While Panorama is renowned for its investigative reportage – such as FIFA’s Dirty Secrets and the Diana Princess of Wales interview – this week saw the world’s media cover its coverage of the leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ – an expose of where the super rich have invested and reaped tax benefits.
Among those named, including Bono and Lewis Hamilton, our monarch was also in the spotlight due to controversial multi-million pound dealings made by royal aides in overseas havens.
The BBC has dedicated a week of programming to the complex arrangements that have seen major companies and brands avoid UK taxation, and many more hours of news coverage have been committed to picking over the findings.
The crux of the debate is this – while the Paradise Papers point fingers at how major players, such as Apple, are stealing money from UK public services by not paying their dues – what they’re doing is legal. The question this raises from a public relations perspective is, if a company is behaving legally, is that enough?
Lord Ashcroft may believe so, yet his reputation is undoubtedly tarnished by the experience of being chased through the Tory Party Conference by a BBC crew quizzing him on his financial affairs.
If the Paradise Papers teach us anything, it is that companies need to turn the spotlight on themselves and judge if the way they operate is not only legally, but also morally acceptable. If it isn’t, the company is placing themselves at reputational risk.
Warren Buffett, billionaire investor, summed it up best in a letter to his shareholders. In it he said: “We can afford to lose money — even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation — even a shred of reputation. We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter.”
Those named in the Paradise Papers may be wishing they’d heeded the same advice.