Decision of the Complaints Committee 08346-15 Rangers Supporters Trust v Dundee Courier and Advertiser
Summary of complaint
1. The Rangers Supporters Trust complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Dundee Courier and Advertiser breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Leaders must emerge from game’s civil war”, published in print on 7 November 2015, and “Rangers tax ruling another low for a Scottish game already in turmoil”, published online on 7 November 2015.
2. The article was an opinion piece in which the author expressed his view on the current state of Scottish football. It referred to the Court of Session verdict in the Rangers tax case, and said that the court had found that “the club’s use of the Employee Benefit Trusts was illegal”. It also said that “many fans of other clubs read this as a clear statement that the Scottish game was rigged by a kind of ‘financial doping’ in the period 2001-2009 when Rangers won titles using a scheme not open to other clubs, because it was unlawful”. The article also mentioned Celtic’s recent defeat in Europe, and the failure of the Scotland national team to qualify for the European Championships; it concluded that the national game needed a major overhaul.
3. The articles were identical in print and online except for the headline.
4. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that Rangers’ use of Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs) was “illegal”; it said that the court had simply found that the club were liable to pay tax on payments made to players and staff through the EBT scheme. The complainant supported its position with an email from a Queen’s Counsel (QC) specialising in tax law. The QC explained that Rangers had entered into certain transactions which they hoped would attract a certain tax liability, but the Court of Session decided those transactions had attracted a higher liability; he said it was not accurate to use the word “illegal” to describe a situation where the club was found to have a higher tax liability than expected.
5. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to say that “Rangers won titles using a scheme that was not open to other clubs, because it was unlawful”. It said that the scheme was open to other clubs in Scotland, and in fact had been used by one, as well as thousands of other companies across the UK.
6.The newspaper denied that it was inaccurate to use the word “illegal” to describe the use of EBTs by Rangers in circumstances where their use, in a manner designed to minimise tax liability, was found to be contrary to, or forbidden by, law. It said that the Court of Session had found that the true nature of the payments into EBTs had been misrepresented to the authorities in order to avoid having to deduct tax and remit it to the HMRC, with the net effect being to enhance players’ earnings. It said that in such circumstances it was not inaccurate to say that Rangers had been acting illegally.
7. The newspaper said that the line about the scheme not being open to other clubs was the author expressing the opinion of fans of other clubs who perceived that the scheme was not open to them. It said that fans of other clubs could point to the complex corporate structure of Rangers, and resources available to it, as reasons why no other club could contemplate the use of EBTs; it also said that clubs would have been reluctant to take the risks involved. The one other club who had used the scheme had, as far as they were aware, recognised it was unlawful when it was brought to its attention, and settled the matter with HMRC after using it with one player.
8. The complainant said that while part of the sentence referring to the scheme not being available to other clubs may well have been the author expressing the opinion of other fans, it believed the author continued with an assertion of fact that Rangers “won titles using a scheme that was not open to other clubs, because it was unlawful”. In addition, it said that the newspaper’s acceptance that another club had used the EBT scheme meant that the article was inaccurate on this point.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
Findings of the Committee
10. Rangers had benefited in terms of player recruitment from the adoption of a scheme designed to minimise the payment of tax. The Court of Session had subsequently found the club was not entitled to operate this scheme lawfully without paying the higher rate of tax due. The Committee noted the arguments put forward by the complainant, including the opinion of a QC specialising in tax law. However, the article in question was a broad-ranging opinion piece on Scottish football, not a technical legal analysis of the Court of Session’s decision. The article did not say that the activities of Rangers were criminal or fraudulent in nature; it said that the club had gained an advantage from the use of Employee Benefit Trusts which was described variously as “illegal” and “unlawful”. In that sense, the term “illegal” was not inaccurate; there was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The author expressed his opinion that Rangers were benefiting from “a scheme that was not open to other clubs, because it was unlawful”. The Code gives significant latitude to opinion writers to express their views. However the fact the the statement represented the opinion of the author did not absolve the newspaper of its obligations under Clause 1, and newspapers are required to demonstrate that there is a factual basis for the position. The Committee was satisfied that the complexity of the EBT scheme, combined with the risk that the HMRC’s challenge to the scheme might be found by a Court to be justified, meant that it was not significantly misleading of the author to state that the scheme was not open to other clubs; there was no breach of Clause 1.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
complaint received: 15/11/2015
Date decision issued: 04/03/2016
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