All manner of dodgy businessmen and lying politicians, criminals and cheats, hypocrites and obfuscators, phonies and pseuds have appeared on Radio 4's Today programme to face full frontal questioning by John Humphrys, or a gentle grilling by one of the nicer cops. Sometimes, a sizeable cross-section of Britain wakes up with a wince as a guest on the show is skewered by forensic interrogation, rhetoric and incredulity.
Occasionally, however, I find myself affronted on behalf of the person being questioned, and this was my profound reaction yesterday at the conclusion of an interview between Evan Davis and Mary Monfries, who is the head of tax at PwC.
Given that her job involves helping big companies pay less tax, she couldn't be less popular if she'd announced Christmas had been cancelled. But Davis's final question to her ran something like this: "In the end, when you prepare to face your maker, will you think you've spent your life doing a good thing?"
The impertinence of it! For a moment, you could be forgiven for thinking that Davis was channelling Thought for the Day. Here's this woman, doing a perfectly legal job, and she's being treated like she's a member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle. I know nothing about Ms Monfries – and I'm guessing Davis doesn't know much, either – but what if she spends her spare time working with disabled children? What if she gives away half her money to charity?
I think she could then approach judgement day feeling pretty proud of her contribution to society. I say this only to point out the perils of the hastily formed opinion. Understandably, the question of tax arouses particular passions because of its moral dimension, but while regulations remain as they are, I fail to see why Ms Monfries should be treated like a villain. And what gives Evan Davis the right to come on all high and mighty?
Has he never paid cash for services to avoid VAT, or taken his accountant's advice to save himself paying the Revenue a few quid? If he hasn't, then he has my admiration, but I'd guess he's in a small minority among the great British public.
In the stocks
I know there's a difference between paying a window cleaner in cash and a company avoiding millions by registering themselves in the Virgin Islands, but it is merely a matter of scale. If this is a moral question, then surely they are equally wrong.
I am wary of any debate that requires moral judgements being handed down, because you can be sure that hypocrisy is right around the corner. Can you see what's happening here? Tax advisers are the latest in the public stocks, after the bankers, politicians and journalists.
But unlike insider trading, expenses fiddling and phone-hacking, giving an individual or a company independent tax advice is not illegal. So my suggestion to you, Evan, is to leave the moralising to Rabbi Lionel Blue.