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May 4, 2008updated 05 May 2008 6:37pm

Tesco, tax and the Guardian: ‘We made errors’

By paulmcnally

The Guardian has admitted it made errors in its story about Tesco’s tax affairs – and has published a correction and a revised story in a bid to set the record straight.

The newspaper, which is being sued for libel and malicious falsehood by the supermarket giant, has also published a piece explaining its parent company’s own tax arrangements, after it emerged that the Guardian Media Group had incorporated a company in the Cayman Islands to complete its acquisition of Emap’s B2B division.

Tesco had issued a writ over an article published in February headlined “Tesco’s £1bn tax avoiding plan”, a related editorial piece and a podcast.

Since receiving the writ, the paper said it has consulted corporate tax experts, accountants and lawyers. In its revised piece, it said: “The Guardian is clearer – both about errors in the original pieces and in the true facts of the situation.

“The paper is now in a position for the first time both to correct the errors and to put the record straight, in accordance with Tesco’s wishes.

In a leading article on Saturday, the Guardian said: “We made errors.”

“The complex tax avoidance structures erected by Tesco were not about avoiding corporation tax, as we thought and claimed, but about the avoidance of SDLT [stamp duty land tax],” it added.

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The Guardian also acknowledged that its claim that the company could avoid “up to £1bn” in tax was incorrect. “We are happy to withdraw both assertions and apologise,” it said.

The paper has published a piece on its website explaining GMG’s use of an offshore structure to complete its purchase of Emap Communications in partnership with private equity house Apax.

In the article, a GMG spokesman said the offshore structure had been created at the request of Apax. He added: “This structure will not save GMG any UK corporation tax when compared with an onshore structure. Operating profits and any gains by GMG on disposal will be subject to the UK tax regime.

“The purchase of Emap plc has been structured as a UK Scheme of Arrangement which, as has long been accepted by HM Revenue and Customs, does not attract stamp duty on acquisitions. This would be the case even if the acquisition was structured in the UK rather than offshore.”

Separately, Tesco is suing three people in Thailand – including a freelance journalist and a newspaper business columnist – over comments made about the supermarket giant.

According to the Times, the group’s chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy, had said the company tried “time and time again” to engage with critics. In a further statement, Tesco said: “Despite numerous attempts to get them to set the record straight, this has not happened.”

But the journalists being sued claim they were not contacted by Tesco and asked to publish an apology.

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