Craig Murray is the UK’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan. He’s an excellent exposer of evilness in ex-Soviet extremities, and was one of the main figures behind the campaign to stop Alisher Usmanov gaining control of Arsenal. In short, he’s a good man.
However, he’s not a man who should really be writing about financial statements. At the moment, he has a piece on his website that not only misunderstands the nature of auditing and falls for myths from my favourite accountant, Dr Prem Sikka, but is probably libellous to boot…
The saga starts with Jeremy Corbyn, my former MP and another generally excellent chap (he wrote me a letter of thanks after I wrote him a letter of thanks for opposing the Terrorism Act, which strikes me as a decent thing for an MP to do), who’s been in parliament asking for confidential reports that Mr Murray wrote on Mr Usmanov’s alleged corruption, when he was still ambassador in 2004.
According to Mr Murray, one of these reports alleges that Gazprominvest, the Gazprom subsidiary that Mr Usmanov runs, paid an enormous bribe to the daughter of the Uzbeki president. Not altogether surprisingly, Mr Usmanov’s PR men have denied that this is true. Mr Murray’s reaction to that denial was the following post:
Usmanov’s PR people claim it would have been impossible for Gazprom to pay a bribe to President Karimov’s daughter Gulnara because
No evidence has ever been forthcoming and the accounts of Gazprominvest [the Gazprom company of which Usmanov is president] are audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers
That of course is deeply reassuring. Usmanov is audited by the people who brought you Robert Maxwell’s accounts
I hope that you are suitably reassured.
In other words, says Mr Murray, because PwC’s predecessors failed to detect the frauds at Mirror Group and BCCI, everything it does must be corrupt, and therefore its audit report on Gazprominvest is also not worth the paper it’s printed on.
There’sa smallÃ‚Â problem with this analysis: it’s complete rubbish.
Let’s get the easy bit out of the way first: in both of the cases he mentions, there is no suggestion of corruption on the auditors’ part.Ã‚Â It’s a long-established legal precedent that calling someone a crook is libellousÃ‚Â unless they are one, and that it’s possible to libel a company just as much as an individual. I’m not sure ‘bent’ has ever made it into court, but it’s clearly being used in the same sense here. It’s lucky that accountants tend to be less litigious than tycoons…
The links are also weird, both coming from the fringe Association for Accountancy and Business Affairs, a miniature NGO with an epically bad website,Ã‚Â devoted to revealing that accounting firms are evil corporation-y corporations. Dr Sikka is a board member, along with various other big names in the top-flight academic subject of accountancyology.
Dr Sikka also wrote the Mirror Group piece, an outraged rant confirming his eminent suitability for the medium ofÃ‚Â blogging. He reveals the terrifying and damning facts: partners who are now dead or retired, in a firm that no longer exists, operating 20 years ago,Ã‚Â fell for Robert Maxwell’s charisma [*], and believed his ‘honest’ explanations for accounting quirks that were actually ways of hiding his money-stealing.
The sensible conclusion to draw from this is that determined cheats can sometimes get round the measures designed to stop them, and that better training and regulatory processes can be required to reduce the risk of this happening (and indeed, such measures were brought in). Dr Sikka’s conclusion, on the other hand, is that accounting firms are evil corporation-y corporations. This is known as ‘a creative interpretation’.
The BCCI piece (which doesn’t carry a byline) is even odder. In real life, Price Waterhouse’s auditors were the first people to notice that the bank had a hole in its books, leading to its bail-out by major shareholder the Emir of Abu Dhabi in 1990; they then wrote the damningÃ‚Â Sandstorm report in 1991 that led to the bank’s closure. The article doesn’t mention either of these, and instead suggests that Sandstorm was a government report that largely criticised PW for being an evil corporation-y corporation. This is known as ‘a creative interpretation’.
In short, the links Mr Murray provides don’t really do anything major to undermine the credibility of PwC’s work as an auditor, although they do appear to undermine the credibility of the AABA a little…
Let’s get away from the conspiracy theories. The leading accounting firms are all generally good at applying accounting standards to the companies they audit; sometimes they fall down, generally through lack of diligence and occasionally through fraud.
So the fact that a company’s financial statements have been audited by a Big 4 firm makes them more plausible than if they hadn’t been. However, it does not give them ‘ordained by God as sheer truth’ status: if you are a skilled crook, cheat and liar, you can con auditors just as much as you can con everyone else.
And…. so, the fact that PwC haven’t caught Mr Usmanov bribing anybody obviously doesn’t mean that he hasn’t bribed anybody. It is, however, a fairly strong piece of evidence that he at least hasn’t bribed the suggested person in the suggested way: $89 million payments to CASH tend to raise auditors’ suspicions, even in the former USSR.
Writing this post feels slightly fish-barrel-machine-gunnish: Craig Murray is a diplomat, and it’s not reasonable to expect him to be an expert on financial reporting. Nonetheless, it’s a big fat reminder that – whether you’re a journalist or a blogger – if you write scathing posts about things you don’t understand, you run a serious risk of damaging your own credibility…
Note: the views expressed in this piece are exclusively my own views as a private individual. They are not written on behalf of and cannot be attributed to any other person or entity.
[*]Ã‚Â An odd phrase, that one, but some quality of Maxwell’s did genuinely seem to work on investors, accountants, hacks, judges and juries alike.