Saturday, 21 April 2012

More and more scandals, less and less news

David Cameron's father avoided tax! Who would've guessed? The latest Guardian exclusive reveals how £300,000 of David's inheritance was obtained through legal but morally dubious means!

I can't help but feeling that this story is completely trivial, that no one actually cares particularly about Cameron's tax affairs, especially if they're legal. I know Cameron is Prime Minister and has to set a good example and all that, but this is about his father's misbehaviour, not his. If we end up asking David to apologise for what his father did decades ago, we become no better than the idiot who asked Richard Dawkins to apologise for his ancestors' involvement in the slave trade.

The same kind of scandal happened with Ken and Boris: Ken doesn't pay the right amount of tax! Neither does Boris (according to Ken)! Would you trust a man who doesn't pay his taxes with political office!? Well, yes, I would. And I imagine that the vast majority would – like me – just not care that much about tax. I wouldn't trust Ken because he's a racist hypocrite and an apologist for totalitarianism: his tax avoidance doesn't even come into it, it's just not really relevant to being Mayor.

So why do newspapers and bloggers spend so much time writing about tax scandals? These same writers have presumably avoided tax themselves. Not declaring income, paying for services with cash; small things, easily forgotten. Then they discover that the Prime Minister's dad did the same thing with larger sums and suddenly it's the Story Of The Week.

What's life like for a homeless person in London? I have no idea, that's the sort of thing I expect newspapers to tell me. How is the class divide growing (or shrinking) under this Government? How are race relations improving (or worsening) in Bradford? What's Belfast like now, for working class Protestants and Catholics? Or Glasgow? How are the ex-mining communities of Wales and the North-East dealing with life after Thatcher? What is happening to the NHS since the Health and Social Care Act?

These kinds of questions are so important to Britain, because they affect thousands of lives and are the key to the nation's development. And yet the most celebrated national newspapers like The Guardian ignore these issues to run front-page scandal stories about the sordid lives of politicians: they are Westminster's gossip mags. The important journalism is left, then, to fringe magazines and bloggers, people who can never reach a wide enough audience.

I don't care than Ken didn't pay tax, I just want to know whether he'll reinstall the western extension of the Congestion Charge and so vastly improve the air quality in my flat. I want to know how he'll increase the number of rape crisis centres in London, to make it a safer place for my friends. I want to know whether he'll fix the problem's with Boris' Cycle Superhighways, to make cycling less terrifying. I just don't care about tax.

Why do supposedly respectable news outlets concentrate on trivial stories, at the expense of important ones? Does The Guardian just want to win Scoop of the Year at the Press Awards? Does it think it will sell more copies with EXCLUSIVE and SCANDAL on the front page? When investigative journalism just involves looking through tax returns and expenses forms in search of a scandal that the other newspapers haven't found, something's clearly wrong.

MPs expenses, Ken's tax dodge, Cash for Access, David Cameron's dad's tax avoidance scheme. All these stories are important, and they all have their place, but that any of these could occupy the front pages for a whole week is a disaster for journalism. The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times – they increasingly look like classy versions of Hello magazine. There are hundred of vastly more important stories waiting to be told, but we can't hear them through all the loud, dull and pointless Westminster gossip.


  1. Thanks for this post, your point is an important one.

  2. In addition, all of this noise about companies not paying their tax is a recessionary obsession everyone was fine with ignoring 5 years ago. Tax avoidance is not very 'nice', but I suspect that most people involved in these schemes had them planned by accountants/legal experts and had minimal involvement in the details.
    Naming and shaming them is one step towards getting the laws changed, but at the end of the day every one of us wants to reduce the amount of tax we pay, and these are just such schemes on a higher plateau. Worth keeping in mind they are completely legal as well.