HMV dying has nothing to do with Amazon's tax avoidance

How do you fight a behemoth which needn't profit?

The death of HMV is undoubtedly due to competition from Amazon in particular and the internet in general. There's a lot of rosy-eyed reminiscing about the chain from people who apparently haven't been in it for a decade or so – it was, in many ways, a terrible shop – but the fact that it represents (represented?) 38 per cent of the entire physical music market suggests that it isn't just dying because it was run badly. There may be something fundamentally untenable about high-street music retail.

(Though that untenability only necessarily applies to chains; it may be the case that independent record shops, like Rough Trade, have something to offer which the internet can't out-compete them on)

But I'm uncomfortable about the meme going round that Amazon only has the advantage it does over HMV because of its tax-avoiding ways.

It's certainly the case that Amazon's, er, tax planning gives it an advantage. For instance, it charges 20 per cent VAT in ebooks, but only returns 3 per cent of it to the Luxembourgish exchequer, taking advantage of the discrepancy in the rates between where it is based and where it carries out its business. And, until the loophole was closed in April last year, Amazon managed to avoid charging any VAT at all on goods below £18 by shipping them from the Channel Islands.

But even without those avoidance strategies, HMV would have found it impossible to compete with Amazon, because it's a company which simply plays a different game from all others.

Amazon's entire strategy to date is to release loss-leader after loss-leader, building its share of the market – and the number of markets it operates in – to astronomical levels, all while promising jam tomorrow.

Take the Kindle owner's lending library. That's a project which offers free access to ebooks for Amazon Prime subscribers – Amazon's flat-rate free next-day-delivery program – who have Kindles. It is clearly a loss leader, aimed to drive Kindle sales and Amazon Prime subscriptions. But both of those are, themselves, loss leaders. Amazon makes no money on its flagship Kindle model, the Paperwhite, and while it doesn't reveal the figures, most analysts agree that it also loses money on Amazon Prime.

The company has revenues of the same magnitude as Apple, but profits at the same magnitude as Games Workshop. It has managed to convince an entire class of investors to give it money and not ask for anything back save continued growth. In short, it's a multi-billion pound company being treated like it's a start-up.

That is something which HMV cannot compete with. Even if online retail didn't have intrinsic advantages over brick-and-mortar – with lower fixed costs, larger potential markets and a near-infinite potential for keeping things in stock – and even if Amazon paid full British tax on everything it does, HMV still couldn't offer prices that matched Amazon's, because HMV has to make a profit on what it sells.

That's not actually a bad thing in the short-term. What Amazon's strategy amounts to in the short-term is a massive transfer of wealth from its investors to its customers — at least compared to the non-Amazon alternative. In the long-term, it must result in one of two things: the bubble bursting, and the company being forced by shareholders to stop sacrificing profit for market share; or a consolidation of its monopoly, allowing it to raise prices because every other potential competitor has been driven out of business. Neither of those outcomes sound as good.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder