Friday, June 29, 2012

Perhaps we should stop now

A little while back, a British comedian called Jimmy Carr found himself in the media spotlight. Mr Carr is no stranger to the media spotlight: he’s well-known for saying controversial things, particularly in his live act, but sometimes offence is taken and Carr’s face is paraded on the front pages for all to see. In one memorable case, he suggested that the number of wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan would mean that Britain would at least have a good Paralympics team; even though he’d used the line many times before, to veterans in fact, and almost certainly, according to at least one soldier, had had it told to him by a wounded Marine, when it slipped out on national TV it caused a media sensation.

Not that I am a big fan of Jimmy Carr. To be honest, I don’t much enjoy his comedy, and I doubt that I would enjoy his company either (although obviously if I did ever meet him, I’d be quite prepared to be pleasantly surprised). But I don’t despise him or hate him, which is important to understand as I continue.

A little while back (as I mentioned earlier), he found himself once again in the media spotlight. His name was top of a list of very rich individuals who had taken advantage of a tax-avoidance scheme. He invested his money in a company in Jersey, a tax haven, which then loaned it back to him. Since it was a loan, which could technically be recalled, he didn’t have to pay income tax on it.

This was all the more embarrassing for Mr Carr personally, because as a comedian and satirist, he had previously criticized the banks for their tax avoidance schemes, and quite savagely so.

A bunch of people predictably sprang to his defence. It was all perfectly legal, said many; and that’s almost certainly quite true, which is why we’re talking about tax avoidance here, and not tax evasion. That argument, though, misses the point: and after comedians had ridiculed government ministers for claiming it was all perfectly legal when they were caught with their hands in the till (and in many cases they really hadn’t broken the law), it’s not much of an argument at all. It was, as the Prime Minister said, morally wrong. (Government ministers, though, really shouldn’t talk about morals, and it wasn’t long before the papers had discovered that David Cameron’s family were equally creative with their investments.)

Other people suggested that it was British tax law which was to blame, with a top rate of 50% for the super-rich, and therefore Carr was hardly to blame. This argument conveniently forgets, or ignores, the fact that Jimmy Carr is one of the rarest human beings on the planet: a stand-up comic making so much money that he finds himself having to pay the top rate of income tax. He could, basically, well afford to pay his taxes and still have more money per month than I am likely to make in a year.

But I now find myself one of his staunchest defenders, and for one very good reason: he has apologised in a manner that seems sincere to me.

Mr Carr apologises quite a lot. An unkind soul might suggest it’s because he has more than most to apologise for: I think it’s because he walks a fine line but is willing to take responsibility for his own actions. His Paralympics jibe wasn’t cruel, just made in an inappropriate context; he apologised all the same.

And he apologised for his tax avoidance. Further, he promised to make amends, to pull out of the scheme and be more responsible with his money. He made no excuses, other than that it was hard for him to turn down the offer to save a small fortune in taxes perfectly legally, and spoke of his serious misjudgement. And that, as far as I am concerned, is the end of the story, unless I am convinced that he has gone back on his word.

So I was a bit disappointed to read a headline that suggested he had ranted at a Jersey resident and called him a tax-dodger. Surely not, Mr Carr?

As it turned out, not. Somebody somewhere had simply dug out a DVD of a live show he did last year. It’s the kind of humour for which Jimmy Carr is famous, and the type of humour that I don’t enjoy particularly. But it was humour, it was a joke, the audience enjoyed it, and although the idea that the people of Jersey should go forth and multiply because they are almost French might be offensive, but nobody with half a brain goes to a live Jimmy Carr show and not expect him to be offensive.

So, this is non-news. I don’t like Jimmy Carr much and I certainly don’t approve of what he did; but it’s history now, and perhaps we should concentrate more on those people who refuse to accept responsibility even after they have long run out of scapegoats.

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