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The Role of Media in International Taxation: The Transcript

The Role of Media in International Taxation: The Transcript

Here's the full transcript for our webinar on the role of the media in international taxation. Plenty of informative nuggets for you to find!

Our panelists were:

  • Stephanie Johnston, Chief Correspondent, Tax Notes Today International, Tax Analysts, USA
  • Hamza Ali, Senior Reporter, Bloomberg Tax & Accounting, United Kingdom
  • Todd Buell, Senior Correspondent, Law360 & MLex, Belgium

Introductory Remarks

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: Hello everyone!  Welcome to Taxlinked’s latest webinar. Today I’m particularly excited about this one because this is something we have discussed with Todd in the past and given the COVID pandemic we couldn't do it live at one of our conferences so we decided to do it as a webinar. Today we're discussing the role of media in international taxation. We have three very esteemed guests with us all the way from the US and Europe and we are going to be answering or tackling eight questions that we have here for them.

Before I get started and ask our panelists for some introductions, let me get some administrative issues out of the way. Taxlinked members are eligible to receive CPD credits for this event. However, make sure that you're paying attention because if you're not paying attention, the system tracks it and you won't be able to get those CPD credits. Also, if you have any questions for our panelists as you're listening to what they have to say, use the control panel to submit those questions. I will either save the questions for the end or try to work them into the discussion. Also, we will have a full video recording and transcript of this event, it should be available within the next two weeks, both of them, so that's all for now.

So let's get started. I have one question here to kind of set the stage and ask each one of our panelists to introduce themselves. So the first question is: How did you end up reporting on international tax? Stephanie, do you want to get us started there?

Question: How did you end up reporting on international tax?

Stephanie Johnston: Sure, yes, hi. I’m Stephanie Johnston, I’m a chief correspondent with Tax Notes Today International. So my journey to international tax was kind of a random one. I started out actually in magazines and then I went to journalism school at Northwestern University and there I sort of dabbled in a few things, did business reporting for a little while. I did an internship in Bangkok at AFP for a summer and started freelancing after graduation so I free-lanced for a few trade publications including a trade publication on the meat industry called Meating Place Magazine, where I wrote extensively on meat trends, which was pretty interesting. From there, I picked up whatever work I could because journalism doesn't really pay that well in general, it was really hard to find a job so I started working for a fashion magazine, I worked for a fashion magazine for about five to six years, went to Fashion Week and all that stuff, actually my sense of style is way better now than it was back then. So then my husband actually got a job in the DC area so I was looking around for, you know, maybe I should start settling down, maybe I should get a full-time job and I sent an email out to my alumni group and someone came back and said, “Hey, my name's Stephanie, I work a Tax Analysts, would you like me to pass on your resume?” and I was like cool, they don’t have to learn a new name, that would be a good selling point for me. So I went in for the interview, actually almost turned around and thought maybe I don't want to do this because tax is really difficult and I actually wrote about this recently. So I went in for the interview and it was great, I mean I got the job and people were fantastic, I mean the subject matter was obviously very difficult but I was ready for the challenge and here I am nine years later, the longest time I've ever had so that is my journey in a nutshell.

Hamza Ali: I think it's less winy because it didn't wind over many roads but I did do a lot of things before I arrived at tax, I think. I studied accounting in my undergrad but it really wasn't for me. I mean, I could understand it but I didn't like it, but luckily for me I caught the journalism bug almost from day one at university. I started writing for the university newspaper and I was like, “People get paid for this? This is crazy.” And then I retrained as a journalist and sort of became a financial journalist and worked at various jobs. I wrote about green finance and how pension and insurance funds are becoming greener and it makes complete sense. I did that for a while and then I started writing about wealth and then a friend of mine who worked at Bloomberg before me told me he's going to change his job to wealth but his job at Bloomberg before that was covering tax and I was like, “All right, I’m tired of wealth, I’ll cover tax.” So I ended up falling into it as it were but took to it like a duck to water, though. It's got the right combination of complicated and newsworthy; you know that some stuff is earth shattering, “Whoa, this is going to change everything.” To my eternal surprise and shock, not everybody thinks so, but I like it and I’ve been sort of enjoying paddling in the sea for a while now. That's my journey.

Todd Buell: Indeed. I’ve enjoyed those conferences very much and I do hope one day in the future that we can meet again in person. My journey into tax reporting started when, in my first journalism job, I was working in Frankfurt writing about monetary policy, and so that's what I did for the first nine years or so of my journalism career, and then for personal reasons was looking to go to Brussels, and this job that I have now was available and somebody suggested I contact MLex, which is a sister company of Law360 and in normal times Law360 shares an office with MLex. So I went in there and did an interview and I remember a writing test or something that they had me do, I had to look at some 350-page document or something, my first thought was, “Oh my gosh, I can't do this.” But then something clicked and I don't remember exactly what I did but I just thought, “You know, find the thing that you understand and write about it for the test,” and I did that and I got the job. I’ve been doing it since April of 2018 and I’ll stop there, maybe we can get to some other things a bit later on, but that's my journey.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: Excellent, thank you guys for the introductions. We have another seven questions here. I’m going to try to probably combine a few here and there and hopefully we have some questions from the audience too. But let me start off with a quick hitter. I want you in a few words, maybe a sentence, to tell us: how would you define your role as a journalist in our industry?

Question: How would you define your role as a journalist in our industry?

Stephanie Johnston: Yes, okay. So truth-teller, exposing tax news that is in public interest. Explainer, contextualizing the news, explaining what your reader needs to know to do their jobs. Fact finder, trying to find the facts and reporting them accurately in timely matter. How's that?

Hamza Ali: Simplifier, I think is like mostly what I end up doing. So like I take something that would be dense and difficult to read and simplifying it into a condensed and understandable fashion.

Todd Buell: Make things clear and also try to identify trends or movements in policy, especially when I consider that I’m in Europe and writing for, I don't know the numbers exactly, but I think a fair number of readers who are based in the United States. So explaining to them what's going on over here from a tax perspective.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: Excellent. So the next question basically ties into what the three of you actually said, and this is a question that Todd posed when we were exchanging emails. The question is: What does it take to make a highly technical subject such as international tax easier to understand to the casual reader? In other words, how can one best communicate about sometimes very complex tax topics in the most accurate and understandable way?

Question: What does it take to make a highly technical subject such as international tax easier to understand to the casual reader? In other words, how can one best communicate about sometimes very complex tax topics in the most accurate and understandable way?

Todd Buell: Sure, I mean it's one of the challenges that I know I face as a journalist in this section and in this area because I’ll admit I did not study tax, I did not study law, and so some of this stuff is a little bit foreign to me. Like some of these phrases like even residual profit, facts and circumstances, value creation, these buzzwords that people throw around, at least for me initially it was confusing what exactly are they talking about. But what I’ve tried to learn is to ask questions of experts, ask questions of those with more knowledge and ask it in ways… I had a former boss say, “If you had to explain it to a fourth grader, how would you explain it?” Sometimes what I do is I just ask people in laypersons terms, how would you explain this and sometimes that allows for me to get the information in a clearer way. I like doing it that way also because I think not everybody who reads our site is a lawyer or is a very high level tax professional. There are a lot of people I think who are interested in this material, especially when it pertains to big multinational companies, you know, Apple or Google, and they're interested in the tax story but they don't know all of the legal details, let's say, so explaining it in an understandable way is important.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: Excellent, thank you Todd. Hamza, you have the background in accounting so how do you actually use your background to kind of make things clear for the reader?

Hamza Ali: I mean sometimes it's relevant, so like recently with sort of the OECD Pillar 2 stuff, there's accounting stuff in there that's I say it's helpful, but it's not really because it's super complicated. But it's sort of helpful in not being afraid of the detail, but I think Todd hit the nail in the head that you've got to think about what somebody who doesn't have all the pieces of information would understand from what you're about to write, I think is a good rule to pin to your wall.

Another thing I find which sort of makes it easier is when you're talking to an expert, to try and explain it back to the expert in your own words whilst talking to them, and it helps you create this bridge in understanding that I think might be missing sometimes because the expert will explain it to you but if you miss something, that might be missing until it gets written.

I think another sort of helpful thing I find is to try and figure out who wins and who loses in sort of new things, and by sort of defining it around those affected, you start to see what's important and what's not and that sort of helps you. When you're trying to boil something down to its important bits, knowing what's important to people is sort of a good landmark.

Stephanie Johnston: I think my colleagues here have hit the nails actually on the head for sure, a lot of good techniques to think about when you're reporting the news. Another thing I like to do, aside from what we've already covered, what I like to do is also bounce ideas off my colleagues too because my colleagues, I read about this recently about how at Tax Analysts we collaborate with tax lawyers, and lawyers on staff may not necessarily be in tax, I’ll ask them, “Hey, does this make sense or does this sounds like a reasonable explanation?” Or I rewind a tape again, I’ll say, “This wasn't quite clear to me, could you please explain?” I do lean on colleagues as well as sources to help explain something back to me when I don't understand something. I think we all can agree we keep our audiences in mind, you know, what do they want to know, what does this mean to them. Our audience is mostly tax lawyers and academics and accountants, some policy makers, so you kind of have to take a step back from the technical and kind of contextualize everything. Especially with so much in the international space, it's so driven by politics, so it's helpful for me to start from that large like broad picture and kind of distill it down to what our readers need to know and to do their jobs better and how that is relevant for the world and how that fits in with the political landscape, so I think that's pretty important as well.

I’m still learning, I mean I’ve been on this job for nine years, and I’m always learning something new. We get these huge documents, 350-page documents, 400-page documents, you have to distill it in less than four hours, sometimes, or maybe two hours, so leaning on sources, it's also you know definitely a very useful tool in the toolbox. Especially when you're in a conference, which is what I miss about conferences, when someone says something interesting, then you look around and see what else are people reacting to, that is something that kind of gives you a signal, this is something important that we should focus on. We can't cover everything, there's no way, so you just focus on the things that you find interesting and your sources will find interesting and react to. So that's always been a helpful guide.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: Our next question has to do with different perspectives and actually striking a balance in your articles. So the question is: Different perspectives abound in international taxation. How do you strike a balance between all of them when reporting the news? How do you handle remaining as objective as possible?

Question: Different perspectives abound in international taxation. How do you strike a balance between all of them when reporting the news? How do you handle remaining as objective as possible?

Hamza Ali: I think it's always important to try and figure out who the protagonists in whatever it is you're writing are and then to try and work backwards from that. Because I think sometimes things aren't exactly balanced. For example, a new policy that's specifically targeted at low-income people, you don't need high-income people as a voice in that, as a voice of balance, for example. The idea is trying to figure out who the protagonists are, who the main actors are and what are their interests and then you can try and figure out how much needs to be said in balance. I think the difficult bit with this, though, is always when you have to take a view, and there are occasions where you have to take a view. For example, “this is bad for this person, this is good for this person” is you taking a view and that can be quite a difficult balancing act. We have a policy in our news team that we have to get a range of voices wherever possible, and I think that helps because it forces you to think about it even when you're just trying to rush a piece out, it forces you to think about I have to get this voice in there too. So you think about what it is they need to say in this piece to properly cover the context.

I think that's the other element of it, it’s actually the context of what it is you're writing about. It doesn't just matter getting two voices in if one of the voices has a history of doing something different, if that makes sense. But I’ll leave it at that because I’m interested to hear how you guys arrive at this because it is a really difficult question because tax is political and there are a lot of competing voices for the same sort of space.

Stephanie Johnston: I agree with all of that too. It's difficult especially to get all the voices into one story at all times. With the speed at which we're writing, time differences are really difficult especially for me. So it's always a balancing act, yeah, you do have to identify who has a stake in the story and who will this affect and who does this involve, who's behind the policy, who's going to be affected by it. But beyond that I think we also have to be cognizant of covering the breadth of news, writing not just about corporate taxation but like about developing countries and what their policies are, how they affect their taxpayers, or women, gender or minorities or you have to think about the breadth of your coverage as well in addition to the sources within those stories. That is something we shall be considering and it's a hard balancing act. Balancing that plus being accurate plus writing something people will enjoy and will find helpful versus the time, the clock is always our enemy.

Todd Buell: I agree with what the colleagues have been saying there, especially what Stephanie was saying about the clock being the enemy. That is something that I always wish that I had a little bit more time to write in more detail about some things, that's definitely something that I regret sometimes not being able to do. One thing issue that I wanted to mention in this context is, you know, just the question of how do you define tax avoidance? That can mean completely different things to different people. Or sometimes when you're talking to a person from, let's just broadly say, like an NGO or something, and they're completely critical of the transfer pricing system as it exists, and then you talk to a tax lawyer and they say, “Well, no, this idea from the NGO is wrong because nobody does it this way.” I mean that doesn't always mean that it's wrong; it just means that it's completely different from how it's done, broadly speaking. So I do generally hopefully try to get as many different points of view into a story so that the reader understands that this is actually a complicated issue and there are varying perspectives on what the best way forward is.

Hamza Ali: I think one of the things I find quite difficult is where there are differing views; it's easy to say there are different views and get people with different views. But then people may even disagree about the differing views. If you have one person saying, “This company is doing something terrible, here's why,” and then somebody turns around and says, “That's not how the company does it.” It begins to become like this incredibly difficult thing to balance as the writer, to get all that in there. I totally agree, Todd, it can be like a battle of definitions.

Stephanie Johnston: Kind of going on about the issue of how do you define tax avoidance, since we're all trade publications, we kind of have this very specific view of tax. When you see the mainstream media talking about tax, I mean I just recently saw the BBC talking about how Amazon made, you know, 160 million dollars worth of revenue, so you see these concepts being bandied about in the mainstream press and you're like, “That's not really how we report things.” Amazon actually paid like a pretty decent tax rate if you calculate it. What is the problem here? Do we have a role as tax journalists to educate the mainstream press about how tax works? Do we have a role? I mean, I feel like an observer in that regard because I constantly see these stories about tax, which are useful, this kind of goes into the next point about how to influence policy, but does it make you frustrated? This is not how it works.

Hamza Ali: I mean I speak to this a little bit because often I get pulled into sort of the general news coverage, I have to act as sort of the voice of tax reason. So I explain backwards, “No, that's not how it works.” But I think they suffer from the same thing, they're not interested in the detail, they just want to get something across quickly, and they need it to be accurate. And for them to say this is how much tax they paid and how much revenue they had and not really explain the difference, for them is easy because the facts are correct and that's the end of the story, rather than this entire sort of debate. I think getting around that requires sort of educating newsrooms in general about tax.

Todd Buell: If I may add, I went to an event here in Brussels, I think it was last year, and I think it was more of a sort of business-oriented group, that was really arguing that, not all media, but there are enough media stories out there that are doing what you all were talking about of basing the tax on the revenue and they were showing these headlines that they felt were misleading and it was a bit of a wake-up call for me. Of course, as a non-tax specialist to look at that and think “Okay, yes, I recognize there may be a little bit of an agenda being pushed here, but, on the other hand, that is correct, right, corporate taxes are paid on profit.” So to talk about it in terms of revenue might not be the most accurate way of doing it and indeed in the more popular press it is often portrayed that way.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: We actually just received a question from one of the audience members and it has to do with pitches. Basically, the question is: What is your philosophy on pitches? How do you prefer to be pitched or how do you prefer to pitch an article?

Question: What is your philosophy on pitches? How do you prefer to be pitched or how do you prefer to pitch an article?

Stephanie Johnston: To our editors? I mean so every morning I check my beats and I tell my editors, we check in every morning and we found a bunch of leads, which would you like? And I’ll say, like, “This particular lead is especially important because it involves digital taxation,” because everyone wants to know about digital taxation or minimum taxation, so usually those stories are a surefire go. So I’ll just pitch a story and say this is what the lead is, this is why it’s important, we've got prior coverage, we're just building on, I think this is a good story for us to pursue today. We actually have a lot of flexibility in our pitching and actually we don't even have to pitch anything, we just know our beat so well that we'll just go ahead and write out the story, so it's really nothing too complicated.

Hamza Ali: Wake up in the morning, check my beat, if it's super spicy then I start writing but almost identical, yeah.

Todd Buell: It's pretty standard. I don't have much to add except that sometimes when a lot of people are on vacation, you know, August is always kind of slow, and yet not. Things always do seem to happen and sometimes you have to look a little bit more. What I try to do is keep a lot of notes of events that I go to or listen to and then when you have a dead moment or not much is going on, you think, “Well, didn't I hear something last week that was interesting?” Maybe there's scope for looking into it in more detail, calling or contacting this or that person and then you can create an enterprise story out of that.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: I just got a clarification from the person who submitted, he or she was actually meaning like pitching from an outside group to your companies. I’m not sure that Bloomberg or Law360 or Tax Notes, you actually take outside contributors work like what's the philosophy on receiving pitches from outside? Is there a protocol there?

Stephanie Johnston: We actually have information on our website about how you can pitch to our magazine. We don't take pitches for like long pieces for the daily publication, we usually have correspondents to help us with that. If you want to be a correspondent you can reach out to me and I can write people for pitches for the magazine, for enterprise, for analysis. You can just contact me and I’ll connect you to the right people, that's basically it. I mean, if you have a really good idea, just tell us what it is, why it's different, and if you can have access to our publications, then read up on what we've already covered because we’re more likely not to cover something that has already been written about, so the more innovative your pitch is, if you think of a story from a different angle, then we're more likely to accept it.

Hamza Ali: It's slightly different in the sense that we don't take general pitches, journalist’s news pitches, but we do take practitioner insight pieces and there's a commissioning editor. So if you click on one of the insight pieces on our website, at the bottom there’ll be the name of the editor and the editor's email and if you email one of them, they'll look at whatever pitch you send. Generally, if you send a succinct description of what it is the article that you want to write or you'd like post, they'll respond.

Todd Buell: We publish expert opinions on MLex. I think we have a designated editor for that too. I mean if someone has something that they want to contribute to that, they could contact me. I’m not the person who decides but I could direct you to the person who is or see to it that she gets it. I don't have much more to say except that if you are pitching, this sounds like it would be obvious but some people get it wrong, if you're going to write to me or I would assume any other journalist to say, “Are you interested in this story or I want to inform you about the story?” please get the journalist's name right. I’ve been called Mr. Todd more times that I want to admit. Basic stuff but it matters.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: We have four questions left and we still have about half an hour so. Now a question, which I think is one of the more interesting ones, we have here. As a journalist, do you have a degree of influence on policymaking and shaping politicians’ views on the subject?

Question: As a journalist, do you have a degree of influence on policymaking and shaping politicians views on the subject?

Stephanie Johnston: So I was thinking about, on a personal level, I don't know how much influence I really have on tax policymaking but I mean I can speak to journalism in general. We've seen it so many times before. I mean we've got Lux Leaks, which was a big exposé that really shaped public opinion about tax rulings. We've got automatic exchange of information on tax rulings now. Panama Papers was huge. That really put the screws on policymakers and lawmakers to do something about how people can shift around their assets and hide them from authorities. When I first started my job, the UK press was really putting pressure on UK lawmakers on tax avoidance with Starbucks and reporting on Google and all these multinationals and how little they pay in tax. So I think you know journalism has that role to play to put the pressure on policymakers to do something to address a tax issue that is unfair, that the public perceives as unfair, and that's going to be more important now with the coronavirus recoveries. I guess the hot flash point is digital taxation, how little companies like Google, the GAFA pay in tax. So I think journalists do have a role in that regard putting pressure and like exposing some of these practices that are kind of foreign to the general public.

With that said, for us just as trade press, I think our influence is in delivering the news and reporting on things that maybe government people don't get access to or maybe we kind of connect people with information, give them the pieces they need to kind of form their own picture. It's kind of cool to see our articles kind of cited in court documents or in government papers. I’ve seen all your guidelines in these documents, it's kind of cool to see that we do have an influence and it kind of makes you freaked out about it too, like when I write a story I’m like, “Okay, it's done,” and then you realize, “Oh no, someone might actually read this and maybe they'll cite it in the story or cite it in one of their papers and maybe use it as a justification for like a digital services tax or something.” The more you're in this job, the more you realize, “Okay, we do actually have some influence, so that makes it more important to use that power responsibly.”

Todd Buell: I don't have much more to add to that except I would add one other example of excellent journalism exposing a scandal, I think it's no doubt to be called, that is this Cum-ex case in Germany. The more I read about that, the swapping the ownership of the stock on the dividend payout day. I remember for a long time I thought this seems so complicated; I didn't quite really look into it. Then when I started to read about it, I realized it's not really that complicated. And yet you read it, I’m not a lawyer or whatever, but I would be surprised from a layperson's perspective how someone would think that's legal. I obviously believe in the presumption of innocence and want to hear another side and there are trials going on in Germany, but it was great journalism that exposed that to a broader public and is forcing changes. Along with wire card, which is not directly tax but an incredible financial scandal the Financial Times exposed, those two I think are really forcing some sort of a reckoning in Germany about its whole financial supervision, tax architecture and enforcement system.

Hamza Ali: I think the other two have been quite comprehensive. Our primary role is to be information conduits and that can either be to expose something that the public doesn't know about or it can be to inform policymakers or practitioners exactly how it is that a new policy works or may affect them. I think one of the things I would add to what's been said so far is that sometimes we're in the privileged position that we sit between people who can't talk to each other and we can facilitate a conversation by association, so that you talk to a company and it complains about this and you get a response from the government and it's this facilitation of a conversation about how a policy may affect the taxpayer that may not otherwise happen. But I agree with all the other stuff that's been said, I think that’s our primary role.

Stephanie Johnston: Sometimes I feel like that one person in a group of friends who everyone doesn't want to talk to each other but they just talk to you and it's you're kind of like a vessel of gossip and you have to really hold your tongue about what you really think about this stuff. It's just kind of funny.

Hamza Ali: I think like to go back actually to even the question from earlier: How do you sort of make sure everybody's voice gets in? It's by going to everybody else in this backwards ways, so what's your answer to this.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: We have a good question that just came in, which is somewhat related to what we've been discussing at least in the last few points that were made. The question is: What can the private sector do to better engage with the media? Tax stories tend to be either originated by a technical development or an NGO agenda story but rarely if ever from a private sector initiator.

Question: Tax stories tend to be either originated by a technical development or an NGO agenda story but rarely if ever from a private sector initiator. What can the private sector do to better engage with the media?

Stephanie Johnston: So there is this meme that is going around #TaxTwitter, I’m not sure you've seen it, but it's called the Tax Mantra and Rasmus Corlin Christensen put on his blog and it has a little dog and it says, “It's the tax mantra, we pay all taxes required in all the countries in which we operate,” to that effect. That's sort of like a boilerplate statement from these private sector companies, which is true, they do pay taxes that they're required to pay in the jurisdiction in which they operate, but like we need to find another message, I think. I mean it seems that that message is not really resonating at all with journalists and with the public, so it seems like there needs to be more conversation about their reaction, how the private sector can explain themselves better. I think that we're seeing that already with more companies kind of voluntarily publishing their tax strategies, maybe not so much in the UK, because it's law now, right, but they're explaining this is what we do, this is how much tax we pay, maybe not exposing exactly how the structures work but at least having started that conversation about what they do and how they pay their tax, which is helpful. I think that's a good starting point, changing that conversation and changing the response.

Hamza Ali: I really agree with that. I think companies often do create tax news, if somewhat inadvertently, it's usually when they get in a tax dispute. When they get in the tax dispute, you get this window into what they think about tax and I think because that's usually the time that they’re raked over the coals, they think of tax as a risk, especially how they're perceived about tax. This can make companies cagey. I guess if the question is how can companies be more proactive about talking about their tax, they need to take a proper look at what they think is risky about talking about tax and then somehow figure a way of being transparent about that and say, “This is why we're afraid of this but here's what we do.” But I don't think the conversation with companies at the moment is that honest for most companies, because their sort of operating mantra when it comes to talking about tax is do no harm, which is a laudable goal but it doesn't mean that people know what you're up to. Then when they don't know what you're up to, they assume the worst.

Todd Buell: I think what you two have said makes a lot of sense. I mean one thing that I could imagine, I feel like, it's obviously not for me to give anyone advice on what they should be doing, but I mean one thought or feeling I have is that there seems to be a strong shift or at least a shift moving more in the direction of unitary taxation, and I know that this is something that certain people in the business community who are skeptical of this, and my sense is at least in the mainstream press, the companies may need to do a better job explaining that they do pay tax because I’m not sure that message is getting across and, exactly as what the others have said, you would think it would be easier for them to do that if they opened their books and did, you know, country-by-country reporting. I don't think I’m saying anything particularly radical or crazy here; to me it just seems very logical. I know that some companies say, “We can't do this because of competitive reasons.” Okay but then, exactly as Hamza was saying, that does sometimes lead the public to think you're hiding something.

Hamza Ali: They also don't want to put their head above the parapet because they have in most cases an adversarial or, let's say, they don't want to describe it as adversarial, it’s supposed to be corporative compliance nowadays, but they have this adversarial position with the tax authority that if they say that this is what we think about this and the tax authority has a different opinion, that could lead to a tax dispute and I think they have skin in the game in revealing too much.

Stephanie Johnston: Just to pick up on the thread about the original question about how NGOs kind of steer the story in a lot of ways, I think that is the case because corporations don't really talk about tax. I mean they don't talk about it enough and so that sort of leaves NGOs to again, like Hamza is saying, they're not explaining it but obviously something bad is happening, so they'll go ahead and they'll produce these reports and shed light on these issues and if you're in the private sector that's sort of leaving the story to spin out of control, I guess, if you don't react in a timely way. I understand it's difficult though because if it does involve a tax dispute or a court case and obviously you can't say a whole lot, but I guess it's just from a private sector perspective I can see how it's unfortunate that the story is sort of steered in that way, either through NGOs or through journalists.

I don't know how you all feel about being grouped into the civil society kind of crowd too, it's like everyone kind of assumes that journalists are kind of part of the civil society crowd, which I think we're adjacent in a lot of ways, but we're not exactly, we don’t have the same aims, it's kind of funny.

Hamza Ali: I think because we're sort of seen as often the mouthpiece as it were of these sorts of NGOs. I think one of the things that was shown even in the question that was asked is that these NGOs talk to us, they tell us exactly what they think, they explain their thinking and they give us evidence of what there is and what they say. That's a story that writes itself. You understand why journalists will write that and, if you have a counterpoint, answer the email. Otherwise you could silently fume.

Stephanie Johnston: Or even like talking off record. Find a journalist you trust and talk off record and just say like this is what's really happening. I find those really helpful as well, I mean, yeah, we can't use the information or we shouldn't use the information, but you can use it in other ways. If this is a hint, you should look this up, I think even just the off-the-record conversations are useful to us as well.

I might add that if you are a source, please tell us what you mean by on background and off-the-record because it means different things to different people I’ve found in different countries especially. I’ve heard that alpha record means like actually on background in the EU so if you do not want to be quoted, please tell us or please let's make clear what our relationship is otherwise it’s fair game.

Hamza Ali: On background is the one that confuses the hell out of me. Off-the-record, ok, maybe I can't write that at all.

Stephanie Johnston: Right. Off record generally means you cannot use this in any way. Or deep background.

Hamza Ali: What's deep background? I was like, “Oh it's like you’re going meet in a parking lot…”

Stephanie Johnston: Wearing a trench coat, yeah.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: Let's move on. We have a couple more questions that just came from the audience members and we still have another three questions here, so I’m going to try to rush you guys through these. The first one, I don't know if any of you can answer this, but can you give an example of how an article you wrote eventually led to a company to change its tax strategy or government to change its tax policy?

Question: Can you give an example of how an article you wrote eventually led to a company to change its tax strategy or government to change its tax policy?

Hamza Ali: Some of our coverage, and I say collectively all of us, on digital taxes definitely pushed the US to start a section 301 investigation into France’s DST but probably that might have been coming anyway. I don't know but we were cited in it. Then there's occasionally where there'll be something that's super unclear and that we write about a lot, like cryptocurrency taxation is one of them, I’m pretty sure that a lot of countries weren't being super clear about what they thought about cryptocurrency until journalists tested them about it. A specific example, they would have to tell you, you never know the causal link, you don't know if you're the reason why somebody changed their mind, it just could be.

Stephanie Johnston: Well, I can't speak to myself because I don't really know what the direct effect of my coverage is. But I do know that when Tax Analysts was founded, we kind of made our claim to fame by suing the IRS in 1972. Our founder Tom Field was a treasury tax counsel and he left the government, he didn't want to do private practice because he thought it would be greater use of his time to found a company in the public interest. So in 1972 he sued the IRS to gain access to private letter rulings, tax rulings and technical advice memoranda, so this is the stuff IRS would give to specific taxpayers and IRS field agents but we thought everyone should get this information, it’s very useful. I mean in that way we sued the IRS, I think we're actually in the middle of a lawsuit right now. I mean we sue people for information, I guess, which I think the IRS changed its policy after we sued them the first time to produce more transparency around their letter rulings. But in that way I guess that's one concrete example I could think of. Our company celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, so we've been trying to get policymakers on Capitol Hill and beyond to change their policies in other ways. So going back to the first question about how we influence tax policy.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: So the other question that just came in. Is there a reason why corporate tax avoidance gets more coverage than VAT fraud, which potentially is costing governments more?

Question: Is there a reason why corporate tax avoidance gets more coverage than VAT fraud, which potentially is costing governments more?

Todd Buell: My instinct is to think that the question is probably based on a correct premise but I would like to see how many stories we have written on corporate taxes and how many on VAT fraud. I mean, yes, I’ve definitely written more on corporate tax avoidance than VAT fraud. It may be because there's interest in the companies, the big companies that are involved are known and there's interest in them, they're publicly traded in some cases, whereas, I mean I’m speculating a little bit here too, but it may be that in the eyes of some people, you will say, “Well, you know this company is the bad guy so to speak,” whereas with VAT fraud it may be just the little bakery around the corner who doesn't report all of his income and then that's multiplied by the entire country and you get a big figure. I’m really just guessing there a little bit.

Also I know for me that in some ways the EU VAT system, I find very complicated so to write in more detail beyond just the tax gap on VAT was x billion is for me sometimes very difficult, and I’ve got other things going on and so maybe I don't write about that as much as I perhaps should. So it's a fair question, it's a fair point.

Stephanie Johnston: I think maybe the “if it bleeds, it bleeds” sort of principle applies to corporations because even more so now than ever because, maybe after the financial crisis, it seems like you've got the story of this big guy versus little guy, that's sort of a narrative that people can wrap their heads around. It seems that corporations because they don't really talk about their taxes and how much they pay or are not very transparent to begin with, it makes it maybe an easier narrative to present. Especially with Amazon. I mean ever since Amazon became a huge thing, I mean how do you track Amazon in a way? They're making billions of dollars; Jeff Bezos is worth billions of dollars. That's a lot of money to wrap your head around. So these governments, if you translate the tax that they pay to hospitals or whatever you can fund like public goods, that seems like a pretty easy narrative just to sell I guess to the reader, which is unfortunate I guess for the corporate tax people, but it seems like because there is this growing inequality that it is a story that the public wants to hear and maybe that's why there's a lot of attention on that kind of story versus VAT fraud, which I think VAT fraud is ridiculously out of hand.

VAT fraud I think it's more of a non-US story because we don't really have that, we have GSTs here, I mean we have sales tax here so it's not really that big of a problem, I guess, maybe for the US audience. I think I agree though that I think the EU should have more coverage of VAT fraud because that is a massive problem, and I think it’s more easily fixable than corporate taxation in a lot of ways. So I don't know that's just my two cents.

Hamza Ali: I agree with all these sort of above. I think it's sort of hard to track VAT fraud because most of the instances of it are small instances that for the tax authorities is difficult to follow and then for a journalist to be able to track is almost impossible, so I think like that explains why getting evidence of it and writing about it is something that is not as hard as, say, reading about a tax dispute. I would add that I don't think it is sort of black and white. For example, the tax gap doesn't include things like BEPS, which is a massive missing piece. So if you say that the VAT gap is this and corporate tax avoidance is this because of the tax gap, you're not actually doing a like for like comparison because BEPS is much bigger than you know corporate tax avoidance that's reflected in the tax gap. I also think, like Stephanie said, that it's just a much easier narrative to have one person, what they did and why it's bad than to sort of talk about thousands of thousands of people why what they did was naughty. I think as well that VAT fraud is different, there are lots of different versions of it, it's different to what people sort of imagine. So like someone taking cash instead of a card, for example, can be a way for them to get around VAT but they can also avoid it online, so like there's massive VAT fraud online through companies like Amazon, which have their own tax issues but they also facilitate by allowing foreign sellers to be able to sell into a country without paying VAT because there’s this thing called low-value consignment where if you have a really low value good they don't normally charge VAT on it. But these guys will be trading huge amounts but because they're doing it on small bits, they don't ever have to register for VAT. Amazon doesn't track them so the countries basically never know that they should have been charging thousands and thousands of pounds or dollars or whatever in VAT. There's lots of instances like that where little things add up to a lot in VAT, which I think makes it harder to report about. I mean there are exceptions but it's harder to write about that type of trend when you don't have lots of big sort of focal points to build your reporting around. It's not like this was the year that we went to one billion so we should start reporting right now. It doesn't really work like that in VAT so it's the narrative.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: It’s six o'clock but we still have another 15 minutes, we're going to extend it because we have a few questions to go but I’ll wrap up within the next 15 minutes, I hope that's okay with you guys. So we have three questions here and the next one is kind of again a quick hitter. I organized this webinar using Twitter. I love Twitter, I am a huge Twitter proponent and fan and there is the #TaxTwitter community, which is pretty active and funny and conflictive and whatnot, so the question is basically: What role does social media, particularly Twitter in this case, play in your day-to-day job?

Question: What role does social media, particularly Twitter in this case, play in your day-to-day job?

Stephanie Johnston: It’s a source of information for me. I got a lot of leads from what other people are tweeting. Also seeing what you guys are all working on too so there's that. It's a source of information; it's a source of fun. I’ve had a lot of fun time talking to people, people in the tax world are pretty cool, they're pretty nice people, they got a great sense of humor so I love interacting with them. I get sources that way; we talk to each other offline just based on our interactions on Twitter, which is kind of cool. It brings a lot of people together; I mean it's a great community. I resisted for a long time to join Twitter because I didn’t really get it, I’m on Facebook anyway, I can't handle other social media, you know. But I got on it and I love it. It's been great. It’s great for also showing off your work and saying like, “Hey, this is what I worked on, this is what I killed myself for, please enjoy.” It's really an essential tool for me.

Hamza Ali: I agree with all the above. My friends and family are sick and tired of me talking about tax, so it's nice to have a like-minded community where I can show my ugly babies in.

Todd Buell: I’ve been on Twitter before I was a tax reporter. I was in ECB Twitter and I’ve changed over to tax Twitter. Sometimes I think I look at it too much but it can be distracting sometimes. On the other hand, like Stephanie was saying, you find leads or I find someone else has reported this, then I go, “Dang, I’ve got to catch up,” or you see a court has announced something on a decision on Twitter or an event that's going to be happening, especially now with everything being online or being webcast, you'll see there's this event happening in 10 minutes, oh wow, okay, I just click on and I can watch it. I learned these things from Twitter and you communicate with, you'll find sources that way, I mean it's a great thing.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: Now going to a point that you made about the pandemic and everything going online and via webinars and webcasts, how has the ongoing pandemic affected your ability to deliver international tax news? You guys haven't been able to go to conferences, haven't been able to meet people in person and what not, how has the pandemic actually affected your jobs?

Question: How has the ongoing pandemic affected your ability to deliver international tax news?

Todd Buell: As you said, there's no travel anymore, very little personal contact but I don't have the tally in front of me but I feel like I’ve been able to write maybe somewhat more detailed stories because I’m at home and it's just me and my partner and so it's quieter and I can think a little bit more and call people, have longer conversations and not worry about you know like, “Oh geez, I’m making so much noise in the office.” I’m not sure I worried about that too much before anyway but… it changes things to a certain extent but the issues are still very much there and, if anything with digital taxation, when you think these are the companies that are likely to succeed within the pandemic because everyone's at home, that the pandemic has taken this issue, digital taxation, that we were writing a lot about before the pandemic and has made it even more important or even more in center stage. In that respect, it's just maybe accelerated a story or brought more into the center, I should say, a story that we were working on before, I think.

Hamza Ali: I totally agree. I don't think it's affected my ability too much. There are some things that I really like about my job that I can't do now. I’m with Stephanie on I like going to conferences and meeting a whole bunch of people all at once. It’s a good way to build sources and solidify your network and that's missing, so I’m having to do a lot more work just actively filling people into my week and schedule, which I think is a bit grueling sometimes when your days start to merge into one, which I think is something that's happening for a lot of people during COVID-19.

But the actual work itself, I’m pretty sure most countries are making almost no policy decision that isn't tax related at the moment. It's bumper season and it's in the middle of the most controversial international tax negotiations with digital tax. I’m busier than ever.

Stephanie Johnston:  So I was actually working from home for years before this happened, so it really hasn't changed my day-to-day life, except now ironically I see more of my team more than ever. Like I never saw anybody for any reason except when I go to the office, but now I can't go to the office, now we're having like daily video calls, so now I actually see my colleagues, which is kind of funny. Like everyone else said, talking about going to conferences and missing that, what I missed too is so we all keep hearing about how meetings like at the OECD are not as effective because all the conversations in the hallways are where the action happens, and that's the same for us too, all the conversations you have in the hallways at these conferences or over drinks, that's when really we start getting ideas and the inside scoop really. So that's been an impediment I think which is not great and I hope we'll pass soon.

But I also think it's great because now we know where everyone else is at every time. So the hard-to-find sources who are always on the go are now at home or in the office and now we're like, “You have no reason to not talk to us now because we know where you are, you're not traveling,” so I mean there's that.

One drawback is that now I’m working a lot more, I guess, now that everyone's home. So like I’m constantly on Twitter, I’m constantly checking my email. I actually had to go to the woods with no Internet for like a couple days just to escape. But even then I was just like what am I missing. So it's changed some, not a whole lot, but I kind of really hope things get back to normal.

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi: Excellent. So we have one last question that I want to ask kind of as a concluding remark from each one of you. This is a question that Stephanie submitted, I guess, and so we'll answer this and then we'll say goodbye. What advice would you have for those who are interested in becoming tax journalists?

Question: What advice would you have for those who are interested in becoming tax journalists?

Stephanie Johnston: So just read as much as you can. If you want to pitch a certain publication, one of our publications, just read what you can and get a sense of our style and pitch a story that maybe we haven't thought of and if you want to get in the practice of writing, just practice writing as much as you can beyond the emails that you write every day for your job. I guess reading, writing and also get to know a journalist because we're we are your easiest path to getting published. I think like just we know people who know people, that sounds really threatening, but I mean we do. So I would say reach out to any one of us and I think we'd be happy to help.

Hamza Ali: Don't worry about the details, there are experts for that and they're happy to talk about what they do and you can learn the most complicated thing if you have the world's expert at your fingertips, which is what journalism is, so don't worry about the details. Instead focus maybe on some of the stuff that Stephanie said like read the subject, do you enjoy it, do you find it interesting, maybe speak to some people in the industry to try and figure out if it's something that you would take to quite well. I had no idea that I would enjoy tax before I did it but I did like some of the aspects of it and that sort of helped me get into it. My other advice would be don't worry about finding the right place, I think there are a lot of opportunities is what I would say and they're really similar, everybody's good at what they do and we'd be happy to have you.

Todd Buell: I would agree with what's been said, and I would add one thing to any age but maybe a little easier when you're younger is, it helps to learn foreign languages that aren't English. For example, I speak German and that helps me a lot. Especially reading what's going on with the Cum-ex investigation in Germany, seeing what German companies or what the German media’s reporting as tax issues in the German language, the area of Germany, Austria, Switzerland. My French is not great but I have a French-speaking, she's Belgian, French-speaking partner and she helps me get the French right sometimes. So yeah it helps definitely to learn foreign languages too, whether you want to be a tax reporter or any other sort of reporter, I should add as well.

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