Stephen Glover: The Guardian's coverage of tax is obsessive but not compulsive
Monday 23 March 2009
If there are any young psychologists looking around for a subject for a PhD thesis, may I suggest a subject? It would be something along the lines of "Guilt, expiation or displacement at The Guardian".
Tax avoidance has become a crusade for the paper. Last week, it ran reams of articles about what it described as "the entirely legal tax-dodging" of Barclays Bank, and we will probably be treated to further episodes this week.
I have tried to get worked up by the story without much success. This is partly because it is fearfully complicated, and partly because, as The Guardian keeps reminding us, Barclays has not broken the law.
Much more interesting to me are the psychological explanations behind the paper's obsession. Last year, it accused Tesco of such practices, unfortunately getting its taxes in a serious muddle, and exaggerating the scale of the supermarket chain's alleged tax avoidance by a factor of at least 50. Despite its errors, the paper continued to berate Tesco for shirking its social duties.
Amazingly, The Guardian was forced to admit, though it did so as quietly as possible, that The Guardian Media Group (GMG) had also practised tax avoidance. In conjunction with Apax partners, GMG had incorporated a new company registered in the Cayman Islands as part of its joint acquisition of part of the publisher Emap. The purpose was to reduce the tax liabilities of employees and executives of Apax. It was entirely legal but as morally questionable, for those who abominate tax avoidance of any kind, as what Tesco and Barclays have done.
The Guardian defended itself by saying that it could not be held responsible for the actions of its parent company. This, if you think about it, is not an honest defence. The Guardian Media Group covers the losses of The Guardian from profitable investments in other publications. Far from being independent and self-standing, the paper is reliant on GMG for its survival, and therefore cannot respectably disassociate itself from GMG's dubious activities.
I suggest that the revelation of its own connection with tax avoidance was deeply embarrassing for the paper, and in particular its editor, Alan Rusbridger, who likes to give an impression of great virtue. His position was that of a teetotal preacher who had been discovered making whisky in his basement. What was fascinating was that he redoubled his exhortations against the evils of drink.
Here comes the nub of our thesis. One might argue that by inveighing against Barclays and other wicked tax avoiders Mr Rusbridger is atoning for GMG's own practices. Or, a little less charitably (and I am not sure the two theories necessarily conflict) one could suggest that The Guardian is involved in a massive displacement of its own moral shortcomings – that it can only forget its own past sins by dwelling hysterically on those of others.
Whatever the explanation, it amounts to an obsession that sometimes trembles on the edge of madness. As I say, the story about Barclays is very complicated, and the paper does not contend that the bank broke the law. Incidentally, leaked Barclays' documents, which were last week suppressed by a judge, can be easily found online. A banker friend of mine, who is an expert on tax, judges them utterly incomprehensible.
I accept this is a story of public interest, particularly since Barclays is hoping to get money off the Government. But a scandal? The good nature of readers is presumed upon, and their welfare abused, as a finger-waving Mr Rusbridger bellows from his soap box.
How does this Promethean Jenkins get it all written?
When a columnist reaches the age of 60 there are several alternatives. You can go on column-ising if your employers will let you. You can become a drunk. (These first two options can sometimes be combined.) Or you can take a job presiding over a benign national institution.
About a year ago Sir Simon Jenkins was appointed chairman of the National Trust.
It was announced that he was sacrificing his highly paid column on The Sunday Times so that, as he informed The Daily Telegraph, he could devote "two days a week and 24 hours a day to the trust".
The plan was for him to continue writing two columns a week for The Guardian, to which he defected from The Times a few years ago.
But writing only two columns a week did not work out for Sir Simon. Perhaps he grew bored. Or maybe he registered the loss of income. Whatever the reason, he has taken up his pen for the London Evening Standard, where he wrote a column some years ago, and so is once again a three-times-a-week man.
He also does the occasional book review for The Sunday Times, and eight days ago wrote an enormous piece for that paper about the beauties of Britain. He has just published a book on Wales. How does he do it? Will Hutton pumps out a fair amount of words from his perch at the Work Foundation, and Sir Max Hastings banged out a lot of articles when he was president of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, but both men are slackers in comparison with the Promethean Sir Simon Jenkins.
Will I be forgiven for wondering whether his column on The Guardian is quite as good as it used to be on The Times?
That paper sorely misses him.
Reporters sub-editing their own copy is nothing new
Some traditionalists will grumble about the latest piece of news to emanate from the Financial Times. Last Thursday, Lionel Barber, the paper's editor, announced that reporters will have partly to sub-edit their own stories by running their own style and spellchecks, and writing draft headlines.
Some will say that this is an example of an ignorant management disregarding precious subbing skills. And yet a friend of mine who joined the FT as a writer around 1960, when it was a small and sleepy paper, tells me he was expected to produce perfectly spelt copy to length, as well as a draft headline.
In other words, far from being revolutionary, Mr Barber's proposals reinstate the working practices of 50 years ago. Admittedly, the paper has grown more complex since then, and it may be that writers are less literate. But shouldn't they be encouraged to produce clean copy? It is a different matter on the tabloids, of course, where presentation is so much more important, but I don't see why FT reporters shouldn't lend a hand.
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