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Gary Lineker wins £4.9m tax battle, but war over impartiality is ongoing

HMRC had argued the Match of the Day presenter was a ‘disguised employee’ of the BBC and BT Sport - PA /Danny Lawson
HMRC had argued the Match of the Day presenter was a ‘disguised employee’ of the BBC and BT Sport - PA /Danny Lawson

Gary Lineker must obey the same rules as every BBC employee when it comes to impartiality, but not when it comes to a £4.9 million tax bill.

Those were the conclusions of a former BBC director-general and a tribunal judge on Tuesday over the Match of the Day host’s freelance status.

A judge in Lineker’s long-running tax battle ruled in his favour, rejecting HMRC’s claim that the former England striker should have been classed as an employee of the BBC and BT Sport.

HMRC had pursued the star over a £4.9 million bill under IE35 legislation, which is designed to clamp down on tax avoidance by "disguised employees" who charge for their services off-payroll.

However, Judge John Brooks found that the legislation did not apply because Lineker had direct contracts with the two broadcasters through a partnership he set up in 2012 with his then wife, Danielle Bux.

Gary Lineker with his then wife Danielle Bux in 2008 - AFP
Gary Lineker with his then wife Danielle Bux in 2008 - AFP

As the ruling was being handed down, Lord Birt, director-general of the BBC from 1992-2000, was in Westminster telling MPs that Lineker’s freelance status was irrelevant to viewers.

The presenter must abide by impartiality rules and he clearly breached them with his tweet likening Suella Braverman’s rhetoric on migrants to the language of 1930s Germany, Lord Birt said in an appearance before the digital, culture, media and sport select committee.

“I am sure the public doesn’t even think about it. What it knows is that he is a well-established presenter. Yes, he was one of England’s great centre-forwards, but let’s not kid ourselves,"  Lord Birt said.

“His status, his standing and his power arises above all else from presenting this extremely important programme.

“I don’t think it is legitimate or right that a BBC presenter of such an important programme should opine. The guidelines are extremely clear, they plainly cover this situation, and it is clear the expectation is that people like Gary have to obey the rules. And he didn’t.”

Lord Birt - PA
Lord Birt - PA

Lord Birt’s views put him at odds with Tim Davie, the current director-general, who allowed Lineker back on air after the presenter's comments about Mrs Braverman’s migrants policy.

Mr Davie blamed “the grey areas of the BBC’s social media guidance” and welcomed Lineker back on air after the decision to remove him temporarily from Match of the Day led to a mutiny by the star's BBC Sport colleagues.

But Lord Birt said: “The BBC is a public body, it is a public service, it is publicly-funded, and anyone holding public office accepts constraints on their freedom of expression - civil servants, judges, chief constables.

“The BBC is trusted the world over and is seen as being beyond politics and not always succeeding but always trying to be fair, impartial and accurate. No other institution in the world has achieved that status so this is not a casual matter. It’s a very serious matter.”

In the serious matter of Lineker’s tax battle, HMRC said it was considering an appeal.

It had claimed that Lineker owed £3,621,735.90 in income tax and £1,307,160.46 in National Insurance contributions.

The money covered the years 2013-2018 and the tribunal was told that Lineker had paid in excess of £3.6 million in income tax during that period, plus National Insurance contributions. Had he lost the case, it is understood that the difference owed would have been in the mid-six figures.

Status changed in 2012

The BBC encouraged many of its presenters to set up personal service companies or partnerships, in some cases giving them no choice but to comply.

Lineker was contracted as a sole trader from 2006-12 but a 2012 email submitted to the tribunal, written by an executive in BBC Sport, indicated that the corporation wanted him to change his status.

“At the end of the day this is being done because the BBC are insisting that they deal with a partnership and not a sole trader,” said the email from Lloyd Shepherd, a BBC talent manager.

Lineker set up a partnership in 2012 with his then wife and used it to channel his earnings from the BBC and his other job with BT Sport.

The arrangement is legal but HMRC has pursued Lineker and others who have used partnerships and personal service companies, arguing that they were effectively employees and should have paid tax at the same level as those on the payroll.

The partnership, Gary Lineker Media, was set up to give Ms Bux a £30,000 "fixed profit share" for accompanying her husband to promotional and marketing events. The couple divorced in 2016.