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Business, as in so much of life, depends on developing and maintaining close, open and productive relationships.
As friends in the media would have it, the key is “access” – the ability to observe and then relate the facts and individuals at the very heart of an issue of importance to an audience.
Over the course of the last year, of course, HMRC has been much in the news. For example, if not raiding Premier League football clubs, it’s found itself challenged by an increasing number of taxpayers.
It is perhaps natural, therefore, to learn television producers had asked the Revenue to throw open its doors in order to allow the watching public to see how exactly it operates.
A cynic might question whether the timing of the Revenue’s agreeing to do so is part of an attempt to cultivate a more favourable public image after a series of rather embarrassing reverses, including a judge considering it “arguable” that the seizure of documents from Newcastle United was unlawful.
Let’s not forget that this is an organisation which understandably – due to the nature of the details which it keeps on us all – emphasises the importance of confidentiality.
The resulting documentary, entitled ‘Catching The Tax Dodgers’, aired on Channel Four.
Even allowing for the absence of what one reviewer described as “sexy soundbites”, I reckon it partially achieved its objective. The revelation that HMRC had recovered some £100 billion from those people and enterprises which it alleges have broken the rules earned it something of an endorsement from TV critics (“Good for them”).
All well and good, you might say. However, as one wag remarked to me, the Revenue’s communications are as much about symbolism as reality. By parading its resources and results, it was implicitly reinforcing the oft-repeated message to those thinking of joining the ranks of ‘dodgers’: “Pay what tax you should or we’re coming for you too”.
It’s not surprising that such tough talk has an effect. Take Newham Council in London which has decided to hand over to HMRC details of some 13,000 landlords who it claims aren’t declaring the income received from letting out properties across the borough.
Newham’s mayor has even written to the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, asking him to bear the authority’s cosy relationship with the taxman in mind when it comes to allocating public funds required for schools, housing and social care.
There’s no guarantee that calling on the kind of elevated levels of intimidation which HMRC is able to muster, partially as a consequence of the Channel Four documentary, will necessarily generate Newham any more cash.
Equally, winning plaudits on the TV pages doesn’t mean the Revenue has its house entirely in order. In fact, I believe that it makes it even more of a target as inquisitive journalists try to match up the boasts with the accounts of disgruntled members of the public and business community.
The day before the latest study of HMRC took its hour-long prime time bow, it was on the defensive as the chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Nicky Morgan MP, declared that she and her colleagues were to investigate how almost one million people – equivalent to one in every 11 people registered to pay tax in the UK – had been incorrectly fined hundreds of pounds for late tax returns.
It was publicity which the Revenue’s top brass will surely not have been surprised by, although they must have felt a little embarrassed.
The Sunday Telegraph story should act as a reminder to them that inviting cameras in for an extended close-up opens up the opportunity of a full portrait being rendered on-screen. Warts and all.
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