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Sexual and financial privacy and the bully pulpit

How rightly horrified people would be if a prime minister were to publicly “name and shame” someone for sexual behaviour that he, the prime minister, found “morally repugnant” but which was not illegal. For the first couple of decades after its decriminalisation in 1967 homosexuality would have fallen in that category in the opinion of most British adults. Adultery still does fall into that category. I am pretty sure Cameron claims to find adultery morally repugnant, so let us hear his reasons for not making public denunciations of all the adulterous celebs out there in the same way that he has denounced Jimmy Carr for tax avoidance. And if it is right for him to denounce adulterous celebrities he should also denounce adulterous cabinet ministers and Tory donors, of course. If he would recoil from this course (and to be fair, he probably would) then he ought to be able to understand what is wrong with the man given the highest power in the land publicly denouncing as immoral the legal financial behaviour of a named individual.

The Times‘s behaviour in this affair has been disgusting, too. By all means write features denouncing tax avoidance – personally I think tax avoidance is morally neutral at worst, and more often good, but I recognise that opinions differ – and I would say that using already-public sources such as company accounts to expose the behaviour of individuals to public hostility is within the rights of a free press even when my sympathies are with the person exposed. One citizen slagging off another citizen is a very different thing from the prime minister slagging off a citizen. But the witchunting smirk of the Times‘s coverage makes me sick. Celebrity exposés for the people who think they are above celebrity exposés. And the witchunting howl of the Guardian‘s coverage as its writers scrambled like hyenas for the scraps left over from the Times‘s kill make me even more sick. These are the same people who were so high-minded about the press intrusions into privacy cited at the Levenson enquiry.

The original meaning of “bully” in the phrase bully pulpit was merely “wonderful”, i.e. that high office gave the holder a wonderful high platform from which he could reach a wide audience with his sermons. Nonetheless I have little doubt that from long before the time President Theodore Roosevelt first coined the term the bully pulpit has been used for bullying in the modern sense. The very fact that a prime minister or president potentially has the power to do harm to a private individual ought to clamp shut the leader’s mouth. No such scruples stopped Tony Blair from joining in the mob that got Glenn Hoddle fired from his job as England football manager for his religious beliefs, but then Cameron always has said he was the heir to Blair.

Decent silence ought to be kept by the great even more firmly in the case of a private citizen’s tax matters than in sexual matters or matters of belief, because a modern democratic state has largely ceased to employ mutaween or inquisitors (“diversity advisors” aside), but it does employ an army of tax collectors, and the prime minister or president is at the head of that army. A responsible ruler would be horrified by the thought that a careless word against an individual might well cause servile tax officials to attempt to win the ruler’s favour by focussing on that individual.

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19 comments to Sexual and financial privacy and the bully pulpit

  • The self serving inconstancy of the establishment classes may be revolting but it is hardly surprising. Indeed I would be astonishing to not see them behave in such a manner.

  • Edward Smith

    And having a Scoundrel like Jimmy Carr (is he really that funny?) to talk about gives Cameron welcome relief from what’s going on on the Main Stage, perhaps?

  • Paul Marks

    The behavour on tax avoidence by most of he British media (“nameing and shaming” people who have committerd no crime) has been disgusting – and the collectivist attitudes (the “moral duty” to pay for ever expanding govenrment) it reveals, has been frightening.

    As for Mr Cameron…..

    If he is sincere he is as disgusting as the Times and the Guardian.

    And if he is not sincere then he is crawling to the worst attitudes in Britain.

    Vile – either way.

    I repeat to people who can….

    Get out of this country – the future will be terrible.

  • llamas

    Even-more nauseating is the latest development today where some Treasury apparatchik has declared that the tax rates of the majority ‘could be’ reduced by 2% if those who have avoided taxes legally can be made to pay ‘their fair share’. It’s naked, soak-the-rich, class warfare, nothing more.

    Mr Carr took the exact wrong approach to this, IMHO. He should have called out Mr Cameron on his potentially-slanderous statements, perhaps even sought a writ for defamation – as an entertainer, his livelihood depends on public perception and to be called ‘dodgy’ by the PM is (IMHO) defamatory on its face. And he should have published his entire business structure and incomes, and challenged the PM (and anyone else who badmouths him) to do the same – and let’s see who is really paying ‘their fair share’. I will bet that the results of such exposures would have been very enlightening.

    I say ‘would have been’ because I’d further bet that none of those who have used him as their political whipping-boy would rise to the challenge, thus allowing him to say (truthfully) ‘Oh, yeah? What do you have to hide?’ This approach would provide endless material for a comedian of his talents.

    Instead, he folded. Shame.

    It’s interesting, though – if there were a controversy like this in the US, with high officials of the administration calling out individual citizens in this way, there would at least be some reporters, somewhere, taking a closer look at the callers-out. The US media (for all its flaws) can smell hypocrisy a mile off, and good case of hypocrisy will often trump even the strongest political biases. But apparently, there is nobody in the UK media prepared to take a closer look at the affairs of those who are denouncing Mr Carr. Based on what we have learned about the fiscal morals of UK politicians in the recent past, it does not seem like they would have to dig very deep.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Excellent stuff Natalie! A really fresh approach. I’d personally struggled to frame the Carr witch-hunt in sufficiently interesting terms to post so top marks!

    One point. As to “bully”. I think it’s used by Mark Twain in the sense of “good”, “top-notch”. I think Huck Finn reffs to a circus as the “bulliest he ever saw” as a high complement. Or something very similar. anyone know more?

  • “Will nobody rid me of this turbulent taxpayer?”

  • Nick M, you still sometimes hear the phrase “bully for you” meaning “good for you”.

  • Ellen, very apt – but I don’t think we’ll see Cameron donning sackcloth and ashes and walking barefoot through the streets in penitence while allowing himself to be scourged by eighty taxpayers.

  • John K

    The thing to remember about Cameron is that despite, or because of, his First in PPE, he is quite stupid, in the sense that he does not think things through, and has no beliefs at all that I can discern. A wiser man could have denounced artificial tax avoidance schemes (and the K2 scheme does seem pretty artificial to me) without attacking a law abiding private citizen. And a man with even a shred of common sense would have bourne in mind that his father used tax avoidance schemes just like this to shelter the family wealth from the confiscatory levels of tax levied by the socialist governments (Labour and Conservative) of the 60s and 70s, enabling young Cameron to enjoy the fruits of his expensive if, alas, largely wasted education at Eton and Oxford. But anyone who hadn’t already worked out that he was a shit really hasn’t been concentrating.

  • I’m not really a fan of Jimmy Carr finding his comedy to be more ‘sneering’ than anything else, but I do think that his approach to this has been balanced appropriately. He’s either very smart (and this guy went to Cambridge) or he’s been well advised.

    His initial approach of “What’s it got to do with you”, was immediately tempered within about a day to “Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa”. He quickly realised that this wasn’t about tax avoidance, but about making sure he still had a career after the week was over.

    I have never watched “8 out of 10 Cats” on Channel 4, but I did this week, just to see the reaction of the team of comics and the audience on Jimmy Carr. He played the penitent very well and although the other comics got a few pointed jibes in it could have been much, much worse for him.

    Cameron’s use of him to score a cheap political point was shabby and most people recognize that, equally most people resent the amount of tax they pay to the government to watch it being pissed away on the feckless, the EU and other things with which we do not agree.

    In all, I have a new found respect for Mr. Carr and increased contempt for Mr. Cameron (if that were even possible).

    The “8 out of 10 Cats” episode is available on 4OD, go and watch it and have a laugh. What is particularly funny is the lefty comedian on the centre-right who would clearly love to stick-it-to-him, but the audience isn’t in the mood and he knows it.

    Shit show, but great Television.

  • Andrew Bennett

    How rightly horrified people would be if a prime minister were to publicly “name and shame” someone for sexual behaviour that he, the prime minister, found “morally repugnant” but which was not illegal.

    That is nonsense. Or at least it should be. Everyone (I think even politicians count as people) has the right to offer their opinions on moral issues. Everyone has the right to argue their case in disagreement. The important thing is the absence of coercion in matters of individual freedom.

    In the absence of law all we have is culture. If we are to have a decent society to live in we will need a good strong (non coercive) culture to keep it that way.

  • Everyone (I think even politicians count as people) has the right to offer their opinions on moral issues.

    Well yes… and no. Politicians are not just people “like anyone else”, they are the people directing the means of collective coercion and I think they exist outside of what is normally seen as “civil society”… it is a mistake to treat their utterances much as you would anyone else’s opinions.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    But not paying tax affects Dave personally! Adulterers presumably use condoms, and buy birth control pills or devices, and book into hotel rooms for their adulter going-ons. This all goes to Dave as tax-money which he can give back to us as public services. Next time you hear of firefighters not wanting to use (i.e. wear out expensive) ladders to rescue people- think of Jimmy Carr, and burn a black candle to him, with lots of curses! He, and his kind, are the cause of all your troubles, as the government needs all the money it can get!

  • NickM, I forgot to say, thank you for getting me started on the comment that became this post.

    Andrew Bennett,

    Everyone (I think even politicians count as people) has the right to offer their opinions on moral issues.

    Of course Cameron has the right to offer his opinions on moral issues. He also has the right to offer his opinions on how moral individual citizens are. But it is morally wrong for him to do the latter, because of his position. It was also very stupid politically.

    HMRC officials are obliged to treat all taxpayers evenhandedly and to respect taxpayer confidentiality. (How well they fulfil these obligations is another matter; I am not necessarily saying they do badly.) As a condition of working for HMRC officials certainly do waive their ordinary political right to make comments about individuals, and like all civil servants they have to follow the civil service code which restricts political activity more and more as you rise up through the ranks. The high boss tax collector (a permanent secretary I think) is subject to extremely strong rules forbidding him or her to comment on individuals and on many general issues, where it could be seen to violate the political impartiality of the civil service.

    Then he or she reports to the prime minister, who has the right to say almost anything (which does not mean he ought to say all that he could say), and who only holds that office at all by virtue of being leader of a political party.

    The system is odd when you think about it.

  • Natalie,
    I really like your post so cosider the debt settles ;-)*

    I temped once (’bout ten years ago) for HMRC. Gor blimey it was antedeluvian. I did data entry on a system so arcane it was like some medieval grimoire** and it was very paper-based. Security went like this. I signed something to say I’d be honest and the general rule was they had spot checks of the A/C you were dealing with. It was supposed to be 1 in a 100 but in actuality was far rarer. The acid test was if you had paper-work with the NINO on it. And it was a twilight shift so my line manager snoozed mostly (he was doing overtime). Some A/Cs were automatically red-flagged. These were celebs, politicos and yourself.

    Sorry if any of this scares anyone.

    *Preferably by some offshore intricacy.
    **It was in terms of NI and the system at some enormous expense had been designed by Crapita. It was a typical Gov IT catastrophe because nobody involved in the planning was both conversant with the Byzantine goings on at NICO and the tech end. Suffice to say both Crapita and the Gov were both suing each other! Also worth noting is all the NI details were held on Crapitas mainframe in Warwickshire and I was at the big office in Longbenton, Newcastle. The connection often went down so we had make work in paper filing to do. Thes went of in airline-style cages to a vault that was roughly the size of that warehouse at the end of raiders of the Lost Ark.

  • Paul Marks

    M.J. Oakeshott pointed out (for example in his “On Human Conduct”) that for a politician to use his office to attack a private law abiding subject, is vile (utterly vile).

    But then Oakeshott was a conservative – so David Cameron would despise him.

  • Andrew Bennett

    Of course Cameron has the right to offer his opinions on moral issues. He also has the right to offer his opinions on how moral individual citizens are. But it is morally wrong for him to do the latter, because of his position.

    I guess the last bit is where I disagree. If leaders cannot offer their opinions on the morality of behaviour, what do they have left to lead with? Legislation and coercion?

    M.J. Oakeshott pointed out (for example in his “On Human Conduct”) that for a politician to use his office to attack a private law abiding subject, is vile (utterly vile).

    What makes an opinion vile? I would agree that harassing an individual with the power of the law is vile, but the man can’t talk?

    For the record I am not agreeing or disagreeing with the substance of the moral criticism, I just find it surprising that libertarians (if that is a fair general label) are criticizing free speech as immoral.

  • For the record I am not agreeing or disagreeing with the substance of the moral criticism, I just find it surprising that libertarians (if that is a fair general label) are criticizing free speech as immoral.

    I do not think a politician of any hue has any right to be treated as a normal member of civil society.

    These are the people who direct a great many aspects of our lives at gunpoint and who confiscate a huge portion of our wealth under threat of physical violence. To treat what they say as “just an opinion” is utter folly.

  • Laird

    Andrew, I would also add that in the sentence you quoted from Paul Marks (concerning Oakeshott), Paul never said that the opinion itself was vile, merely that the expression of it is. And that is true, for the reason Perry cited.