Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Don't call a spade a spade – just dig a deeper hole


If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a great-crested grebe. That's how it seems in the wacky world of tax avoidance – sorry, "tax planning" – as John Dixon, of Ernst & Young, preferred to describe it during today's grilling of his client Google by the Public Accounts Committee.

In a mesmerising act of high-wire verbal gymnastics, Google's own Matt Brittin tried – in vain – to convince Margaret Hodge's committee that the company's payment of next to no tax in the UK was justified, because it wasn't actually selling anything here.

Confronted with formidable evidence from Ms Hodge's whistleblowers that it was doing exactly that, Mr Brittin acknowledged with heroic blandness: "We employ people with sales skills. They meet customers. They encourage them to spend money… I'm sure customers will feel they are being sold to." But the "closing of transactions" was something altogether different, taking place within (low tax) Ireland.

At this point, Tory Richard Bacon's patience snapped. "The customers feel they are being sold to because they are being sold to," he shouted. "Why can't you call a spade a spade for once?"

But this question was fatally to misunderstand the euphemism-crazed semantics of international corporate finance, in which "encouraging customers to spend money" on Google ads has nothing to do with sales and in which facts are described as "data points". As in Mr Dixon's: "I'm sorry. I don't have the data points on that."

Mr Dixon was unable to supply "data points" about his firm's own dealings with Google because he couldn't discuss individual clients. It's not clear why, but accountants appear to be bound by some bizarre version of the doctors' hippocratic oath.

Asked if Ernst & Young had designed Google's nicely low-tax structure, Mr Dixon said that sometimes they did that kind of thing for their clients and sometimes they didn't. This is committee witness-ese for "That's for me to know and you to find out".

He did claim that (in general) the firm's tax "planning" advice "increasingly" took into account "reputational issues". But these play a bigger part with – say – Starbucks, whose customers can always get their coffee elsewhere. Boycotting Google is a whole lot harder. As the company well knows.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own