As we approach TEDxGlasgow 2018, we’re catching up with our amazing speakers asking them what drove them to apply and how they aim to inspire and engage our audience on the 1st of June. In today’s blog, we speak with the fascinating Simon Bowers, an investigative journal renowned for his work around tax justice, whose talk is titled ‘How can we help big corporations learn to love paying tax?‘.
Simon worked as a newspaper reporter for 20 years before joining the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as its senior reporter in January 2017. Specialising in investigative stories, he has worked on projects involving large data leaks, including the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. His reporting has featured in The Guardian, BBC Panorama, New York Times, The Irish Times, CBC News, ABC News, Vice News, Le Soir and El Confidencial.
When not out and about reporting or in one of the major global publications’ offices, Simon works from a shed in his back garden. So, let’s find out a little more about what we can expect to hear from him…
What is your idea worth doing?
We need to better appreciate what drives bad tax behaviour among some of the world’s largest companies. Everyone dislikes the idea of big corporations not contributing their fair share towards the cost of public services. But we – through our politicians – allow this to happen.
Globalisation has shifted the balance of power in the social contract between companies and the state. The balance is now tipped in favour of corporate interests. This is a momentous development, but no politician is talking about it. Basic principles of tax fairness are being eroded as governments quietly bend policy in favour of the multinational corporations. The consequences for ordinary people are higher taxes or worse public services. Meanwhile, the bad tax behaviour of multinationals often remains hidden in a tangle of complexity and secrecy. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we better understand the pressures on tax policy, and how the resulting rules can be exploited, then we can help politicians find solutions that don’t work against our interests.
How did you come up with your idea?
As a journalist, I have spent years looking into the tax affairs of multinational corporations. In the course of that work, I’ve seen a large number of leaked documents setting out complex tax avoidance schemes at dozens of global businesses. I was shocked that many schemes involve multi-billion dollar money flows, and that these flows – which serve no purpose other than tax avoidance – can be hidden from both the public and shareholders. I always wondered how these companies were getting away with bad behaviour: was it because they were clever, or because the behaviour had been tacitly sanctioned?
Then one day, I attended a conference for tax professionals and academics and found myself listening to a lecture by one of Europe’s leading tax lawyers. He said: “politicians don’t make corporate tax policy these days; it is corporations themselves that set the policy”. Again, I was shocked. The remark had been exaggerated for effect, but the meaning was plain: multinational companies now have considerable influence over tax policy. I wanted to know why almost no one in politics or the media was talking about this extraordinary situation – which is how I came to start thinking about the idea I’m talking about it at TEDx Glasgow.
How is your idea going to change the way we look at the world?
I’m hoping to have more to say about this in June. So, stay tuned!
Who has inspired you in your field of work?
The world of tax advice is a rarefied one. Speaking out against aggressive tax avoidance can be career destroying – and worse. A Frenchman called Antoine Deltour worked as a graduate employee at PwC in Luxembourg until he left in 2010, disillusioned at the work the firm was doing on tax. Before departing he copied a lot of confidential files and later showed them to a journalist. This resulted in widespread media reports that changed the shape of the global debate on tax. In all likelihood, Deltour has done more than anyone alive to raise awareness and curb tax avoidance. For his troubles, Deltour has faced years of court battles against prosecutors who alleged he was not a whistleblower acting in the public interest, but rather a thief who should be sent to jail.
Who else are you excited to see at TEDxGlasgow 2018?
With corporate responsibility a hot topic at the moment, we’re excited about exploring tax justice more at TEDxGlasgow 2018 when Simon and our 19 other speakers will take to the stage to delve into the theme of Rethink…