I don’t write a headline like this lightly. I’ve been thinking about it for a little while now. I love the BBC, or at least lots of things about it (The Office Christmas Specials are probably at the top of my list right now, having revisited them recently.)
Now with that disclaimer out of the way, let me tell a little story.
Treasure Islands has been out now for a long time, and has garnered a lot of reviews. There’s been a bit of criticism, sure – but none of it serious. i think it’s fair to put the critics in various categories:
- ‘This stuff is too big and bad and we should give up’ (Peter Preston)
- From reviewers who haven’t read to the end, then guessed wrongly what they think I probably said (or didn’t), then attacked that (Bill Jamieson)
- From tax havens who say “we are clean as whistles – how dare he call us dirty, the imbecile?” (e.g. here)
- From people who object to the book’s tone (here, for instance)
- From people who prefer to engage the messenger, rather than the message: either they object to my living in Switzerland, or, from the crazed far right of libertarian offshore, they wrongly label me ‘socialist’ or ‘radical leftist’ (e.g. here)
- All this tax haven stuff isn’t bad – it is good.
But my first big point here, working my way back towards my headline, is this. Nobody has said that the central Treasure Islands theses – this extraordinary picture it paints of how the world really works — are actually wrong.
Nobody has said, for example, that there isn’t a gigantic global network of British tax havens quietly hoovering up trillions and funnelling them to the City of London.
Nobody has said the City Corporation isn’t this utterly bizarre, ancient and massively powerful organisation at the heart of Britain and the British establishment.
Nobody has accused me of making gross factual mistakes, distorting the historical or statistical record, or anything like that. The FT, for instance calls it “meticulously researched.” Which it is.
Nobody says, either, that this topic isn’t of tremendous, stunning importance. George Monbiot calls Treasure Islands “perhaps the most important book published in the UK so far this year.” Stuart Weir calls it “possibly the most important political book that I have read since The Spirit Level.” Sunny Hundal calls it “the No Logo for a new century.” Professor Prem Sikka calls it a “masterpiece.” Richard Murphy, admittedly a colleague of mine, calls it “the best book on tax havens, ever.” I’ve had plenty — plenty of personal messages along the same lines. Just today, this comment came in under here; I have no idea who this person is – but it’s an illustration of the kind of stuff that I am getting on a regular basis.
To summarise: The facts, and the system I describe, stand rock-solid in the face of waves of reviews now. And this stuff is dynamite. The argument at the heart of Treasure Islands is about as big as it gets. This really is the hitherto untold story of globalisation. This really is the dark heart of the global economy.
With Britain right at its very centre.
With the City of London Corporation at the centre of that.
With an array of British tax havens surrounding it.
Which account for approximately half of the global offshore system. (Don’t believe me or the Tax Justice Network on this figure – try Mark Field, one of the tax havens’ staunchest supporters in Britain.)
With trillions of dollars – literally trillions – being cycled through this libertarian, anti-democratic system, stripping away taxation, financial regulation, criminal laws, and so on, bending and distorting markets and global capital flows in powerful ways that no economist could ever explain using current models.
With Britain, as I mentioned, slap bang in the middle of it all.
Nobody is disputing any of this.
Yet the BBC, the heart of British media, doesn’t seem interested.
OK, that’s quite a strong statement about the BBC. I now need to hedge it with some provisos.
Proviso 1. The BBC has been in touch with me about this stuff, most notably a fine 20-minute piece on You & Yours, brought in by a couple of people who know a thing or two about the general terrain, and who clearly “get it.” So far, though, it has gone nowhere. Newsnight once asked if I’d appear – but not only to talk about corporate tax avoidance, and not the big issues such as the British spiderweb. (I couldn’t make it). There have been one or two other minor appearances, related to Mubarak’s lost money and the like. Important, though ultimately incidental stuff.
Proviso 2: The BBC has done programmes in the past about individual tax havens – such as Panorama on some small tax havens, and on various other bits and pieces. They call people on my side of the fence, quite regularly, in fact. But again: no detailed investigation into the big system: the British spiderweb, and the City Corporation.
Proviso 3: The BBC isn’t alone. Other big TV networks have not tackled this issue yet. The Telegraph newspaper hasn’t reviewed Treasure Islands, or looked at the system in detail. The tabloids haven’t either. OK – but that doesn’t exactly let the BBC, with its mission ‘to inform, educate and entertain’, off the hook.
Proviso 4: This may still be early days. Programming can take months between conceptualisation and broadcast. Indeed – but it doesn’t have to. The News and Current Affairs people can easily put together a half-hour programme based on the day’s breaking news. They do it all the time. And if they were even at the scoping, conceptualisation stage, then it would be bizarre in the extreme if they didn’t include a call or two to people on my side of the fence – and I’ve had no indication that this is the case. Perhaps, though, they are currently gearing up for something. I hope so. But to be honest, this is a much older issue: Treasure Islands wasn’t the first with it. Others, such as the Tax Justice Network, have been ploughing this furrow for several years now.
Proviso 5 – the BBC World Service seems to be a little better here – see Christensen’s comments, below.
Proviso 6: All this may (of course — of course) come across as the ranting of an author puffed up with his own self-importance, piqued at not being invited to spout. But no. I do feel perhaps a little piqued, but that’s because I’m driven to expose this system, not for any other reason.
And the fact is that this is about so much more than just me and Treasure Islands. In fact, I’m far from alone. Before writing this I spoke to John Christensen, director of the Tax Justice Network which is probably the leading group in the UK challenging the offshore system. He said this:
“Aside from the BBC World Service, where I’ve had some really good discussions, other programmes haven’t wanted to touch it. You get BBC journalists jumping up and down with excitement on this stuff – they say ‘we’ll take it to our producers’ – and then nothing happens.
The important part – when I talk to the journalists – and you can spend hours and hours talking to them, you say ‘look this is systemic’ and we will spend way more time talking about it for a documentary. Several weeks or months into the process, and I find that the whole thing’s been turned on its head: you’ve moved from the systemic to the individual. ‘Let’s focus on the Royal Family.’ or ‘let’s focus on the Cayman Islands.’ That’s the problem all the time – and that’s been over ten years’ experience.
All the time we say: ‘don’t focus on the islands, or on the companies, but focus on global financial architecture issues.’ The BBC isn’t engaging in its mission to inform properly — it is only engaging in the most superficial stuff.”
Christensen seemed particularly annoyed with the Today Programme, and even blogged an open letter to Evan Davis in 2009 – but hasn’t heard back on this. He said that while the BBC is sometimes attacked from the right for having a left-wing bias, he doesn’t see this bias – he sees a news organisation that routinely gives space to conflicted interests such as banks and the like (which are batting for their own interests in this area) but not giving space for the other side of this particular debate. And at the end of the day, this isn’t about left-right issues, but against the failures of markets. Tax havens are part of a broad market failure – an argument both the left and the right can engage with and even agree on.
Richard Murphy came back with a more fine-grained opinion, looking at the BBC in the tax havens themselves:
“The BBC positively supports tax haven activity. Its local radio stations in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man show repeated bias towards the interests of the finance industry and any pretence of objectivity, or the encouragement of political opposition in these places, or for finding alternative voices is not seen. Worse, those who question the merits of dependence on fiance are always treated as if their opinions are heretical, and not to be taken seriously. In effect the BBC supports the hegemony of finance that denies the right to effective democracy in these islands and for that it needs to be roundly condemned for failing in its charter obligations.”
So what is really going on here? Is this just mere oversight? Given the importance of what we’re talking about, I don’t think that’s possible. I spoke to a well-known television producer a few days ago, and asked him what he thought. This is (a slightly abridged version of) what he said:
“Part of the problem is what you always get in the BBC: there are empires and turf to be protected.
Then you have to ask: ‘what are the professional connections and shared assumptions of people in that part of the BBC?’ There’s a well trodden argument about reporting military conflict, embedded reporting, where you get chummy with the military, and this has a self-censoring effect. Write something wrong, and you un-embedded, fast. Someone said this has happened to the financial press.
A lot of news and current affairs people need to be on good terms with people in the banks, they know that if they piss them off, they won’t be invited to next set of meetings. And they share the same assumptions, by and large.
Well, there has to be a fair amount of truth to that.
So what is this BBC silence, or reticence, ultimately all about? Turf wars? Shared assumptions? The soundbite problem? A lack of focus? An oversight? Oversensitivity to being accused of being ‘left wing?’
Or is something more sinister at work here? Should we draw conclusions that a recent BBC chairman was a Goldman Sachs banker, for instance? Should wonder whether, and to what extent, the City has hooks into the BBC, and that this is what this silence is all about? Should we wonder about the BBC’s fears of annoying the current Conservative-led government, which has demonstrated itself to be a massive supporter of tax havens?
I don’t know the answer to these questions – which is why I put the headline of this blog as a question, rather than as a statement.
What I do know, though, is that the BBC is shirking on its responsibility to inform and to educate.
Someone ought to tell ‘em.
I think I will.
Update: I have just contacted the BBC press office, to ask their response to my article. Let’s see what they say.