The news this week continues to be dominated by the fallout from the Panama Papers, a 2.6 terabyte cache of documents acquired by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung detailing the inner workings of Mossack Fonseca, the fourth biggest provider of offshore services in the world.
Indeed, Trajectory’s own Isabelle Gormezano Marks has had her say, examining the delicate relationship between institutional trust and scandal with the revelations of the questionable financial manoeuvres of the rich and powerful emerging at a bad time in the context of a difficult economic recovery.
In comparing the protagonists (as we’ll call them) of two recent scandals – David Cameron and Maria Sharapova – I ask, if these are scandals, why? In each case, at what point was trust broken? A video – with over 3.5 million views – has done the rounds on social media this week in which a tax expert interviewed by the BBC states that the headlines should read
“man makes modest investment and pays all his tax”.
If the issue is as simple as this tax expert suggests, why the storm? If Maria Sharapova has been taking Meldonium for the last ten years, as she admits, should we not feel cheated by all of her victories?
In each instance the suddenly scandalous behaviour of each of our protagonists carried on legally and unexposed for as long as a decade. As the law (of tennis) caught up with Sharapova, the press caught up with Cameron and in each instance a scandal was born.
The grey space from which these scandals emanate is the result of the unhappy relationship between morality and legality, with the relative objectivity of legislation and the subjectivity of what we – ‘the public’ – deem to be emotionally or morally right or wrong impossible to reconcile in a way that is universally harmonious.
While legislative machinery catches up with our moral sensibilities, abuses of systems – such as those detailed in the Panama Papers – will continue to go unpunished and yet our sense of outrage at having been wronged will remain.
Sharapova’s behaviour was eventually deemed illegal and subsequently punished, but the fact remains that while her victories thus far have been obtained through means that many will, subjectively, consider immoral or wrong, they are objectively legitimate.
Context of course, is key.
David Cameron campaigned for re-election on the promise to tackle not just tax evasion, but importantly – in relation to his staggered inheritance – tax avoidance. While the hypocrisy of Cameron’s behaviour feels wrong, the chasm between morality and legality means that we will continue to see his actions defended by MPs and pundits.
Crucially, in relation to trust, we don’t need a judge or an institution to tell us how we feel. While the legislative tipping point is very much a case of black and white, our moral judgement is less clearly defined. Laws don’t need to be broken for our trust to be damaged, and as these scandals often emerge from grey spaces morally, so do our decisions on who we trust and why.
The issue in both cases that provokes public anger is not a legal one, but a moral one – driven by hypocrisy or privilege. Scandals of this sort will continue to drive the New Morality, a trend Trajectory identified at the outset of the downturn to describe consumers’ changing attitudes to institutions and businesses. This moral grey area is the ethical battleground, rather than the more straightforward binary legality of it.