The healthy obsession Labour MP Tom Watson has with the fall of Rupert Murdoch, son James, and the News Corporation media group has deflected attention away from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee’s recently-published report on football governance. And this is probably a plus. The report’s thirty-four recommendations were not chock full of surprises. Matt Scott noted that they were “as predicted in the Guardian” in his article heralding the report’s publication on July 29th. But my new-born Irish second cousin could probably have matched the Guardian’s success rate, with the possible exception of the committee preferring a ‘streamlined’ new FA Board to a ‘representative’ one.
It is what happens from now until sports minister Hugh Robertson delivers his verdict in the ‘autumn’ which will determine the fate of the report and its recommendations. And here is where Watson and the Murdochs may end up doing football a favour – the game, not the current bloated, self-interested, financially-ruinous leadership of it. Fears that the committee’s collective focus will have been damagingly taken from football are not entirely founded. The ‘stars’ of the committee, when the Murdochs appeared before it last month, were Watson and Louise Mensch (nee Bagshawe). And neither were much more use than a chocolate teapot when the committee was questioning football’s great, good and Dave Richards.
As I noted at the time, Watson’s contribution to the football hearings amounted to a couple of hit-and-run questions about whether a particular witness had their phone hacked (PFA chair Gordon Taylor the most significant, as we now know). While Bagshawe/Mensch came across as not interested in football at all and even semi-botched the rehearsed questions with which she pre-empted the far better-informed probing by Tory colleague Louise Coffey. I politely suggested that the strengths of those who had played minimal roles lay elsewhere in the wide DCMS brief. It seems they were. That said, it might have been very instructive for Premier League chiefs Richards and Richard Scudamore to have been questioned by Watson in the manner in which he questioned the Murdochs.
Watson focused on the faux-doddery but certainly less well-briefed Rupert and repelled son James’s repeated efforts to step in, with the mantra “I’ll come to you in a minute,” noting, correctly, that Rupert’s alleged ignorance was “informative in itself.” For Rupert and James, read Richards and Scudamore, as the EPL’s smooth chief executive consistently dragged Richards’ foot away from his mouth and kept some heavy-duty ignorance under wraps. This ignorance would have been very “informative in itself” too, with the added bonus of seeing Scudamore’s reaction to being told “I’ll come to you in a minute.”
But with Watson largely absent from the football hearings, the major drivers of the report, to judge by their contributions to those hearings, were Tory MPs Damian Collins and Coffey, alongside Labour’s Paul Farrelly – about the only committee member at the forefront of the questioning of the Murdochs and the football witnesses. Although select committees are designed to produce a cross-party consensus on the advice they give to ministers (in line with the parties’ respective sizes in the House of Commons), it can’t but be helpful that Tory MPs Collins and Coffey were so much to the fore. Collins’ questioning and his reaction to many of the answers he received may have helped football’s cause too.
There is something anomalous about relying on a Conservative minister in a Conservative-led coalition government to force one of the nation’s prime examples of free-market ‘success’ to succumb to extensive regulation – especially financial regulation. But Collins’ genuine disbelief and incomprehension at the evidence he was getting from football people screams from the report’s 116 pages. He reserved particular incomprehension for the ownership ‘situation’ at Leeds United, which was highlighted and somewhat unfavourably name-checked in the report’s summary. “There is no more blatant an example of lack of transparency than the recent ownership history of Leeds United,” it declared, while the full report noted that Leeds chairman, a chap by the name of Bates, “said he was unable to attend” the hearings – the clear implication being that this too was the subject of disbelief.
The report even dared to mention the almost-unmentionable, that there were “concerns, which cannot be substantiated or disproven given the lack of transparency, that Ken Bates, who took (Leeds) into administration, was a participant in the discretionary trusts who took the club out of administration.” Bates’ response made the following relevant points: “………” But the committee’s desire to see such situations investigated demonstrated both its strength and weakness. Strength in prioritising the right issues, weakness in knowledge and understanding of their history. The suggestion that HMRC be enlisted to help investigate was odd in itself. And it also overlooked the determined Financial Services Authority investigation into the same ownership tangle at Chelsea when Bates was chairman there – an investigation Bates withstood.
If this report is not to go the way of that FSA investigation and so many football reports before it, there will have to be more reliance on legislation (and not just the threat of it) than the committee might wish. The report’s summary and recommendations both concluded that “almost all our recommendations…can be achieved through agreement… and without legislation.” This may be true. However, bitter experience, including that of the All-Party Parliamentary Football Group on two separate occasions, suggests something even stronger will be needed than a recommendation that “the Government consider introducing legislation.” As “writer and consultant” Dave Boyle noted in the Guardian newspaper: “it needs to be a real threat…as there is every chance (the Government’s) bluff would be called.”
The EPL’s refusal to comment on the report until the minister responds is a sign that they know they’d lose out in open debate, just as they did at the hearings, and that they will have to rely as in the past on behind-the-scenes lobbying and strategically-placed press briefings to undermine the committee and its report. Just as at the hearings, the committee’s near-contempt for some of Scudamore’s arguments is clear in the report. “His bottom line, though, was to defend the integrity of the (Premier League) over non-preferential creditors,” it says of Scudamore’s arguments for the football creditors’ rule – phraseology which spits out “not impressed.”
Scudamore’s pleas that the EPL rulebook was a sufficient licensing system were swatted away by reference to the “disjointed nature of the English governance system.” And the report also threw a few Scudamore phrases back in his face, especially when recommending that the FA should be “more than” the “association of interests” Scudamore had dismissively suggested. So the next few weeks will surely see a concerted campaign against the committee and its report. With the committee in News International’s sights as well, for rather more important reasons if truth be told, those in the game who wish to see the report’s recommendations implemented will have to be vigilant.
Certain fixes already appear to be in. The suggestion has already been floated that the welter of written evidence submitted to the committee went largely unread by many members of it. And it was a surprise to see otherwise excellent journo Nick Harris parrot an anti-committee line on his otherwise excellent website Sporting Intelligence. Yet the report quotes extensively from the written evidence, particularly from both supporters’ trusts and individual supporters – in chapters on debt and club ownership as well as the more obvious section on supporter representation. And this also trumps Harris’s disingenuous point about the committee giving only “5% attention to football fans’ concerns,” based on the time given to supporters’ reps during the oral hearings.
So the next few weeks, until sports minister Robertson delivers his verdict, will be key to English football’s future for reasons more important than where Joey Barton will disrupt dressing-room harmony next or how Andreas Villas-Boas settles in Cobham. The select committee report, like so many before it, is dripping with common sense. It has the advantages over its predecessors of a wider breadth of support from its wider range of consultations. And it comes into a general environment more favourable to the idea that football governance stinks and that the EPL is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. These advantages need to be hammered home, though, and an eye needs to be constantly kept out for the EPL at work, behind the scenes, trying to stave off progress (yet) again.
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