by Magnus Shaw
Jimmy Carr is recording an episode of the sweary panel show 'Eight Out Of Ten Cats' tonight. A week ago, that news would be no more intriguing than discovering your train has a filthy lavatory.
But a week is a long time in a troubled nation. And when the well-off are viewed with angry suspicion, and reaction to revelations is instantly poured out across the social media, bad news arrives in a heartbeat.
It started in The Times. Keen to claim their share of the glory which followed the enormo-scoops of MPs' expenses (The Telegraph) and phone hacking (The Guardian), the paper splashed on a tax avoidance scheme called K2. (In case you're not up to speed, 'tax avoidance' refers to methods of legally reducing one's payments to HMRC, while 'tax evasion' is criminal activity designed to defraud the revenue).
Thankfully, I am not an accountant. But I understand K2 allows participants to give their incomes to a Jersey company, which then "lends" the money back. Loans are free of taxation, so a person can pocket the money without the usual deductions. The "loan" would never be repaid. It's slightly more complex than that, but there's the gist of it.
However much the 'broadsheets' deny it, they are happy to pick up mileage from celebrity stories. So imagine the delight at Times Towers when it found Jimmy Carr among the thousand investors in K2. Suddenly, the story covered all bases. Rich vs poor? Check. Big money? Check. Dodgy dealings? Check. Famous person? Checky check check! And so it was that Jimmy's oddly rounded features accompanied the scoop on the front of yesterday's Times. Undoubtedly a bad day for Mr. Carr.
But now, thirty something hours on, the tide is turning. Initial reaction was mostly irate. Knowing those with wealth and influence are habitually taking us for idiots is making us weary and irritable. To see good old, funny old Jimmy rapidly shifting from good guy to horrible guy was enough to take our blood from simmering to bubbling hot. How dare he? We depended on Carr and his colleagues to blow notches off the mighty, not conspire with them. Damn you, Jimmy - you've really let us down on this one. But then, a softening. I was astonished how rapidly feelings mellowed. By following Twitter and news radio, public opinion could be observed changing almost by the minute. And this was largely thanks to Carr's intelligent handling of a very tricky circumstance. So far, he's played the whole thing almost perfectly.
First, he took the only sensible action. He said and did nothing. (Or at least he maintained public silence. Presumably, behind the scenes, there was a flurry of managers and PRs talking and working on his behalf). And my goodness, there is a long list of public figures who should learn this lesson. How many times have we witnessed a drama turn to a crisis because the protagonists couldn't hold their tongues long enough to avoid making everything much, much worse?
Happily for Jimmy, one such hothead (who you'd imagine would be better advised) couldn't wait to fill the vacuum. Enter David Cameron. Imagining he could gain a political advantage and paint himself as a 'man of the people', he filed a little lecture from abroad, explaining how Jimmy's actions were not only wrong but immoral. Having seen John Major tumble into a morality trap via his Back To Basics campaign, Cameron should know this is horribly high risk territory for a PM - and today he proved it.
But before DC plastered PR omelette across his face, JC broke his silence. His first shot was a poor one. "I pay all the tax I have to and no more." He came off as arrogant and stroppy, digging himself slightly deeper and allowing all manner of talking heads to rush for the moral high ground. He took a few hours to reconsider, and his next tweet (crucially this was all playing out Twitter) was a straightforward, hands-up apology. Admitting he'd made a huge error of judgement, he pledged to pull out of K2 and said sorry. A simple but important intervention. When the powerful are caught with their power-pants down, the most common criticism is their failure to apologise before it has to be surgically extracted from them. Jimmy's contrition was timely, seemed genuine and was given freely.
Then came the message which surely plucked him from the foaming ocean of scandal. He explained a financial advisor had asked him whether he wanted to pay less tax, completely legally. This put most observers (me included) on the back foot. What would we have said, in a similar scenario? We all knew the answer.
This afternoon, David Cameron was asked to comment on Gary Barlow's tax position. Like a herd of cattle in a china hypermarket, he told us he wouldn't comment on individual cases as that would be 'wrong'. He also struggled embarrassingly with the difference between 'avoidance' and 'anti-avoidance'. For the record, Barlow is a keen supporter of the Conservative party and has just received an OBE on the PM's recommendation.
Game and set to Jimmy Carr.
It's far too early to know whether the comedian has won the match. This could still substantially taint the Carr brand, but I doubt it. Like Ken Dodd, he'll probably build a heap of new material from the incident and will steadily be forgiven. I am not suggesting there is anything appetising about tax avoidance, nor that I'm delighted that my friends, family and self pay tax at 25% while those with substantial incomes enjoy more generous arrangements. Jimmy Carr has acted selfishly and, thanks to his sketches on bank tax avoidance, has been hypocritical. Nevertheless, he has handled this predicament with dignity, humility and skill. Which is more than I can say for his high-profile detractors.
'Eight Out Of Ten Cats' should be good this week.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant
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