It was one of the great committee disasters, like watching the Titanic, the Bismarck and the R101 all go down in the same afternoon.
The public accounts committee had summoned executives from three huge multinationals who do millions of pounds of business in Britain but pay peanuts in tax.
There have been plenty of terrible, grisly, embarrassing, watch-between-your-fingers moments recently as witnesses are shredded on the old barbed-wire sessions – the Murdochs, Bob Diamond of Barclays, that bloke with the mullet from G4S, and most recently George Entwistle. This made them all look like a chat on the sofa with Richard and Judy.
Routine politeness was quickly succeeded by scepticism, cynicism, and finally jaw-sagging incredulity. MPs became outright rude: "It beggars belief"; "you cannot be serious!"; and "I don't know what you take us for!". Small smiles were followed by smirks and then outright hilarity. The man from Amazon was told he was a waste of space, had no information to bring, and the committee would summon someone else who might know what they were talking about. The government's chief auditor, Amyas Morse, is normally punctiliously polite but even he snapped. He found the evidence "insulting".
The man from Starbucks, an American corporate suit, like someone from Mad Men without the rock-like integrity, was Mr Troy Alstead. He said Starbucks paid almost no tax in the UK because it made no money here. With one exception, they had made a loss for 15 years. Year after year, the business failed. Yet somehow it survived, and the UK boss was even promoted!
What a charity Starbucks is! The UK market was "challenging" he said. Every year things might get better, but they almost never did. It was hope that kept them going, hope that one day Starbucks UK would turn a profit. (By contrast Costa Coffee made a £49.5m profit last year and paid £15.5m tax).
We got a glimpse of the way the company works; all its coffee is bought through a Swiss subsidiary, which charges a 20% margin to the UK. No wonder they lose so much: they have to pay off chiselling companies – owned by Starbucks!
By this time the committee chairwoman, Margaret Hodge, was laughing out loud. Austin Mitchell thought the company was very badly run or "on the fiddle". By the end, Starbucks management had been plucked, roasted, ground and sprayed with hot steam.
But it was nothing compared with the man from Amazon, who simply denied that amazon.co.uk was, in any sense, a UK firm. But he didn't know what kind of firm it was, because he didn't know who owned it, and he didn't know what proportion of European sales were in the UK. MPs spluttered in disbelief. (But we did learn that Amazon warehouses are known, absurdly, as "fulfillment centres.")
The only fall guy who put up a real fight was Mr Matt Brittin of Google, who at least admitted that the company shipped profits to Bermuda to avoid tax. He didn't dissemble; the gist was "we do because we can". As Margaret Hodge said: "We're not accusing you of being illegal; we are accusing you of being immoral."
Once the report influenced by Monday's session is produced, it will be difficult for the government to do nothing. These buffoonish executives might have cost their companies billions – something few of us can claim.
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