It's been a dreadful month for HSBC, which has seen its reputation in tatters and its bosses dragged in front of the Commons Treasury Select Committee to answer MPs' questions about what it admitted were 'unacceptable' practices at its Swiss private bank. Politicians, including the Chancellor, have been trying to outdo each other by talking tough and promising action. Even North London's finest acting talent (Emma Thompson and Greg Wise) have got in on the act by promising to pay no tax until 'something is done'and 'those evil bastards to blame go to prison'.
Would better media handling have solved the bank's image problem? No, of course not; the issues are too numerous and go too deep for a bit of spin to be all that's required. However more openness from the bank might have made the debate a bit less one-sided; as it is, politicians are now baying for blood and planning yet tougher regulation which could inflict severe damage on a banking sector which is a vital part of the economy and employs hundreds of thousands of people. It does raise the question of why the banks as a whole - and HSBC is hardly the only one which has had hard questions to answer over the past few years - have been so poor in putting their side of the story.
When the Guardian/Panorama allegations were first aired, no-one from HSBC would be interviewed. Panorama therefore had to 'doorstep' former boss Lord Green, looking highly defensive as he hurried away from camera down his expensive West London street, saying he would not talk 'on principle' about his time at the bank. Current CEO Stuart Gulliver complained in a letter to staff, later printed as full-page advertisements in the major newspapers, about the media's focus on 'historical events'. But why didn't he accept any of the dozens of requests for interview he must have received to get across his arguments? Even if he (understandably) did not want to subject himself to a Panorama grilling, he could have given short news interviews for the major channels to reinforce his message - firstly that the bank was sorry for activities where it had not met the high standards it set itself, and secondly that many steps had now put in place to clean things up, with the Swiss subsidiary being run very differently now.
Of course it would have been extremely uncomfortable, and HSBC does not want to answer detailed questions as it is in the vice-like grip of regulators around the world; it fears compromising delicate negotiations, and digging a bigger hole for itself. But isn't Mr Gulliver paid a lot of money to do difficult things? He could have avoided answering questions of detail because he wasn't in charge of the bank at the time and because the specifics are the subject of regulatory enquiry. A sense of contrition certainly wouldn't have come amiss, and he would have gained respect for coming out and 'facing the music' instead of hiding behind the bank's grey Canary Wharf exterior. If they had had more practice at putting their arguments across to the public, the Select Committee appearance by Mr Gulliver and chairman Douglas Flint might not have been such a trial. Their demeanour came over as chilly rather than contrite, their apologies by rote rather than from the heart.
Until recently HSBC had widely seen as the 'best' of the big clearing banks; it had kept a strong financial position even throughout the credit crisis, and had taken many steps to position itself as a good corporate citizen. Now all of that is apparently thrown away, its reputation trashed within the space of a couple of weeks. It is not over yet, and at who knows what cost.