Wednesday 5 January 2005

Another wave of miserliness from Britain's super-rich

Listen, rich people don't get rich by being generous! Most of them don't have a generous bone in their bodies and our modern corporations are especially like this. They are so tight that, in the words of the immortal Ferris Bueller, "if you shoved a lump of coal up their arse in two weeks you'd have a diamond!" Trying to get these fat-cats to cough up dough is like trying to get blood from a stone. The money raised by British people has come from those who can least afford it, the corporate fat-cats and super-rich are simply parasites sucking the life out of the rest of us, maybe this will make people realise that...

Corporate donations to the tsunami appeal are stunningly stingy

by Jonathan Freedland

Most television programmers like to aim for a balance of light and shade, but the editors of the news bulletins over the holiday period have not really had that option. Instead, and for each evening since Boxing Day, the TV news has been a glimpse of hell. Report after report, from Indonesia or Sri Lanka or some flyspeck island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, has brought some new horror. Not the pictures of the mangled buildings and upended ships; it is surprising how quickly we have become inured to those. But the stories - of orphaned children, of babies snatched from their mother's arms, of fathers washed out to sea - seem only to get worse, taking us ever deeper into the calamity.

All that the bulletins have had to lighten the gloom is a related story: the British reaction to the disaster. On this the media have spoken with one voice, lauding the great British public for a generosity that has made us among the most openhanded nations in the world.

The scale of British giving has been moving, especially acts of kindness by those with least to spare: cleaners or pensioners or the unemployed donating sums that either took a week to earn or were a week's keep. People have drawn a legitimate pride in this and in the public's outpacing of government, whose earliest pledge of £1m looked so paltry.

Ministers increased that to £50m and yesterday hinted there would be more if needed. That is welcome, but hardly overwhelming. Others have pointed out the contrast between that contribution, even if it rises to, say, £100m, and the £6bn the UK government found so readily for the war on Iraq. But one need not look so far. The cost of the new national identity card scheme, for example, bringing food and shelter to no one, is estimated at £3.1bn. Next to sums like that, £50m or £100m is, to use a grimly appropriate phrase, a drop in the ocean.

But the government is doing plenty of other things, lending military assistance to stricken countries as well as deploying staff in London and around the world. No, anger, if we feel it, should be directed at the third lead player in public life: not citizens or government, but big business.

Corporate Britain was quick to realise it needed to stand with the public mood and publicise its concern. The major companies doubtless feel proud of their generosity. They shouldn't. They should be ashamed.

Vodafone announced it would be giving £1m and matching all staff donations. A million pounds is a lot of money to you and me, but not to Vodafone, to which it is pocket change. The company's annual profit, registered last May, was £10bn. That means the company made substantially more than a million pounds an hour. Yet that is all they gave - less than an hour's profit. It is less than they gave their new boss, Arun Sarin, for his annual bonus.

Put another way, Vodafone has given a mere one tenthousandth of its annual profit. (Not its total revenue, mind, which would be a larger figure, just its profit.) Think of your own annual income, after you've paid off all your expenses. Now work out what one ten-thousandth of that sum would be. If you had given just that amount to the tsunami appeal, would that be enough? Would you announce it with pride?

Or look at one of the early givers and publicity seekers: the Premiership. It gave the same Vodafone figure, £1m. The Premiership is made up of 20 clubs, so that would have set back each team a grand total of £50,000. That is what Manchester United pays Wayne Rooney for four and a half days' work.

That club alone is worth £700m; its annual profit is £47m. Maybe the Man U players did the maths and felt guilty but, if they did, it was not nearly guilty enough. Between them they raised another £50,000. When you think that Rio Ferdinand earns £80,000 a week, that is scarcely an impressive total from an entire squad. They could each have sold off a couple of diamond ear studs and raised more than that.

The rollcall of shame continues. BP gave a healthy looking £1.6m: fine, until you realise the oil giant's expected profits for 2004 weigh in at £9bn.

Abbey National's trading profit from its core businesses topped the billionpound mark in 2004, even if the company made an overall loss. Times must be tough, though, because when it dipped in its corporate pocket it found just £25,000. I've done the sums: on my comfortable Guardian salary, that's the equivalent of me giving less than two quid.

Tesco is proud that it has sent food, water and hygiene products to Thailand and Sri Lanka - but it's still a shock that, with annual profits of £1.7bn, it only managed to give an anaemic £100,000.

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