The Day the Taxman Came to Call

The Jimmy Carr tax debacle has proven how vulnerable celebrities can be to the dangers of navigating popular political opinion. What started as a few throwaway lines about Vodaphone’s tax arrangements has resulted in a personal condemnation by the Prime Minister of Mr Carr’s tax affairs as “morally wrong” – presumably not something many celebrities would want as part of their PR.

While Mr Carr initially remarked that “I pay what I have to and not a penny more” he has since switched his stance to a repentant one, profusely apologising for his part in the K2 tax avoidance scheme. He appears to have defused the situation in a manner in which only a successful comedian can – by making jokes about it (declaring that the foremost thought on his mind was “get a new accountant”).

More recently, Sir Chris Hoy has been forced to defend his tax arrangements, having received a loan from his own company.

The personal tax arrangements of politicians are often a matter of journalistic investigation, with numerous stories exposing (and, on occasion, speculating about) the provisions used by those who seek to set the rate of tax for the rest of the country. Since then, the crosshairs of the media have moved to the wealthy and the famous. Although celebrities’ personal lives have long been subjected to popular curiosity and treated as a source of gossip, often leading to moral judgements, an examination of their finances has rarely been of public interest. While the economy boomed, there seemed to be little need to bore the public with a detailed examination of bank balances without evidence of illegality.

Yet now so many more individuals are forced to keep an eye on their own finances while public services are cut, we seem to expect celebrities to have not just legal, but “moral” tax arrangements. At this point celebrities become more than subjects of interest, but are treated as unelected moral leaders, whose virtues should be determined in the context of the economy.

In truth, without knowing the details of the journalistic investigations that precipitated the aforementioned articles, it seems perfectly plausible that the investigation into the tax affairs of Sir Chris Hoy is coincidentally timed. The news may just happen to follow the stories of Jimmy Carr’s part in the K2 scheme with no editorial premeditation.

What’s more, it is worth bearing in mind the point made by Chris Evans that, in his view celebrities should never “complain about anything – celebrities are the luckiest people on God’s earth and can bow out any time they want to”. There are always two sides to media coverage.

Nevertheless, I wonder if a focus on celebrity tax arrangements is wanted by the public or indeed “moral”. When prominently reporting on the famous (and in the case of Jimmy Carr and Sir Chris Hoy, individuals famous by virtue of their success), should we be considering the contents of the bank account, or the financial contributions made to the government? Is it reasonable to criticise them as we would our political leaders?

* With apologies to Flanders and Swann