Gary Lineker’s political tweets could help the presenter avoid a £4.9m tax bill, as part of a continuing dispute about whether he should be classed as a freelance worker for the BBC and BT Sport.
The Match of the Day host is involved in a long-running legal case over whether he owes substantial back taxes relating to his work as a presenter during the mid-2010s, following fellow TV presenters Eamonn Holmes and Lorraine Kelly in facing showdowns with HMRC over their employment status.
Lineker, who until recently was the BBC’s highest-earning star on £1.75m a year, invoiced the broadcasters through a partnership called Gary Lineker Media, which was run with his ex-wife Danielle Bux.
Similar arrangements typically allow individuals to avoid paying income tax and national insurance contributions, with income instead taxed through a business as a corporate entity. HMRC has argued that in many cases company status has been abused by people who are in effect long-term employees seeking to reduce their tax
The former England football captain is now being pursued for £3,621,736 in income tax and £1,313,755 in national insurance contributions, relating to work carried out between the 2013-14 and 2017-18 tax years.
A source close to Lineker accused HMRC of threatening the presenter with the prospect of bad publicity in an attempt to make him settle and claimed that the real disputed sum between income tax already paid and tax claimed is less than £500,000 – substantially lower than the headline figures suggest.
The individual also said that the BBC and BT Sport had separately concluded Lineker was a genuine independent contractor for tax purposes and that unlike many presenters he had used an unincorporated partnership to manage his earnings: “If tax avoidance was his motive he’d do it through a company.”
Despite this, Yvonne Gallagher, a partner at lawyers Harbottle & Lewis, said Lineker could struggle to prove that Gary Lineker Media was providing BBC and BT Sport with a service unrelated to the star, since the business could not simply send someone else to present Match of the Day if Lineker did not feel like turning up.
Instead, if Lineker wanted to avoid paying a large retrospective tax bill, Gallagher said he would need to prove that he was a true freelance worker who had control over his work life that went beyond that of a typical BBC or BT Sport employee.
“He will have to produce evidence that shows he is genuinely an independent contractor, that he is not controlled, he’s not supervised, he’s not effectively managed,” she said. “Fundamentally the test is: if you did not have the service company in the way, would he look like an employee of the people he’s working for?”
Lineker’s Twitter account, which has caused many headaches for BBC management with the former footballer’s strong views on Brexit and the Conservative government, could form part of the case that he was not a traditional employee bound by traditional rules.
“Lineker can argue that he is not subject to the same level of control as BBC employees given his apparent freedom to express personal and political views on social media,” said Gallagher, while cautioning that she believes the odds are stacked against him. “[HMRC] can’t afford to lose a high-profile case. They wouldn’t be bringing it without a high degree of confidence.”
Although the Lineker tax case began in 2019, it was only reported this week when court documents were made public. The case has been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions and a final ruling is unlikely this year.
The tax office has increasingly cracked down on personal service companies with a range of tribunal cases targeting high-profile individuals in the media, such as This Morning host Holmes, who is facing a £250,000 bill.
However, it has not been entirely successful. In one infamous case the ITV presenter Lorraine Kelly successfully appealed against a £1.2m tax bill after arguing that she could turn down work when she wanted to, and was merely performing the role “of a friendly, chatty and fun personality” called Lorraine Kelly when she appeared on her eponymous show each morning.