Ruling

02595-19 Portman v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      31st October 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02595-19 Portman v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. Viscount Christopher Portman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1(Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in two articles headlined:

  • "British billionaires rush to world's top tax havens" published on 7 March 2019
  • "The tax haven billionaires with a grip on Britain from abroad" published on 8 March 2019

2. The first article reported that an investigation by the publication had found that a third of British billionaires had moved to tax havens after an exodus over the past decade. The article also reported that "many have been given honours or hold titles, with at least one viscount, one baron, six knights and one dame among the billionaires". The article reported that they were among 6,800 Britons controlling 12,000 UK companies from low-tax jurisdictions and that the exchequer is denied billions a year, but that “many still reap the benefits of British assets".

3. The second article continued a “rich list of the 28 tax haven billionaires" started in the first article and included the complainant at number 15 in the list. The article introduced its continuation of the list by reporting that "Those who are also non-UK resident for tax purposes can legally avoid huge amounts of UK tax while maintaining control of British business empires and influencing politics". The article explained that the previous day the newspaper had "profiled the very wealthiest British citizens who have declared that they are 'usually resident' in low-tax jurisdictions in company documents or are known to live in or be moving to them". It explained, further, that "Declaring residence in company filings is not the same as officially being non-resident in the UK for tax purposes, which is not disclosed in public documents”. Under the complainant's entry, the article reported the complainant's wealth to be £2.3 billion (according to the 2018 Sunday Times rich list) and featured a description of the complainant's UK property portfolio. It reported that the complainant had left Britain and now lives in a property by Lake Geneva and that his family's properties in Britain are managed by a management company and trustees, one of whom is a member of the House of Lords. The article reported that the complainant did not respond to requests for comment.

4. The second article appeared in much the same format online under the headline "Tax haven rich list part 2: Billionaires with a grip on Britain from abroad" published on 7 March 2019.

5. The complainant said that the first article's claim that "many [of the billionaires featured in the coverage] have been given honours or hold titles, with at least one viscount" was a direct reference to him. He said that the article made several specific references to those named in the coverage as having avoided paying UK tax because of being a non-UK tax resident, and that his inclusion in the published list was misleading as he was not non-UK resident for tax purposes and did not avoid paying UK tax. The complainant said that any reader would inevitably, and inaccurately in his case, conclude that all those individuals identified in the article were resident in tax havens to deny HMRC millions of pounds.

6. The complainant said that the second article also breached Clause 1. He said that it inaccurately suggested that he earns a substantial income from a UK property portfolio but that, on account of being resident in Switzerland, he avoided paying tax on this portfolio to the detriment of the exchequer. He said that he is legally required to pay tax on the income generated by this portfolio under the Income Tax (Trading and Other Income) Act 2005; the article had failed to explain this. He said that he had been included in a "rogues gallery" of tax avoiding billionaires who lived abroad and who were accused of denying HMRC of billions of pounds, in circumstances where he paid tax in full on his UK income and resided in Switzerland for personal reasons.

7. The complainant also raised concerns that other articles featured in the coverage of the investigation, which were not formally under complaint, made references to tax avoidance which furthered the misleading impression that he was resident abroad to avoid paying UK tax.

8. The publication denied that the articles were inaccurate or misleading. It said that the articles did not comment on the tax status of the individuals included in the list where it was not known; the articles did not make any specific reference to the complainant's tax status. It said that at no point did the articles under complaint, or the wider coverage, suggest that the individuals paid no UK tax, only that they may legally be able to avoid paying large sums of UK tax, which was not inaccurate. The publication emphasised that, in the course of making his complaint, the complainant had referenced "tax exiles", "tax avoiders" and that he featured in a "rogues gallery", but that none of these phrases featured anywhere in the coverage.

9. The publication accepted that the "Viscount" referenced in the first article did refer to the complainant, but said that given that he was not named in the article, readers would not be aware it was a reference to him without having also read the second article. Further, the reference to the complainant being one of "the many" who had been given honours or hold titles was a reference to the complainant being one of the many billionaires who had moved to tax havens and not to many who avoid tax. The publication argued that even if readers had read both articles, and had identified the complainant as being the Viscount referenced in the first article, the first article did not give rise to a misleading impression that the complainant avoided paying UK tax. The publication highlighted that the coverage explained that "Non-residents for tax purposes can also receive foreign income without paying any UK income tax, although UK salaries and rental income remain taxable"; the publication said that this indicated that the complainant would pay tax on income from property in Britain.

10. The publication suggested that the complainant had misunderstood the meaning of the second article. The list was not a list of billionaires who did not pay UK tax and nor would readers draw this conclusion. It said that the individuals featured in the list were identified as billionaires who had moved to tax havens yet still held considerable sway over British life by being donors to UK political parties, holding large amounts of UK land, holding UK titles or owning UK companies. The publication said that the article simply reported that those who are non-UK tax resident could potentially avoid paying large amounts of UK tax, which was accurate; the articles did not specify where the complainant was tax resident.

11. The publication said that it had put the points under complaint to the complainant for comment prior to publication, but it did not receive a response. It had also offered to amend the online version of the article the day it was published to reflect that the complainant is resident abroad for personal reasons yet pays UK tax at 45% but the offer was declined.

Relevant Code Provisions

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

13. The Committee noted that the first article began by explaining "A third of British billionaires had moved to tax havens after an exodus over the past decade” and that it made clear that it was publishing "the list of British billionaires who live offshore while controlling UK businesses, wielding political influence and owning swathes of land". The article made clear that the publication had "assessed where British business owners live based on their company filings, which disclose where they are "usually resident"” and that “It is not possible from public documents to know whether they are also resident abroad for tax purposes…”.  The article explained, further, that those who become non-UK resident for tax purposes can legally avoid paying UK income tax. The Committee noted that the article also reported that some of the billionaires had said that they lived abroad for reasons including healthy lifestyles, better weather, low crime and closeness to their foreign businesses. The Committee considered the article, as a whole, and found that the reference, in the first article, to the complainant being one of the "many" who had been given honours or hold titles was a reference to him being one of the British billionaires who had moved to a tax haven  The Committee acknowledged that the article had stated that the exchequer was “denied billions”, but this was said in a  paragraph which referenced 6800 Britons who control 12,000 UK companies from low tax jurisdictions; the billionaires who were included in the published list were not explicitly referenced. The article reported on billionaires who had moved to tax havens and the complainant accepted that he resided in Switzerland. The Committee did not find that the article, taken as a whole, would have been understood to mean that the complainant avoids paying UK tax on account of being resident in Switzerland. The article was not inaccurate or misleading in breach Clause 1.

14. The second article, in which the complainant was named, began by repeating the explanation of the coverage which had appeared in the first article: "After an exodus of business owners over the past decade, almost a third of British billionaires have moved to tax havens”. The second article reported that those on the list who were also non-UK resident for tax purposes can legally avoid paying UK tax.  The profile of the complainant explained that he had left Britain and now lives in a property by Lake Geneva, but did not identify him as being non-UK resident for tax purposes. The Committee considered that it was sufficiently clear that the article was part of an investigation of British billionaires who had left the UK to live abroad, while still wielding influence over certain aspects life in the UK, and that the basis for the complainant's inclusion in the article was also clear: the complainant had an extensive UK property portfolio which was managed, in part, by a member of the House of Lords. The articles did not make any specific comment or reference to the complainant's tax status, and the Committee did not consider that, by including him in the published list, the article gave rise to a misleading impression that the complainant avoided paying UK tax. In circumstances where the article did not make any specific reference to the complainant's tax status, the article was not significantly misleading by having omitted to make reference to the complainant's obligations to pay tax on income from properties in Britain under the Income Tax (Trading and Other Income) Act 2005. The publication had approached the complainant for comment as to his reasons for moving to a tax haven and as to his tax status, but the complainant's representatives had chosen not to comment. The publication had taken care over the accuracy of the information which had been published in the articles which, for the reasons explained above, were not inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was not upheld

Remedial action required

N/A

 

Date complaint received: 18/03/2019

Date complaint concluded: 27/09/2019