Rusbridger questions Tesco's 'PR battle' tactics in libel bid

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has hit back at ‘unfounded smears’as his paper issued its defence to a libel and malicious falsehood writ from supermarket giant Tesco.

In the defence filed at the High Court, the paper admits making two mistakes in stories about Tesco’s tax avoidance, and thus libelling the supermarket, and has admitted liability under the Offer of Amends procedure.

But it continues to refute the malicious falsehood part of the Tesco claims, which allege that The Guardian deliberately misled its readers.

Rusbridger told Press Gazette: ‘I think everyone knows that we try to get things right, not wrong. We correct things and we’re the only paper with a readers’ editor and a corrections and clarifications column.

‘Effectively their problem is that they said: ‘We’re a highly ethical company and this was a devastating attack on our integrity, it’s an outrageous thing to say that we avoid tax’.

‘But as we showed, there is no dispute that this was an elaborate tax avoidance scheme. So which is it – are they socially responsible and would never dream of doing this, or is it that they would do this [tax avoidance] scheme and not [another] scheme?”

The Guardian asserts that Tesco still avoids paying between £85m and £95m in stamp duty land tax (SDLT), a compulsory four per cent tax on property deals.

It had originally said in two stories and a podcast that the supermarket avoided ‘up to £1bn’in corporation tax but has now withdrawn that claim and apologised on three occasions.

In its defence, the paper accepts its claims that Tesco was acting hypocritically and evasively by avoiding corporation tax and depriving the public purse of revenue – a criticism made in a leader column – were defamatory.

The Guardian denies Tesco’s claim that its parent company, Guardian Media Group, avoided SDLT itself.

The defence papers say: ‘The hypocrisy is entirely that of Tesco. This smear on The Guardian was false and must have known to be false by Tesco.”

The Guardian has said it used corporate tax experts, academics and lawyers – including two QCs – to unravel Tesco’s complex tax systems and that it took four weeks from the issuing of the writ to come to firm conclusions, which it printed two weeks ago.

‘It’s not for me to advise on their PR policy,’said Rusbridger. ‘But the longer this goes on the longer the words Tesco and tax avoidance find their way into the same sentence.

‘I’m still bewildered that a company like Tesco would think that our libel laws are the best ways of making unfounded smears against The Guardian’s behaviour and making false claims about our own tax situation.

‘It’s an odd way for a public company to behave. Is it a legal case or a PR battle?”

Tesco was not available for comment at the time of going to press.

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