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Home > Culture and Society

Business Meanies And Woolly Thinkers: What's their beef?

12 November 2004

This week the Guardian (who else?) published a report with the icky title 'The Giving List'. Rather pompously, the paper describes it as an 'annual survey of corporate responsibility', as though the newspaper had suddenly become a corporate regulator. Shockingly, the report found that businesses aren't charities, with the top 100 firms giving less than one per cent of their profits to charity.

There's something deeply pathetic about well-meaning Guardian types condemning massive companies for being venal. It's as pointless as criticising Hitler for being mean to his girlfriends, or sharks for being callous, or paedophiles for being badly dressed. All these accusations are true, but they're somewhat irrelevant.

Of course, corporate charity is a worthwhile and decent thing, particularly in terms of having a sense of social responsibility and being a part of society and 'the community', rather than just being a Gradgrind supplier of goods and services.

But you've got to get real about corporate charity. There's no obligation, legal or moral, for businesses to support charities. Businesses are there to make money. That's not to say they're automatically unethical, unless you take a hardline Marxist view that all capitalist enterprises exploit the workers by definition. And while many businesses engage in vile activities - routine pollution and/or rape of Mother Earth, endemic workplace bullying, sexism, paying starvation wages, or actively harming the UK's economy as asset stripping firms have done - the majority of businesses are just getting on with what they do. They have to be regulated and they have to pay tax. But that's it.

There's also the fact that charity of any sort isn't a substitute for government action. Figures from a few years back suggest that the total amount given to charity in the UK would barely fund 10 per cent of the NHS. Of course, people like John Redwood would argue that you could just make the NHS 90 per cent smaller and we could all pay less tax, but he's an idiot.

Tax equals genuine public services. You can quibble over the amount, but it's mostly that simple. Charity is nice, but quantitatively it's not that important. And corporate charity often isn't charity at all: it's just cheap PR, if not actual advertising. You know the sort of thing: 'Benson & Hedges supports the Asthmatic Olympics.'

Believing that companies have responsibility for wider society is yet another symptom of the woolly thinking we Brits seem to be so good at. Remember the lottery rapist? 'How could a rapist win the lottery?' people cried, stupidly. You can see this feeble thinking everywhere. 'Euan Blair's drunken shame' was a classic example. The fact that a teenager gets pissed on their birthday, whether they happen to be a Blair or not, has absolutely no relevance to anything: not Tony Blair's parenting skills, not government policy on licensing, not even 'binge drinking Britain'.

Corporate charity falls into the same group of 'issues that aren't really issues'. It would be nice if businesses subscribed to some advanced view of social capitalism whereby they nurture the society they exist in, but since most businesses have difficulty spotting an obviously doomed Internet strategy (eg. selling mice online) this is probably a bit much to expect.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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