Audit firms should ditch sales culture

UK watchdog flags up concerns.

I have no problem with audit firms providing some consulting services to audit clients provided it does not impair an auditor’s independence but there’s one thing that grates me about the audit profession. It’s when firms use audit as a lead-in to sell more lucrative consulting services. What is icing to this distasteful cake is when audit staff are praised for their role in winning consulting work.

This month, a UK watchdog responsible for checking the quality of audit firms released inspection reports of a few larger firms, flagging concerns PKF and Mazars had been praising and/or rewarding audit staff that successfully sold ‘non-audit’ or consulting services to audit clients. There reports apply to inspections carried out in 2010.

In the PKF report, the AIU warned the firm should: "Ensure credit is not sought or given in appraisals for success in selling non-audit services to audited entities."

In the Mazars report, it was recommended the firm: "Ensure that staff and partner remuneration and evaluation decisions do not reflect success in selling non-audit services to audit clients… [and] there is greater focus on audit quality indicators in appraisals for audit partners and staff."

To single out Mazars and PKF based on one inspection report is unfair. Rumours about auditors up-selling consulting have been rife for many years. Consulting is more lucrative and less labour intensive than audit, and firms all over the world, particularly the Big Four – PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – are beefing up their consulting arms like never before.

The problem with firms providing too much consulting to audit clients is the fear that they become reliant on that revenue and it will affects an auditor’s ability to exercise professional judgement. There’s also the argument that auditor’s might feel uncomfortable auditing a colleague’s consulting or tax work.

Although most consulting services are prohibited to audit clients, firms are still earning a significant amount of revenue from this practice. In 2011, PwC UK earned £363m from non-audit services to audit clients, which is about 40 per cent of the fees it earns from audit, while Deloitte made £185m, which is 36 per cent of its audit revenue.

The independence of auditors is a big issue for the accounting profession because, rightly or wrongly, questions are being raised as to why auditors gave a clean bill of health to banks such as Lehman Brothers just before they collapsed.

The EC has proposed radical reforms that could force the largest accounting firms in Europe to break up their audit businesses from advisory and tax. If such a proposal were to pass into law, it could threaten the existence of the four major brands – PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – although intensive lobbying from the ‘Big Four’ should derail this idea.

Nevertheless, auditors of all sizes could make their lives a whole lot easier if they ditched the sales culture and focussed on ensuring their clients accounts are in check, rather than worrying about their own.

Arvind Hickman is the editor of the International Accounting Bulletin.

Photograph: Getty Images

Arvind Hickman is the editor of the International Accounting Bulletin.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.