The Barclays vs. Guardian furore: What can businesses learn?

Saturday's Guardian sparked a bit of a media frenzy. The paper revealed that Barclays paid just 1% corporation tax on its 2009 profits of £11.6bn (the current rate of corporation tax for large companies in the UK is 28%). Its provocative headline wasn't taking any prisoners: 'Barclays bank forced to admit it paid just £113m in corporation tax in 2009'.

The front page story presumably riled up protesters from UK Uncut, a group that opposes government spending cuts and corporate tax avoidance, who had planned to target the banks on the same day and ended up bringing around 30 Barclays branches to a standstill.

While a number of other headlines jumped on the bank-bashing bandwagon, various commentators have began to question whether the 'evil tax-dodging bankers' angle is a bit misleading.

Barclays' 2009 corporate tax liability was significantly lowered by widespread 2008 losses which had been brought forward. This "tax avoidance", as the Guardian would have it, is something all firms are entitled to do and has no doubt also helped many small businesses throughout the recession.

Furthermore, as a multinational company paying tax in a number of territories, it is also a bit unfair to compare the bank's UK corporate tax contribution against its global profits of £11.6bn.

However, and perhaps most interestingly, there's a chance that the Guardian's tax avoidance angle for this story could end up blowing up it its face. Political blogger Guido Fawkes has pointed to some pretty startling hypocrisy...

Guardian Media Group (GMG), owner of Guardian News and Media, which publishes the Guardian and Observer newspapers, stands accused of committing more or less every charge levelled at Barclays in Saturday's article, including taking advantage of government legislation to save millions in corporate tax; stashing away funds in offshore tax havens and investing in speculative hedge funds. Check it out - it certainly makes for an interesting read.

While no one would argue with the Guardian's right to preserve its business interests - and protect its shareholders' investment - the hypocrisy of the Guardian's reporting is staggering. Businesses need to preserve their credibility and integrity in order to retain the respect of their customers. News outlets are especially reliant on their reputations; readerships depend on them.

Here are some key lessons for small businesses from this storm in a teacup:

React quickly

To his credit, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger responded to Guido Fawkes' criticism promptly and candidly. He argues that GMG's tax situation is "complex". (Presumably banks' are too?) But he goes on to plead: "Individual columnists - and even leader writers - may well disagree with some aspects of how the parent company has run itself over the years... It seems an odd argument that individual Guardian journalists, who have no part in business decisions, should refrain from covering tax avoidance, or should feel inhibited in expressing their views."

Don't get into a public catfight

If you use Twitter, you might have seen a new hashtag doing the rounds. Guido Fawkes has been circulating #ComeCleanAlan for two days and it is steadily gaining momentum across the web. But check out Rusbridger's Twitter page - does he rise to the jibe? Not at all. His tweeting has remained quietly considered. No rants. No backlash. That's the way to calm a mob.

Stick to your guns

Once you've made your case, stick to it. Over the next few weeks, this story will doubtless rear its ugly head again and again. It's up to the writers at the Guardian to try and retain their editorial integrity by adhering to the point above, and sticking by Rusbridger's comments. Consistency is key when you're looking to play down a brouhaha. Today's paper is tomorrow's fish wrap, so don't create more breaking news.

These are a few steps towards restoring shaken credibility, and some of the key lessons for businesses. But another would be that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. In this age of social media, your hypocrisy is likely to come back and bite you in the backside.

It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

By Steph Welstead and Rebecca Burn-Callander

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