EBTs, CVAs & The Future Of Scottish Football: The BBC Tackles Rangers
Towards the end of BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rangers – What Next?, my attention was flagging.
A worthwhile broadcast descended into soppy sentiment as listeners were told of the 11-year-old boy asking his dad to cancel the family holiday to Florida and give the £2,000 cost to Rangers “Fighting Fund” instead (and Mickey Mouse was more likely to be in the Ibrox boardroom, anyway).
This was real “pass-the-sick-bag” stuff, which was abruptly halted by programme presenter Mark Chapman, who suggested “football clubs should be embarrassed to take money from an 11-year-old.” Chapman had controlled events with requisite calm, but was ready for a spot of stridency: “Why should the public purse keep losing out because football clubs are irresponsible?” he asked.
Rangers, whose financial crisis has been documented in terrifying detail, are in debt to the “public purse” for £20m – a figure which could surpass £60m if they lose an equally well-documented tax tribunal. The programme suggested Rangers use insolvency legislation to slash this debt. And Chapman wasn’t happy: “At the moment, we save football clubs, the public purse loses out and it sends a message to any irresponsible businessman – come and take over a football club, have a bit of fun, if it goes into administration, don’t worry about it, we’ll sort it out.”
But Chapman’s anger was then matched by an unexpected source. Glasgow South-West Labour MP Ian Davidson had earlier told the audience of Rangers fans about the club’s “iconic place in Scottish culture” and how a “minority that want to see this club go down” were “simply bad people.” But a different Davidson took the microphone to criticise ex-owner David Murray’s use of off-shore Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs) to avoid tax on certain payments to Rangers employees during the 2000s. “What Murray did,” Davidson declared, was “if not legally wrong, was certainly morally wrong. I think fiddling their tax and dodging their tax gave an unfair advantage to Rangers,” while other clubs were “being honest and straightforward.”
This was unexpectedly strong stuff from a programme which had previously taken a determinedly positive approach. Ex-player Mark Hateley eulogised Murray and “his personality”, while, Andy Goram applied his curious Lancashire/Scotland hybrid accent to days when Rangers would have won the 1993 European Cup “if Marseille hadn’t cheated,” words which could yet haunt. Journalists Roddy Forsyth and Keith Jackson, from the Telegraph and Record newspapers respectively, insisted HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) would let Rangers away with 90% of their tax debt rather than force them into liquidation. And it was assumed Rangers would be soon challenging for league flags again, or in English and/or European Super Leagues, rather than Scottish League Division Three.
There was even an embarrassing spell – which bordered on advertising…or ‘Blind Date’ – when Chapman asked panellists “what would you say is incredibly attractive to a future buyer of Rangers?” Mark Dingwall of the Rangers Supporters’ Trust had spoken of the need for “a sense of reality” about Rangers’ future. Yet even he insisted Rangers would “be back challenging next year and might even win something,” while talk turned to Rangers “worldwide brand” and the potential for “huge reward” for any new owner. Jackson had to restore “reality” (which Scottish readers might find remarkable from a Record journalist). “We’re talking about Rangers somehow ending up in the English Premier League,” he wailed, “but they are fighting for their very survival.”
The reasons for this fight were vividly highlighted by the programme, with lengthy contributions from BBC investigative journalist Mark Daly, who was received warmly for his expose of Craig Whyte’s unimpressive business history. Daly thrillingly confronted former Scottish FA Chief Executive Gordon Smith about his time as a Rangers director under Whyte. Smith endorsed the surprising consensus which emerged on fan involvement and transparency under new club ownership. But Daly was unimpressed, noting that Smith had done nothing for either concept and hadn’t “brought to the attention of fans what was going on within Ibrox.”
Smith had already produced one jaw-dropper, admitting that there was “never at all any discussion on club ownership” while he was at the SFA. But this was worse. He denied all knowledge of Whyte not “paying his bills.” He claimed “whoever was meant to pay the bills knew but we…had no idea.” And he suggested that “until we went into administration, there weren’t any rumours about administration,” which left Daly struggling for air as he tried to counter-suggest that “I don’t think that’s the case.” Once Hateley was done eulogising, the audience wasted no opportunity to stick proverbial boots into Murray and “the charlatan Whyte.”
One shareholder recalled his encounter with Murray at a Rangers AGM. He had asked Murray about the “character” of any man he would sell to and “I was laughed at by him.” Murray told him he would not put Rangers in jeopardy but the shareholder said: “that man has put us in jeopardy by his actions with regard EBTs and the character of the man he gave it to. Warming to his theme, he added: “we could have paid our debt like our forefathers would have done… we should not have even gone down this route…we don’t want our football club put in danger and that is what that man has done.” Cross, he was.
Inevitably, the issue of the “big tax case,” which panellist Pat Nevin called “the big tax bill,” cast the shadow over proceedings it has over Rangers for so long. However, salvation was at hand. Stories have flitted in and out of the Scottish media that HMRC were prepared to “do a deal” on Rangers’ tax debts. Hamstrung by their policy of not commenting on “individual cases,” HMRC have, apparently, told Roddy Forsyth all about it instead. Nevin had seen the £49m bill reported as a “red herring.” Jackson said if Rangers exited administration via an arrangement with creditors (a CVA), “that £49m can become £4.9m… so in that sense it’s a red herring.”
Nevin, reminding us of his reputation as the 1980’s one educated footballer, replied: “There’s a quantum leap you’re making there. Hopefully you get a CVA. But what if you don’t? That’s the question.” It remained unanswered, as Forsyth explained: “My understanding from HMRC is that, and this is their words, not mine, they would not oppose a CVA providing it was equitable and providing it was what they call ‘regime change’, in other words Craig Whyte must not be part of any solution.”
“Equitable” was left undefined. The programme assumed thereafter that the big tax bill was a big, bright fish. And Nevin suggested that this six-figure tax cut (Rangers owe £12-£20m even if they win the big tax case) was “brrrrrrilliant news.” The idea HMRC might oppose a CVA was dismissed…until Chapman’s late outburst. This tub-thumping for Rangers’ cause was the programme’s flaw. Ian Davidson even excused EBTs and Rangers leaving the SPL, in a statement which sounded designed to offend the rest of Scottish football. Defending what he had just called “morally reprehensible” use of EBTs (legal or not), he claimed: “Rangers’ ambitions are greater than Scottish football can support.”
“They don’t want to be a big fish in a small pond, they want to be a big fish in European football… people in Govan and throughout Scotland see Rangers as representing their hopes,” he added, which was probably news to people in Bridgeton and throughout Scotland. Davidson concluded that “they can’t do that on the basis of the money coming into Scotland.” And this was – his words, not mine – “the only way to defend” the use of EBTs.”
In contrast, more serious matters were submerged. Only Daly, with a refreshing absence of fish-based imagery, raised the prospect of Rangers being in breach of SFA rules by paying players through EBTs at all, let alone swerving tax on them. “That potentially could be more serious,” he noted. But he had no opportunity to expand on this. HMRC hadn’t been in negotiations with Forsyth on this, so the debate moved on. The “Ticketus” issue was also rushed, perhaps more understandably. The ticketing agency’s “purchase” of a portion of Rangers future season-tickets was the subject of a fraught legal battle. Jackson said the name Ticketus was “synonymous with the problems that Rangers now face,” and rather left it at that.
Football finance expert Steven Murray left it at: “that’s a matter for the courts,” when one fan said half his season-ticket renewal money was going to Ticketus when “I want my money to go into the club.” But there was time for the age-old fans’ dilemma, how can you criticise over-spending yet glory in the success it produced (“Does that devalue some of the trophies that you’ve won?” “No”). And there’s always time for Scottish football journalists to make factual errors when topics stray from their comfort zones. Jackson said Whyte “cleared” Rangers debts. Whyte merely transferred them to one of his companies, to become a secured creditor when (not if, as we now know) he took them into administration. Not a huge error, just the whole point of the story, that’s all.
The programme’s intermittent lows included Scottish ex-first minister Henry McLeish’s soundbite to raise hackles across the Scottish game about Rangers being “not just an institution but a way of life” and “too important to fail.” Pat Nevin showed he hadn’t been listening when he said that “one name we must not forget in all this is Walter Smith.” after much of the previous ten minutes had been taken up with eulogies of…Walter Smith. And administrator Brendan Guilfoyle, who horsed up Plymouth Argyle’s administration (and is still this week blaming fans) gave his “expert” view that “in England, where I work, it’s very different.” Thanks, Bren.
The programme had qualities, though. Most issues got aired, if not always coherently. Gordon Smith got a good shoeing for his incompetence. And Mark Chapman hosted matters well – bar calling the Fighting Fund organiser John Hannah instead of Jim. Jim wasn’t over-offended. John’s thoughts are unknown. Whether other clubs’ fans appreciated the air-time lavished on Rangers’ problems is another matter, especially fans of crisis clubs given only cursory UK media attention. And the inevitable criticism from predictable, green-tinged quarters cannot be routinely dismissed.
Many people wish to see Rangers treated like any company failing to pay their taxes. And if Rangers were to “go down” as a consequence, those people might think, so be it. But that didn’t fit the programme’s narrative. They were “bad people.” Mark Dingwall said Rangers fans weren’t asking to be absolved from their tax debt, yet the programme largely pre-supposed that absolution. Rangers slashing their debts and returning to the top of Scottish football as soon as possible, would be, as Pat Nevin styled it, “brrrrrrilliant news.”
You needn’t be a Celtic fan to believe that is not quite right.