Murdoch's juggling outwits taxmen around the world

An international task-force of tax investigators from at least four countries is attempting to unravel Rupert Murdoch's labyrinthine business affairs in a bid to make him pay more tax. Steve Boggan shows how the Murdoch media empire has been able to outwit the taxman.

You don't get to be the planet's biggest media mogul by being generous with your tax returns, but Rupert Murdoch makes his fellow corporate giants appear positively charitable.

A recent comparison of media empires showed that while most of his competitors paid taxes at anything up to 32.5 per cent, Mr Murdoch's News Corp paid just 7.8 per cent world-wide.

An exhaustive investigation by The Independent in 1995 showed that in the previous 10 years News International, News Corp's UK arm, had paid only pounds 11.74m tax on profits of nearly pounds 1bn - a rate of just 1.2 per cent when corporation tax was running at 33 per cent.

In comparison, the Telegraph group had paid 29 per cent tax, the Mirror Group 20 per cent and United News and Media, owners of the Express titles, 29 per cent.

Now, however, the tax authorities internationally have had enough. Senior revenue investigators from the United States, the UK, Australia and Canada met in Sydney in December to examine Mr Murdoch's international network of tax avoidance.

They were stung into action by last year's results, in which News Corp reported paying worldwide taxes of $103m (pounds 62.42m) on operating profits of $1.32bn (pounds 800m), a rate of just 7.8 per cent. In a recent analysis of News Corp's taxation compared with similar media corporations, the Washington Post discovered a huge gap between Mr Murdoch's company payments and the rest.

The Walt Disney corporation paid 28 per cent tax; Viacom Inc, parent company of MTV and Paramount Pictures, paid 22 per cent; and Time Warner, which is similar in size and make-up to News Corp, paid 17 per cent taxes.

So how does Mr Murdoch do it? His success in legally avoiding taxation lies in the truly global nature of his business interests. By shifting profits and losses, by making loans between companies, by claiming tax relief on interest repayments, by channelling profits through subsidiaries in offshore tax havens and by taking advantage of currency fluctuations his accountants can turn profits into apparent losses.

His empire at the end of last year comprised 789 businesses in 52 countries from Australia and Mauritius to Britain and Cuba. In America, News Corp's portfolio includes 22 television stations, the huge Fox broadcast network and the 20th Century Fox movie studios. In the UK, it owns the Times and Sunday Times, the Sun and News of the World, and a controlling stake in BskyB. There are also a myriad titles across five continents and a satellite network that covers much of Europe, Asia and America.

It was the breadth of Mr Murdoch's interests that prompted the Australian tax authorities to call December's meeting, during which the investigators attempted to cross the national boundaries that normally restrict their operations.

It is understood the task force will examine three ways in which News Corp manipulates its tax affairs:

l Tax relief claimed on debt interest repayments.

l The differences in accounting principles in the various countries in which tax returns are filed.

l News Corp's use of offshore tax havens. Its annual tax bill is reduced by channelling profits through subsidiaries in no-tax or low-tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands.

nBSkyB outlined its timetable for the digital TV revolution yesterday, but revealed little about precisely what it plans to serve up to the viewing public.

Cautiously unveiling plans for its digital satellite service yesterday, BSkyB admitted that its June launch will be a fairly modest affair.

"The meaningful launch will be in the fourth quarter," said Mark Booth, the company's chief executive, confirming that a major marketing push, to be devised by advertising agency M&C Saatchi, is scheduled for the peak Christmas sales period.

Outlining the company's interim results to the press and City analysts, Mr Booth said: "Sky's digital launch is on schedule and on budget ... It will be one of the big consumer product launches of 1998 and will certainly revolutionise the way we look at television." He added: "The savvy media players are saying this is a great moment in time and we agree."

The first set-top boxes will hit the high street stores in June.

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