BA conference: David Mitchell lambasts 'rapacious' Amazon

BA conference: David Mitchell lambasts 'rapacious' Amazon

Comedian David Mitchell has slammed Amazon as "benefit scroungers" in a barnstorming speech given at the Booksellers Association conference today (22nd September).

In an entertaining but hard-hitting keynote address to delegates at the Warwick event, Mitchell criticised the online retailer for taking grant handouts from the Treasury to build its warehouses in the UK, while accusing the Treasury itself of "pumping water into the rising sea". He also attacked both the e-commerce giant and the government for allowing UK high streets to die and jobs at smaller businesses to disappear.

Speaking about the effect of the internet on modern life and business, he said: "Amazon is a company that has profited massively from this natural disaster of technological change that has befallen us in the last decade and a half, but they make it much worse than it needs to be because of the monopolistic, cynical and frankly life-crushing way that they operate. I think we tell ourselves, British people, that opposing things like Amazon is in some way cheating. Making books that will sell more in the way that most people would like to buy them (in bookshops) is somehow cheating and not behaving properly and denying reality. It isn’t cheating, we are free to do that. What is cheating is Amazon’s business model. They already have an enormous technological edge but apparently that isn’t enough. They also have to have a rapacious near-monopoly."

Mitchell then went on to read a chapter from his new book, based on his columns in the Observer, Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse and Other Lessons from Modern Life (Guardian Faber, 6th November), in which he criticises Amazon's tax affairs - in particular the low corporation payments the company makes in the UK comparison to its high sales - and poured scorn on the government for subsidising the company. He said: "It has emerged that despite £4.2bn of UK sales, the company paid just £2.4m in corporation tax in 2012. In the same year it received £2.5m in government grants, which makes it a benefits scrounger. Is there any point in my being angry about this? Everybody else already is. According to a spokesperson, Amazon already pays all applicable tax in every jurisdiction."

He went on to compare the e-commerce giant to a work of art: "Like any really important work of art, it is bound to upset a few people. Just as Banksy causes collateral damage to the neatness of walls, so Amazon’s masterpiece is a defacement of the public purse… This shows an impish wit and a dark insight. What elevates Amazon’s activity is the fact that Amazon applied for government grants. The elegance of that corporate choice is like the ambiguity of the Mona Lisa smile, Mike Tyson’s punch or the adaptability of the malaria virus. There is no point in criticizing anybody or anything that can do that, they can only be admired or destroyed."

Further drumming home his point, he referred to Amazon as "the great job-killer". He said: "If you think giving Amazon handouts will help the UK, to incentivise job creation in the country even if for tax purposes it only exists in Luxembourg, think again, because Amazon is the great job-killer. For every job it creates, more than one is destroyed on the high street. It’s the great annihilator of work and yet it has been receiving job creation government subsidy... I understand the changes in work and business patterns that have been caused by the internet are irreversible. Still, it is amazing that Amazon, in an act of dazzling contempt, has managed to persuaded the Treasury actually to pump water into the rising sea."

He ended his address on a positive note, saying there was "hope" for companies who compete with Amazon. "For all that there is hope. Theatre and radio still survive, after lots of people were predicting their death, and people are wrong in their depressing predictions. Sometimes bad things don’t happen just because most people don’t want them to."

He added his new book wasn't "all about Amazon" and "it isn't all that angry."

Following rapturous applause from the audience, one bookseller asked Mitchell if he sold his books through Amazon to which he replied: "Yes. But I would be crazy not to. And I am a prostitute in that way."