A royal charter of incorporation imposing public benefit/social responsibilities established the privately owned British South Africa Company (BSAC), in return for power to exploit a huge territory using low-cost local labour. This study explores the dual principal–agent problem of how the BSAC used annual report narratives to report on its conflicting economic responsibilities to investors versus its public benefit charter responsibilities to the British Crown.
Having digitised the dataset, the research analyses narratives from 29 BSAC annual reports spanning a continuous 35-year royal charter period, using computer-aided keyword content analysis to identify economic-orientated versus public benefit-orientated annual report narratives. The research analyses how the annual report narratives shifted according to four key contextual periods by reference to the changing influence of private investors versus the British Crown.
There are two key findings. First, economic primacy. At no point do public benefit disclosures outweigh economic disclosures. Second, the BSAC's meso-corporate context and macro-social/political context can explain patterns in public benefit disclosures. The motivation for producing public benefit information is not altruism. Rather, commercial interests motivate disclosure. The BSAC used its annual reports to sustain what proved ultimately unsustainable – royal charter-style colonialism.
This accounting history study contributes to an understanding of corporate narrative reporting using one of the earliest known cases of such analysis and shows how accounting plays a central role in facilitating a company in sustaining its interests. This 100-year lookback may be a portend of the future for modern-day annual report corporate social responsibility narratives in, say, mining and oil and gas company corporate reports, especially if these natural resources run out.
The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from Chartered Accountants Ireland Educational Trust (CAIET), grant number CAIET 202/16. The authors thank Christine Ann Power for access to her family papers and archivists and staff at The National Archives at Kew, London, and the Derbyshire Record Office, Matlock, United Kingdom. The authors are grateful to Christopher Napier for his advice. The authors thank the editor and three reviewers for their constructive suggestions which helped to significantly improve our paper.
Power, S.B. and Brennan, N.M. (2021), "Corporate reporting to the crown: a longitudinal case from colonial Africa", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 34 No. 4, pp. 946-982. https://doi.org/10.1108/AAAJ-09-2019-4166
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