Emma Watson, eh? Who would have thought it? All that moralising on the world stage, standing up for the rights of women, speaking out about the devastating economic and social effects of gender inequality. And it turns out that she’s been part of the global elite all along, a one percenter happily squirrelling away her millions in an offshore tax haven in the British Virgin Isles.
Of course, her people explain that the arrangements are purely to protect her privacy. But blow me down with a feather. What will the supporters of the HeForShe campaign make of it?
The answer to that should be: absolutely nothing. The fact that a woman has a public position on one matter – gender equality – bears no relation to the fact that she has later found herself entangled in an another altogether different political question, that of tax evasion. But that hasn’t stopped her critics.
When the news that Watson, reportedly worth $70m, had used a company registered offshore to purchase a home, out came the angry rants. “I thought you're the most honest actress in the world! Wrong,” posted one fan – perhaps a former fan – on Twitter. “After being named in the Panama Paper scandal do you think you should be demanding a statue of anything?” another oddly added, referring to her campaigning for Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London, to erect a statue of a figure from the Suffragettes in Parliament Square.
Then came the snarky puns: Harry Potter and the Deathly Havens; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Taxaban; Harry Potter and the Half-blood Principal Investor. There’s a lot more where that came from.
The aforementioned spokesperson for Watson claimed that the actor had not used an offshore haven to avoid tax or any of her other financial responsibilities as a British citizen, but instead to protect her privacy, given her celebrity status. Reassuring for her disappointed fans perhaps, but it makes no material difference whatsoever.
Even if the young film star had deliberately hidden her assets away in an attempt to legally avoid tax, she is no hypocrite and she does not deserve to be treated like one. You may morally object to tax havens, but there’s no reason to be any more angered by Watson’s financial affairs than those of the Cameron family, Sarah Ferguson, Michel Platini, Simon Cowell or Heather Mills.
What is driving the disproportionate reaction to Watson’s British Virgin Islands connection is a bizarre sense that our public figures represent whatever we think they ought to, rather than what they want to, and what they actually do. Because she is outspoken on one social issue, we expect Watson to be a model activist in every other political arena, a whiter-than-white every woman who stands up for us us all. That’s a standard that’s impossible for anyone to live up to.
It’s a sentiment we see echoed when gay and ethnic minority figures, or even bohemians such as the artist Tracy Emin, express their support for the Conservatives. Surely they should be on the political left, where they ‘ought’ to belong?
The Black Lives Matter movement in the US has prompted similarly pointless soul-searching. Why have rap stars such as Drake and Jay Z – leading black figures in US popular culture – remained so quiet on the matter in their music? Writing in The Atlantic, the journalist Jeff Baird expressed concern that figures such as these were selling music that didn’t reflect the often difficult experience of being black in America and instead concerned itself with feelgood lyrics (“as if their success should be regarded as proof that the American Dream is in fact alive and well”) and great pop tunes instead. Well, why shouldn’t they? It’s their stock-in-trade.
What we struggle to cope with is the idea of pop stars, actors or other national figures behaving in ways other than what we might expect from their PR-designed public persona. It’s a position that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Each and every one of us has friends or relatives who are passionate about one social issue but ambivalent about another. The environmental activist who is aiming to produce zero waste may have no view whatsoever on the closure of domestic violence services for women; the Hillsborough campaigner who spent 27 years fighting for justice for the 96 may have never thought twice about cuts to disability benefit for those unable to work. So what? The latter does not take away from the significance of their efforts on the former.
Emma Watson is a wealthy young actor who has used her not inconsiderable global influence to start an important conversation about the position of women in the world. For that, she is rightly celebrated. She is not, and has never been, a tax justice campaigner.
I don’t like the idea of any wealthy individual finding ways around paying their due – and there is no suggestion that this is what Watson has done. But the idea that her efforts on behalf of all women have been undermined by the furore sparked by the latest Panama Papers revelations is dismissive and naïve in the extreme.
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