart, President of the Society of Practitioners of Insolvency and the man to whom Dispatches (C4) turned when it wanted a formal response to its intriguing programme about the accountants who act as liquidators. The words "intriguing" and "accountancy" are rarely seen together in public, and I can understand that you might feel some scepticism about their sudden association here - even less plausible than Michael Jackson's marriage to Lisa Marie, you may feel. So if you did not see the film, you will just have to take my word that Callum Macrae's report carried you across the ad breaks with very little trouble. Certainly Mr Stewart never looked bored, as he struggled to persuade you that the ethical five-o-clock shadow on the face of the profession was just an unhappy trick of the light.

The programme opened with the statistic that 110,000 companies have been liquidated since 1990, an alarming tally of loss and disappointment, and its principal charge was that that number would have been considerably smaller if liquidators weren't self-regulating. To the man in the street, the fact that investigating accountants, who enter troubled companies to establish whether they are still financially viable, are often the same people who pick up the lucrative liquidation fees is self-evidently a conflict of interests. It's as if the doctor who signed your death certificate was running a profitable undertaking business on the side. But that's the trouble with the man on the street - they simply don't understand these complex matters. Mr Stewart put them straight: "That's just not the way professionals work!" he exclaimed, as shocked as if his members had been accused of sexually molesting farm animals, "They will recommend independently what they think is best".

The Royal Bank of Scotland does not take the same trusting view, and its experience suggests it is right to be sceptical - after decreeing that the Investigating Accountant for a troubled business should never be appointed as the Receiver, it discovered a marked drop in closures compared to the general trend. What's more, the bank reduced the sizeable fees payed out for liquidations by insisting on competitive tender. Mr Stewart conceded that it was the Bank's prerogative to run its business as it wished, in a tone of voice that suggested it had decided to hold board meetings in the nude.

Nor did his assurances that self-regulation was working stand much chance against the programme's anecdotes. One small businessman called in the liquidators after running into trouble during the recession. They assiduously raised pounds 24,000 from his assets and debtors, the only problem being that it was effectively eaten up by fees, costs and interest charges. Another self-employed man saw a debt of pounds 8,000 turned into one of almost pounds 20,000 - he died of a stroke, which left his widow with enough money to pay all his bills, including the pounds 650 the liquidators charged him for calls and stationery. She also complained, but the Society of Practitioners of Insolvency took the view that "no further action was warranted". The film cut to a large pile of fresh horse dung at the reporter's feet, a sardonic note which was echoed by the decision to give Mr Stewart the last word: "If there's one thing we fail to do", he said, all injured pride, "it's that we fail to get across what a good job we do."

Bad Boys (BBC1), a standard rogue's opera set in Glasgow, is broadcast late in the evening, but its natural home is children's television. The plot is Blytonesque in its implausibility: buried treasure, overheard plans and adventures - while the writing has what you might charitably call a youthful taste for corny wordplay. It is harmless, for all that, and if you like the idea of a drama in which a menacing thug hijacks a pleasure cruiser from a bunch of toffs and then declaims "Who says there's no such thing as a free launch?", then you may well enjoy it. My head will not obstruct your view.

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