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How Times defied legal threats on tax cheat scoop

By Alan Selby

It has been six months since David Cameron publicly denounced Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance and public fury erupted at the news that celebrities such as Gary Barlow were apparently defrauding the exchequer to the tune of millions.

Revelation after revelation has since been splashed across the front page of The Times, the newspaper that spearheaded the assault. The journalists responsible, Alexi Mostrous and Fay Schlesinger, have since steered the public through a groundbreaking series of stories.

Having already won Investigation of the Year at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards, the pair have now been nominated for Scoop of the Year at the Press Awards, where Mostrous is also in the running for News Reporter of the Year.

He says the ball first started rolling on the series after he wrote a feature on hedge funds. A contact showed him emails from Ernst & Young, which was advertising a lucrative avoidance scheme channelling investments through film production companies.

Investors stood to make a profit because of the tax reliefs available, even if projects failed.

He knew the story was important straight away, given the obvious public interest: “If you’re a normal person, doing a normal job, you don’t get offered these opportunities. You don’t get offered a situation where you win on the one hand, and then if everything screws up you win anyway.”

Despite the vast amounts of money involved, he said it was not until the Prime Ministerspoke out that the story really took off: “As soon as he’d done that it gave licence to everyone else to say, ‘OK, this is a story that we can really go hard on, because the Prime Minister has condemned it.’”

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The fact that celebrities were involved also meant the public were more interested, he said. “Tax is in general quite a boring issue to write about, and it’s quite hard to capture the public’s imagination, even when you’re talking about incredibly large sums of money. So the addition of the celebrity element helped make this issue into something that everyone was talking about.”

Their activities soon led to repercussions, and Mostrous says they received at least ten letters threatening them with legal action, due in part to their decision to ensure all of the people they wrote about were given the opportunity to respond.

But Mostrous and Schlesinger knew there was little that could be done to silence them, as through close involvement with The Times’ lawyers they knew their rights.

He added: “On these sorts of stories the lawyers are as much a part of the team as us… we weren’t concerned about legal threats, because we’d had the issues covered in our own minds beforehand.”

As the shockwaves from the initial stories continue to be felt Mostrous says there is still more work to be done, and a growing catalogue of leads to follow. But the key challenge he now faces is keeping readers interested in stories about tax avoidance, given that they have become a weekly occurrence.

“You’ve got to be quite careful that people don’t get bored, because people now know that there are incredibly aggressive artificial tax schemes that are used by the wealthy and corporations to avoid millions of pounds – sometimes hundreds of millions of pounds – in tax. So you’ve got to see, as a reporter, what other avenues in this world haven’t been explored.

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