Ken Bates: “An Ex-Chairman Is A Nobody”
OK, we all know that Ken Bates is an unpopular individual in footballing circles. He is still, though, not as unpopular as he ought to be. There are still those in football, watchers, participants and commentators, who are happy to file Bates under “character,” or give him credit where it is not entirely due. To far too many people, Bates still represents a flash of excitement and unpredictability in a game whose participants are coached more rigorously in “dealing” with the media than kicking with their weaker foot; a game which usually only lets its guard drop in the ugliest fashion (check Chelsea FC’s latest travails for details). Bates “tells it like it is,” and “isn’t afraid to speak his mind.” But while “those who speak their mind often have nothing to say,” Bates has been filing column inches on sports pages throughout my lifetime (OK, maybe that’s taking things too personally), since he first came to footballing prominence, as Oldham Athletic chairman in 1965.
Famously, he shared half a chapter of Arthur Hopcraft’s timeless book The Football Man, representative as he seemed to be of the thrusting new entrepreneurial spirit of modern football circa 1968. In it he was contrasted with the old-school (literally and figuratively) occupant of the Arsenal chair, Denis Hill-Wood. Hopcraft wrote of the pair that they were “definitively, the representatives of the public school and Brick Street secondary in the boardroom, the one committed to duty, the other responding to opportunity.” And he wasn’t trying to be unkind to Bates. However, Bates status as the next big thing lasted barely longer than it took Hopcraft to finish the chapter, and the Bates passages in the book are the ones to which history has been unkindest. Bates was rather more famed in the 1970s for his property and finance dealings, the (ahem) mixed results of which were catalogued in Tom Bower’s darker but no less timeless 2003 football book Broken Dreams. And the 80s and 90s, we all know about – especially in West London and (West) Yorkshire (and Geneva… and the British Virgin Islands… and the Cayman Isl… you get the message).
Despite, or perhaps because of, his notoriety, journalistic tolerance of Bates has been shown by likely sources such as the Daily Mail and less likely ones such as the Independent. His quotability has too often proved more important than his credibility. In an exclusive interview with the Mail’s Des Kelly in August 2010 (“Leeds United chairman Ken Bates has one more trademark blast”), Bates’ “trademark” rudeness about a former FA colleague was too much for the paper’s lawyers, who advised Kelly to “remove the name of an old adversary at the FA on the grounds that the remarks show ‘malice’.” Given that Bates was relatively fresh from a crushing legal defeat where his remarks in Leeds United programme notes were deemed “grave” libels, was this admirable bravado (“telling it like it is”) or arrogant, ignorant, pig-headed stupidity? Kelly also rather lightly dismissed as “an array of colourful tales” further unprintable comments “that would have us both in the High Court if they were repeated here in full.”
He puts Bates’ tale-telling down to the fact that “he loves being a somebody” (as Bates himself said, dismissing talk of retirement from football, “an ex-chairman is a nobody.”). “Half the foreign owners don’t have a clue. Most of the clubs who are in the s**t are, or were recently, under foreign ownership,” Bates added, ticking casual xenophobia off his list of things to do that day. Kelly let this go unchallenged, to Bates’ face, in the article and when Bates cites examples such as Hull City, Derby County and Notts County, where many of the placers in the s**t were most definitely domestic. Similarly unchallenged was Bates sneering dismissal, overloaded with irony, of prospective investors in Leeds. In terminology which might yet have a modern significance, Bates talks of the “number of people who say they represent the brother or a cousin of some sheikh or sultan who plans to bring me untold millions. I always say ‘Oh yeah? Then bring me proof of identity.” This is Ken Bates; demanding proof of identity of potential investors/owners. And Kelly appears not to even bat an eyelid, let alone ask him how Astor Investment Holdings is getting on, the firm prepared to lose £18m of its “investments” so long as Bates remained Leeds chairman after he took them into administration in May 2007.
The Independent newspaper’s headline writer continues the explosives theme with “Lunch with Ken Bates, and it really is a blast” as a headline for Brian Viner’s interview a month after Kelly’s PR piece. Viner, a loss to the Indie’s pages, gives Bates virtually free rein to run through his prejudices. On the subject of admission prices, which have been high enough to test many loyalties among an admirably loyal fan base, he moaned: “One woman asked me to do a deal for students. She said her son can’t afford to come. Then get a bloody job, then.” Also: “The disabled get their helper in for free, if they pay for a full-price ticket, which means they get in for half-price. I’m not being funny but if you’ve got a bad back, do you need a helper?” Well, quite conceivably. It seemed a dismal question, but may just have been a set up for a dismal gag: “We asked them to prove they were disabled and some of them did a runner.”
Viner also quotes from one of Bates’ non-libellous programme columns just before the 2010 general election: “You could… vote for the Icelandic Volcano Party. After all, they have done more to stop immigration in the last seven days than Labour has for 13 years,” wrote Bates, living in Monaco, so as to avoid paying the taxes that fund the UK’s border authorities. So he was right. He wasn’t being funny. I could also throw in his constant swearing in front of his constantly disapproving wife. And how he invited her to the lunch over which he alone was being interviewed and, moments after a rant about scroungers and there being no such thing as a free lunch, wormed his way out of paying. But there are more serious points to make. An even darker side of Bates has emerged in recent and semi-recent court judgments. Judges and the “real world” may not always seem entirely adjacent. But more than one judge has felt the need to break the linguistic shackles of legalese to really “tell it like it is,” about Bates.
In 2008, Bates presented himself as the stout defender of the Leeds faith, much in the way that Charles Green is currently doing so at the Rangers FC. Bates publicly opposed the Football League’s deduction of 15 points for failing to exit administration (into which they’d fallen because of an inability to pay debts run up under Bates’ chairmanship) in 2007. And he called for the resignation of the then League chairman, Sir Brian Mawhinney, and the entire board after Leeds comprehensively… er… lost the legal proceedings they took against the deduction. But Leeds had actually not only AGREED the points deduction, they had further agreed not to instigate legal proceedings against it, an agreement they reneged on. Leeds case “begins and ends with (this) agreement,” noted an FA Arbitration Panel. “The Tribunal dismisses (Leeds’) claim on this ground alone,” the Panel’s report added, with a force and rhythm which suggested they could have ended the sentence “so, f***k off.” And Mawhinney chose not to resign, preferring instead to note, correctly, that “the fact that Ken Bates personalised it on me was a distraction from the fact that (Leeds) comprehensively lost every argument. Leeds agreed to accept (a) 15 points (deduction) as a condition of playing in League One. They signed the agreement, gave their word, then immediately reneged on it. The arbitration panel were singularly unimpressed with Leeds’ behaviour.” “So f**k off,” he also could have added, but didn’t.
A year later, Bates comprehensively lost the libel case brought against him by former director Melvyn Levi, who was “gravely” libelled by a number of personal attacks Bates made upon him in his Leeds match day programme column. The full, lengthy, judgment issued by high court judge Sir Charles Gray damned Bates and his legal team at almost every turn, ruling that Bates had made “false and libellous” allegations against Levi in articles which were “riddled with material inaccuracies,” – a phrase which is legalese-lite for “a pack of lies.” And, this summer, it got personal. Bates showed either an inability or unwillingness to learn from his libel court hammering, which cost the club an estimated £1.5m in costs, on top of any awards made to Levi – something Bates may have had difficulty justifying to the club’s owners…unless he’d been lying throughout his Leeds tenure about their identities being different from, and unknown to, him. A year after his defeats, Bates made Levi the subject of further club-inspired vitriol, culminating in a series of articles and broadcasts in the Leeds programme and on the club’s in-house radio station, Yorkshire Radio, in the week before Christmas 2010.
Levi accused Bates of harassment and the case was heard before His Honour Judge Gosnell in Leeds County Court six months ago. Judge Gosnell found almost entirely against Bates. And his judgment, issued in June, caught the headlines with references to Bates’ “chilling” disregard for the feelings of those targeted by his actions. A reading of the whole judgment is more damning still of Bates. Not just Bates the financial twister. Nor just Bates the serial “mis-stater” of evidence in courts. But Bates the human being. And Bates baleful influence on those around him. Judge Gosnell’s judgment takes us through the evidence supplied by the case’s claimants and defendants in turn, with reference to evidence of others which was “relied upon” by the protagonists. Thus he gave his findings on the quality (or otherwise) of the evidence from the claimants – Melvyn Levi and his wife Carole, the defendants – Bates, Leeds United Chief Executive Shaun Harvey on behalf of both United and the club-owned Yorkshire Radio, Simon Pinkney – a “process server” from Eclipse Legal Services and Hiren Mistry – a then-associate of Jersey legal firm Sinels, who represented Leeds in legal proceedings in Jersey and instructed Eclipse to serve a writ on Levi as part of those proceedings.
Judge Gosnell wrote that he found Levi to be “a truthful witness who had been genuinely upset by the articles written, in particular the more recent history, and that his life had been very significantly affected for the worse by the whole experience.” The judge was also “impressed with (Mrs Levi) as a truthful witness.” But, the “closer” to Bates the witnesses were, the less favourable the comments. Pinkney, he noted, was “an honest and straight-forward witness and his evidence was his genuine recollection,” albeit mistaken. He found Mistry “a helpful and truthful” witness, adding the minor qualification “overall.” Harvey, Leeds’ chief executive alongside Bates as chairman, was “a somewhat defensive witness who was very reluctant to concede anything which was against the interests of the club.” And, in a subtle but key change of emphasis, Judge Gosnell added: “As a human being, however, he had the decency to look embarrassed at some of the decisions he was being forced to defend” (forced, of course, by Bates). “Decency” and “embarrassment” were not about to appear in any description of Bates “as a human being.” And before giving his findings on Bates the human, Judge Gosnell, as have so many of his legal colleagues, found that his “evidence was unreliable”.
The judge then made his “chilling” comment, in reference to Bates’ “lack of concern” about the impact of his actions on the claimants, “particularly as he must have read the medical evidence” on them. And his conclusion on Bates, though more familiar, was no less condemnatory: “It was a combative performance in the witness box, with several bad-tempered exchanges with leading counsel for the claimants.” Where Harvey had been embarrassed, Bates, the judge found, was more of an embarrassment: “At times,” he found, “he seemed more concerned with belittling and criticising Mr (Simon) Myerson (the aforementioned leading counsel) than giving convincing evidence to the court.” And the judge even dipped a toe in the waters of sarcasm, like a primary school teacher writing a report on a particularly recalcitrant pupil with his deadpan observation that “describing the questions as ‘pathetic’ and answering ‘rubbish’ on several occasions did nothing to advance his case.” Finding that Bates’ articles and Yorkshire Radio’s broadcasts were “acts of harassment… serious enough to sustain criminal liability in the event of a breach,” Judge Gosnell used terminology present in the relevant legislation, such as “oppressive and unacceptable”, and “unattractive and boorish,” a description Bates has fitted like a glove throughout his public career.
Bates, therefore, stood condemned professionally and personally. And when the judge added that “I have to assume that the harassment will stop,” you sensed he wasn’t convinced and that he felt he would have to “make whatever orders are appropriate to prevent it.” Bates’ recent condemnations of the Leeds United Supporters Trust (LUST) as “an ignorant, illiterate minority”, coupled with unsubstantiated personal attacks on LUST chairman Gary Cooper, suggests that Judge Gosnell’s scepticism was wise, and that Bates’ inabilities and/or unwillingness to learn lessons remain of an Olympian standard. Yet there is genuine hope, despite recent delays in Leeds’ takeover, that this really will be it for Bates and football. Even Bates must realise that he is strictly small-time in modern football; for all his efforts to persuade Des Kelly of the scale of his attempt to replicate his Chelsea Village “success” at Leeds, the Mail columnist still had Bates down as a “small-time property developer.” And Bates is probably too old to start a political career in the UK Independence Party (even though he might not raise the membership’s average age greatly). So there is every prospect that, soon, if you don’t want to hear Ken Bates you won’t have to.
Wisely, though, no-one dare count their proverbial chickens. Leeds fans aren’t been paranoid in expressing concerns about the snail’s pace and unclear status of current “takeover” talks. After all, when Freddie Pye was Stockport County chairman, he famously thought that “these days Ken Bates has completely lost interest in football.” And this was in 1975. But while we all know football would be better off without chancers and financial twisters like Bates, it would be better off still without the nasty, vindictive, arrogant, ignorant, heartless, unattractive and boorish Bates those who have presided over him in court have found him to be. Bates himself told Kelly in 2010 that “an ex-chairman is a nobody.” It is hard to imagine a more appropriate way for Bates to live out the rest of his life. An ex-chairman and a nobody is exactly how this dismal human being deserves to be remembered.
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