Birmingham City’s still-acting chairman Peter Pannu recently dismissed Birmingham City supporter protests as something of a norm for English football. More of a norm for English football, however, is Pannu’s sense of self-worth, which is only matched by whoever is responsible for paying him £400,000 a year for his role at the football club. And attached to this heightened sense of self among certain personalities in English football is a heightened sensitivity to criticism, which almost appears to be directly proportional to the justification FOR that criticism.
Pannu, lest we forget, has been Birmingham City’s senior and best-paid executive during a period of considerable on-and-off-field decline at the club. It is tempting to suggest that if Pannu was on some form of performance-related pay, Blues’ debt problems would be considerably eased at a stroke. Instead, Pannu seems unperturbed at the prospect of adding to club expenditure by involving the club’s lawyers in a rather pointless spat with the Blues fan website Often Partisan (OP). OP is written by Blues fan Daniel Ivery, whose work in covering former club benefactor Carson Yeung’s recent trial on money-laundering charges was hugely comprehensive and informative, right up to Yeung’s conviction last week on all five money-laundering offences with which he was charged and his sentencing to six years in prison. Ivery even travelled to Hong Kong on a number of occasions to report on the trial and speak to a number of people connected to the case and the Blues’ parent company Birmingham International Holdings (BIH).
In a telephone interview with Birmingham local radio journalist Tom Ross last month, Pannu spoke of the media’s responsibilities to educate Blues’ fans on club issues. And any reasoned observer would assume that Pannu had OP in mind when he said this, as Ivery’s work has been the most educative on club issues, especially, though not exclusively, on both Yeung’s trial and the complexities of BIH finance and governance. Pannu, of course, meant nothing of the sort. He merely wants fans to be “educated” in how wonderful Peter Pannu is. And OP has been unable to do this, simply due to lack of evidence. Instead, OP has been one of many sources of criticism of Pannu, with Ivery persistently attempting to hold Pannu to account for the exorbitant-looking salary he has been paid as BIH boss and football club director.
Pannu has on occasion let slip his irritation at this questioning, and that of the Guardian newspaper’s David Conn. But the recent step-up in intensity of fans’ campaigns against Yeung’s and Pannu’s regime has finally either tried his patience too far or given him what he sees as his first opportunity to strike back. As is all-too-often the case with websites of all descriptions, the OP comments section has housed rather more “direct” criticisms than come from those who blog with reason and the law in mind. And Ivery has more than once had cause to warn supporters to steer clear of potentially defamatory and/or libellous comments. On March 11th, Ivery advised readers that the comments section was to be closed. “I had previously warned people,” he wrote, “unless they were more careful in what they said and the manner in which they said it, that comments would have to be turned off permanently. As this has not happened, I can no longer allow comments on the website.”
Twenty-four hours later, Ivery detailed a disturbing turn of events which explained his timing. In a statement which can be read in full on Often Partisan, he revealed that club lawyers had wanted a word with him about the site and “in particular, comments that were considered defamatory towards…Pannu.” Whether the words “in particular” were necessary is a matter for debate. But they had a more specific concern which involved the previously unheralded offence of “incitement to an alleged criminally offensive banner being displayed.”
Regular readers may be aware that Blues’ fan protests at the Yeung regime have rallied round the slogan “Delay No More.” This has served as a specific instruction to Yeung and his associates to sell the club pronto, despite resembling the slightly pompous phraseology Pannu uses in his none-too-rare moments of high self-confidence. The origin of the phrase, in relation to City, can be traced back to an OP article, which was published last October 27th, called Postcards from HK: Delay No More. And Blues’ lawyers “advised” Ivery that said, five-month-old, article was the afore-mentioned “incitement” to allegedly criminal banner-ing.
Ivery, unsurprisingly, strongly denied the allegation, even before disputing the alleged banner crime, fervently downplaying his influence over City supporters by suggesting that it was “insulting” to them “that they are alleged…to follow me in such a sheep-like fashion.” He wondered, too, why “it has taken until now” for such sledgehammer-on-nut action, especially as “I have had contact with lawyers representing the club in that time.” Perhaps more sinisterly, Ivery was “asked if the club could see a copy of the book I am writing about Carson Yeung, prior to publication.” He clearly believes the lawyers should buy their own copy like everyone else, having “referred” this request “to my co-author Will Giles, who is a solicitor in Hong Kong” (handily, I would suggest) and “has agreed with me in declining the request.”
Ivery’s statement ended with a suitably bullish “I will not be intimidated into silence by people who are unhappy when information is brought to the public eye,” and he was “amazed that” a club as cash-strapped as Blues, “and Peter Pannu in particular,” could “believe that spending money on a costly lawyer coming to Birmingham to speak to me…is more effective than…a simple email requesting information.” For a writer as reasoned, reasonable and careful as Ivery, this was strong stuff; indicative of an irritation even Pannu might struggle to match. And Ivery is right to be so irked, even though there is a second side and context to this tale which explains at least some of Pannu’s thinking.
The OP article which has caused all the legal fuss explained the reasoning behind the “Delay No More” slogan. Ivery was interviewed by the Cantonese press after one of Yeung’s 50-odd days in court and was asked if he “had a message for” the Blues largest individual shareholder. He did: “Delay no more, Carson, sell the club.” But, as he admitted – perhaps unwisely in hindsight, Ivery had “an ulterior motive for what I said” which “probably doesn’t show me in the best light.” “Delay No More”, he explained, “is the tagline for a brand of clothing in Hong Kong,” which the firm Goods of Desire use because it sounds like the Cantonese phrase “diu lei lo mo” which “roughly is used in Hong Kong” as…well…something really rather rude which roughly rhymes with ‘duck stew.’ A sort of French Connection UK (FCUK) for South China…-ish.
“Thus,” Ivery added – again unwisely, and extremely clumsily – “when my quote is printed in English, people (in Hong Kong) will understand the double meaning of what I said, even if I potentially didn’t mean it.” Unfortunately, the quote seemingly wasn’t “printed in English” on one of the banners on show during the first widespread “Delay No More” demonstrations, at Birmingham’s home game with Derby on February 1st. One particular person in Hong Kong, Pannu, understood the double meaning…and seemingly took it to have a single, “allegedly criminally offensive” meaning. The article overall was as scrupulously fair as Daniel always is. He acknowledged that Yeung brought the best of times to Blues – the 2011 Carling Cup triumph – as well as the worst of times. And he stressed that “I don’t want to protest against the staff in Birmingham.”
But he was all-too-right when he said it was important for the Cantonese press to “understand the strength of feeling” in Birmingham and when he “figured this was the best way to get that across.” He was “assured by the (Cantonese) media that they would pick up on a banner in Cantonese shown in the crowd,” assurance to which club lawyers added this week. And his parting thought was “If people want a tagline for a protest, ‘Delay No More’ would be a good one,” which arguably gave lie to his suggestion that Blues fans were being mindlessly “sheeplike.”
Yet there was a sense from Ivery’s reportage that the lawyers were less than 100% enthused by Pannu’s instructions, especially when asking Ivery to be “more ‘mindful’ in what I write on the site“, which smacked of a less-than-adversarial “look, just be careful, eh?” Especially as they would know how “mindful” he is if they had read anything he’s written. And the bottom line here is just as it is with most events involving Blues still-acting chairman. Surely Pannu has better, more important – and cheaper – things to do than hire expensive lawyers to defend his self-esteem. And if he hasn’t, for what is he being paid £400,000-a-year? That question may continue to irritate Pannu. But the answers continue to irritate everyone else.
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