Can Google set the tax agenda?

Lessons from Google's tax saga on how to frame the narrative of a media debate.

Can Google set the tax agenda?

One should always declare any possible conflicts of interest. So here goes.

I am writing this article about Google with the aid of Google (well, its search engine). And the boss of Google Europe, Matt Brittin, was in my year at school. I have met him once in the 26 years since then.

Brittin usually comes across as likeable and credible - two attributes of a successful communicator. But it's difficult to maintain credibility if you are perceived to be defending the indefensible.

Last week, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee had him tied up in knots about when a salesman isn't a salesman.

Google is paying tax. It's just that despite amassing money from UK citizens, most of its tax is paid in Ireland. So MPs and commentators have been trying to pin the 'immoral' tag on Google.

In a Daily Telegraph article last November - found, yes, on Google (does Google SEO itself?) - Brittin was frustrated that the public debate on corporation tax was creating the impression that all 'businesses are trying to do negative things and get away with them ... I find it frustrating when we're criticised because I'm not immoral and neither is Google'.

Until changing his tune in last Sunday's Observer, Google's Eric Schmidt, like others accused of tax avoidance, has let his critics define the terms of the debate. They need to engage audiences emotionally and rationally on a broader plane.

Instead, we've had the false sophistry of Starbucks hailing how much PAYE tax it collects and mantras about compliance with UK law.

Lin Homer, chief executive of HMRC, gave it straight during her evidence: 'We are duty bound to collect and investigate under regulations, set out by lawmakers, not on what you'd like us to collect on ...

'Unless and until you change the law, we cannot collect the tax (that) people would like us to collect.' Would that company executives were so bold.

Maybe someone at Google can offer HMRC some advice on how to get that quote higher up the SEO rankings.

Takeaway Tips

  • The world is changing. Every institution is being questioned - Parliament, monarchy, the media, the police, business - and the 'old' ways of doing things prised open for inspection. Keeping your head below the parapet does not make the brickbats go away.
  • Businesses and their leaders seem to prefer to engage in proactive comms only about their brand, services or products. Few engage with broader issues that could help them and the broader business community hold on to their moral licence to operate. It's time for some courageous leadership comms.

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