Why Gerry Ryan “tax bill” story is unfair

“A troubled Ryan owed the taxman €300,000” screamed the front page headline in the Sunday Independent at the weekend.  According to the report, the recently-deceased RTE presenter Gerry Ryan was “beset by financial worries in his final days, particularly in relation to an outstanding debt of around €300,000 he had owed to the Revenue Commissioners”.

'A troubled Ryan owed the taxman €300,000' - report

This story troubles me, for a number of reasons.  First of all, Mr. Ryan is dead, and not in a position to defend himself against any allegations in relation to his tax situation.  Had any such allegations been been made while Mr. Ryan was still alive, I have no doubt that he would have robustly defended himself against them.  Perhaps it takes less courage to attack a man when we know that he can’t fight back?  It is sad to note that the Irish custom of not speaking ill of the dead seems to be a thing of the past.

In addition, I was under the impression that all individual’s tax affairs are confidential between themselves and the Revenue Commissioners.  I have no knowledge of how the newspaper obtained and verified its story in relation to Mr. Ryan’s alleged “tax bill”, however the publication of this report,  literally within days of the man’s death is likely to be very distressing for his grieving relatives and family.

Finally, as this story is now in the public domain, it will be interesting to see how RTE and the other Irish mainstream media deal with it as it unfolds and develops.  An increasingly shrill media hubbub usually follows Revenue’s quarterly publication of tax settlement lists. Perjorative terms like “tax dodgers” and “evaders”  are used with abandon and if a particular settlement list includes a celebrity or public figure, they can expect a media circus on their doorstep.

Don’t get me wrong – tax evasion is indeed a serious crime against society, and evaders must be punished severely (as they invariably are).  The Revenue practice of publishing tax settlement lists  is an important deterrent against wilful evasion.  That said,  I cannot help noticing how rarely such media coverage takes into account the fact that many tax settlement cases involve at least some element of extenuating circumstances.

I have worked for many years as an accountant and tax advisor. In this time, I have seen quite a number of cases where people have ended up in serious difficulty with the Revenue Commissioners, by neglecting their tax affairs and obligations.  I have noticed that many of these cases arise from siginificant personal difficulties including business failure, marital or family breakdown, bereavement, depression or addiction problems and indeed basic human error.

As the current recession deepens, and  we read more and more accounts of seemingly “prosperous” people finding themselves in financial and tax difficulties, I sincerely hope that the media will exercise some level of decency and responsibility in reporting their woes.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet, Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” W.B. Yeats

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