You can say what you like about Scottish media coverage of Rangers’ financial crisis but you’re certainly spoilt for choice. Unfortunately, that choice is all-too-often between parallel universes, with a tangential universe thrown in every time club owner Craig Whyte is within range of a microphone (Whyte’s common criticism of HMRC as “living on a different planet to the rest of us” is top-of-the-range irony, I’m sure you’ll agree. The announcement of the shortlist of Rangers’ bidders and the administrators’ report to creditors on consecutive days last week provided plenty of scope for media sources to reveal their contrasting takes on affairs, and their common ignorance.
A perception persists that BBC Scotland has taken the more cynical, doom-laden view of Rangers’ financial prospects. This view dates back to Whyte’s run-ins with the corporation last autumn, when they exposed his ‘colourful’ business history. The BBC’s main independent rival, Scottish Television (STV), meanwhile, is perceived as more club-friendly (branded “STV Loyal” on fans’ websites). This view also dates back to Whyte’s autumn media travails – the Motherwell ‘tycoon’ afforded air time by STV News immediately before the BBC’s expose. Whyte himself, meanwhile, has been Whyte – and all that entails.
An article in last Saturday’s Scotsman newspaper contrasted two supposedly polarised views of the report to creditors in which administrators Duff & Phelps ‘revealed’ Rangers’ potential debt in a doomsday (doomsweek?) scenario to be £134,787,272. The contrasts were highlighted by being broadcast almost simultaneously on April 5th. STV News interviewed Professor David Hillier of Strathclyde University’s business school, a regular Rangers analyst for the channel since the administration process began in February. Hillier was of the ‘everything’s gonna be alright’ school, as “liquidation is not needed” and the headline-grabbing debt figure “doesn’t make a great deal of difference to the bigger picture.”
On the BBC’s Newsnight Scotland programme, another regular Rangers crisis-analyst, Maureen Leslie, director of insolvency practitioners MLM solutions, was altogether less musical to Ibrox ears, quoting HMRC’s stated policy of opposing Company Voluntary Arrangements where “there is evidence of evasion of statutory liabilities.” However, the two interviewees were in basic agreement about the prospects of a successful CVA, which got rather lost in the race to polarise their opinions. Hiller declared a CVA “achievable…even looking at the worst-case scenario.” Leslie called it “do-able…even in the worst-case scenario.”
There was a greater contrast in style and outlook between Leslie’s interview and a piece run by STV’s Scotland Tonight programme a day earlier, after the announcement of four short-listed bidders for the club. Scotland Tonight was far more positive, which was borderline-inevitable, given its cast-list. Presenter Rona Dougall hosted a three-way discussion involving two media representatives and a leading supporters’ activist. The media duo were Richard Wilson of the Herald newspaper, whose colleague Darrell King broke the story of Rangers’ “potentially crippling” tax case in April 2010, and “the doyen of football commentators,” (albeit BBC ones) Archie MacPherson. The supporters rep was Mark Dingwall, introduced as the director of Rangers’ Supporters Trust – one of three fans’ organisations in the short-listed ‘Blue Knights’ consortium, fronted by Rangers ex-director Paul Murray and, Dougall noted: “the only bid to go public.” We weren’t about to see an in-depth impartial critique of the short-list from this trio.
Asked about the Knights’ intentions, Dingwall ignored the question in favour of the seemingly pre-planned message that “there is absolutely no need” for Rangers to go into what he later evocatively described as “the humiliation and terror of liquidation.” The Knights were “men of means” backed by “the once-in-a-lifetime investment from the fans which could be worth between £15m and £30m.” Dingwall defined their “standards” as “that no one man or concert party should ever again run Rangers,” in order to avert the “dangers that have obviously been inherent with Craig Whyte and David Murray.” He emphasised how the Knights had dealt and would deal with the major financial headaches posed by sizeable creditors. “People far more eminent than I am” insisted that Rangers’ potential tax liabilities “can be handled as part of the CVA.” And he concluded that “obviously” the Knights offer would make “more money available to the Revenue,” as the Knights were “not looking to escape from Rangers’ traditional liabilities (but) want to be good corporate citizens.”
This begged numerous questions, none of which were asked. Armed with a sense of mischief, you could wonder why Rangers’ tax liabilities were called “traditional.” And while the Knights were not looking to “escape” these, their reported offer would, handily, “escape” the vast majority of them. Wilson expressed frustration at knowing “next-to-nothing” about the Knights’ three rival bidders and he wondered at their motives. “They want to be involved in the game and have a lot of money to spend” was the best he could do. His frustration could only have increased when Dougall then asked him “how much do we know about them?” – the question he’d just answered. This drove him into the arms of nonsense. The Knights’ bid made “more sense” than these…er…unknown bids. And it was “almost impossible” for Rangers fans to “know which bid they would want to get behind,” clean forgetting that the main fans’ organisations were part of one bid and not sensing Dingwall’s by-now glowering presence in the seat next to him.
There were brief hopes that the doyen MacPherson would add ‘reality’ to the occasion. He even used the “r-word” to remind everyone that Whyte “still owns Ibrox Stadium.” But Archie couldn’t keep this pace up, suggesting the “something like £90m” potential tax liabilities were “figures just plucked out of the air,” and indignant that “nobody has explained to me what Rangers actually owe the taxman.” I always did prefer Arthur Montford (one for Scottish football fans of a certain vintage). A tight, nine-minute slot didn’t afford this panel much opportunity to expand on the real issues. But they never addressed them at all, wasting too much time, i.e. any, on what Rangers fans might think of the short-listed bidders, which is technically irrelevant.
The problem with the Newsnight piece was presenter Gordon Brewer’s inability to contain his disbelief that anyone sensible would “want to buy this club which is…the princely sum of £134m in debt?” Nor could he credit that “people are talking about this as if it were a normal transaction.” And he wasn’t for persuading otherwise. He almost drowned in his own cynicism during his introduction – “administrators say (Rangers) has three bidders desperate to take it over…is this beauty-parade of would-be owners really the whole story?” And, worst of all, having resembled ‘Statto’ from the BBC’s 1990s hit Fantasy Football, during his introduction, he mutated into Jeffrey Archer when interviewing Leslie.
Brewer was desperate to cover the issues Scotland Tonight body-swerved. Where Archie MacPherson briefly hinted at the obstacles still hindering a successful exit from administration, Brewer positively revelled in them. His mantra was that “it is still not exactly clear what’s being sold or what the bidders are preparing to buy.” He even questioned the administrators extent “right to sell anything with bids which are probably so heavily conditional that to some it is stretching credibility to call them bids in any meaningful sense.” If the bids were heavily conditional, Brewer’s questions to Leslie were even more heavily loaded. Leslie did pull him up on the administrators’ rights to sell: “they do have the right to sell the business and assets of Rangers.” But she had no chance with ‘questions’ like “there’s something slightly surreal about this, people are talking as if, ‘oh there are bids and the administrator will decide’” and when Brewer donned his sarky boots for references to “minor matters…like what are you going to do about Craig Whyte and what are you going to do about the taxman?”
Yet she seemed too keen to fit Brewer’s narrative, reading from a copy of HMRC’s policy of non-approval of CVAs which just happened to be lying around. You half expected her to say “here’s one I prepared earlier,” as she picked up an A4 sheet from a handily-placed table. Outside observers would barely recognise the subject of the two discussions as being the very same. However, Whyte’s interview, a further day later, with Radio Clyde’s Jim Delahunty was barely recognisable as coherent English. He sang all his old hits about “every penny” going into Rangers, which “will come out a more viable business than before I bought (it)” because “I have acted in the best long-term interests of the club,” even though he “wasn’t acting alone, I was taking professional advice from top lawyers (trans: “I was only obeying orders”), so I did nothing illegal.”
He also blamed the Scottish media for, “winding things up and coming up with inaccurate information,” (just as in, for example, any number of…er…Craig Whyte interviews over the last year) and the nasty, horrible taxman, who he claimed “refused to discuss the case ahead of the first-tier tribunal.” But he failed to explain why they would have discussed Rangers at all with him before October 2010, when the tribunal first sat – one month before Whyte even expressed his initial interest in a takeover. ‘Inaccurate information’ maybe? And he couldn’t shake off the old allergy to detail. Take this remarkable exchange:
Are you up on where the rest of the (Ticketus) money is? Every penny of the Ticketus deal went into the club.
Delahunty: How do you explain that Duff & Phelps say it didn’t? The money is still in the Collyer Bristow client account but that’s not part of the Ticketus money. What is that money, then? I’m not going to go into that but every penny from Ticketus went into the club.
With thought processes like that, it was little wonder Delahunty didn’t dare ask Whyte about the “guarantees on the line for thirty million quid…more than anyone’s ever had personally on the line for Rangers and more than anyone’s ever likely to have on the line for Rangers.” Whyte hopes, naturally, for days when “there will be no tax case anymore” and other dreams which could have come from a seven-year-old. He also appears to believe he’ll be let into Ibrox again, as “people will look back on this in years to come and see it as the beginning of the sorting out of a mess that began years ago.” “It was impossible to have a sensible discussion with them,” Whyte said of HMRC. Radio Clyde listeners might now know why. Three days, three programmes, three choices. Rangers will be rescued by men of means. HMRC will block the proposals for that rescue. And Whyte wants somebody to pay him £30m and will only let it happen when he’s paid. Spoilt for choice indeed.
And you don’t have to be a Celtic fan to believe that that isn’t right.
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