"Inequality is getting greater; the rich are getting richer – everyone else is struggling. Is that fair?"
No that’s not a quote comparing huge tech etailers and smaller independent PC retailers – it’s actually a question Russell Brand asks a class of school children in his new film The Emperor’s New Clothes (to a chorus of "No")!
Love him or hate him, Brand isn’t afraid to criticise any company for poor working conditions, tax dodging, bumper bonuses or low staff wages.
No one is safe from him (every corporate company is seemingly targeted, from John Lewis – criticised for not paying its cleaners the living wage – to Manchester United for avoiding tax). And several tech firms come under fire in his latest documentary.
The former actor and comedian points the finger heavily at big tech companies like Apple and Google for tax avoidance. Brand says the pair have huge piles of cash offshore sitting in places like Bermuda in order to avoid paying higher tax rates in countries such as the US and the UK (the Government has announced plans to clamp down on activities like this).
He says that Apple has to get loans out in the US to pay shareholders, otherwise if it took its cash reserves out of Bermuda, it would have to pay tax on it.
Apple denies this in the film, but Brand also goes on to criticise the tech giant for allowing factory production staff "to kill themselves working 70-hour weeks in China". While this can’t be proven, working conditions in Chinese factories that produce Apple products have been well documented.
He also attempts to hand anti-Apple leaflets out in an Apple Store, only for an irate sales assistant to frantically usher him out.
I found this a little ironic, considering his film was available to buy and download via iTunes, but if you can’t beat them, why not join them, eh Russell?
Brand doesn’t stop there. In one strange scene, a bus full of people each wearing a mask of one of the world’s 80 richest people (the richest one per cent of the world’s population) include those of Mark Zuckerberg, the Wal-Mart heirs, Steve Jobs’ widow and Bill Gates.
Brand bemoans Laurene Powell Jobs for amassing this fortune "just by being Steve Jobs’ wife" (which, while it may be true, I found a little insensitive considering Jobs’ passing).
But I really couldn’t understand the inclusion of Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder and former CEO has, for several years, done an enormous amount of charity and philanthropic work since stepping down from his full-time position at Microsoft.
The man might be worth some $80 billion today, but as of 2007, Bill and his wife Melinda Gates have given over $28 billion to charity, and the couple plan to eventually donate 95 per cent of their wealth to charity.
That’s a far cry from most of the wealthiest people on the planet, whom I’m sure will give to charity – but it perhaps won’t be quite that much.
And yet he gets picked on by Brand. Is that fair?
Bill Gates championed the ALS Ice Bucket challenge last year, helping the charity to raise millions of pounds, and he even drank water from human faeces in a bid to showcase technology that could provide clean water to developing countries.
The film’s director, Michael Winterbottom, did have this to share with The Wall Street Journal: "I’m sure Bill Gates would agree that people shouldn’t have that much money. I hope Bill Gates would agree that if you have $50 billion or $10 billion, which is what the poorest person on the bus has, that that should be taxed and [have it] taken off you and not given away in some charitable ”I’m a nice guy” so I give you lots of money, but the guy sitting next to me has got $50 billion and he’s not giving away his money. That should be taxed. It was always being taxed in the past."
I’m still not convinced. While I respect Brand’s opinion and the documentary did have some interesting moments, a large part of it was footage of Brand rushing into bank HQ receptions demanding to speak to senior executives about their bonuses, and getting nowhere.
Maybe you could tell us about what you’ve done for charity, Russell, compared to the sums Bill Gates has donated? Maybe if you put half of the effort that went into making this film into charitable causes, and handed out some of the millions you’ve amassed making movies, the world would be an even better (and fairer) place?