The UK audit profession is facing a crisis of public trust and legitimacy following a series of high-profile audit failures. This resulted in the executive leadership of UK audit firms being summoned before a House of Commons Select Committee as part of its inquiry into ‘the future of audit’. During this inquiry the audit executives walked a tightrope, to both defend the social contract from an existential threat and attempt to influence policy reforms in their favour. This paper draws on ‘neutralisation techniques’ from deviance theory and the ‘grammar of legitimation’ from legitimacy theory to inform a discursive analysis of how auditors use strategic rhetoric to defend their professionalism and maintain their social contract to operate, all the while attempting to affect policy outcomes to align with their firms’ economic interests. Data for this study are drawn from the ‘oral evidence sessions’ and submitted ‘written evidence’ provided by the audit firm leadership. Our findings illustrate how the auditors construct a variety of strategic rationalisations, couched in moral ideals, to effectively deny responsibility for corporate financial scandals while simultaneously identifying with the ‘victims’ of audit failures and representing themselves ‘heroically’, as indispensable solution-bearers, not problem-causers. Their application of logic and language is cleverly designed to defend existing practices, neutralize the allegations of the inquiry, and provide the basis for advocating preferred policy outcomes. We show how, in this UK regulatory context, the Big Four are again successful in diluting and delaying reform, especially that which would legislate a full legal and economic split of their lucrative advisory service business from their audit business - a union which has grown in prominence in recent decades and been the focus of accusations of conflicted interests detrimental to audit quality. Evaluating legitimacy as a rhetorical and communicative process can aid regulators to render visible the means by which auditors use rhetoric to influence reform, and thereby improve democratic oversight over the profession.


auditing, audit quality, auditor legitimacy, audit regulation, neutralization techniques, legitimation

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