‘Parliamentary privilege’ is fascinating. It essentially means that members of parliament can say what they like in parliament without fear of an action for defamation. And in such a context, the prospect of Ken Bates appearing before the current parliamentary select committee on football governance was enticing in the extreme. Bates didn’t make it. This was not because he was afraid that, in the absence of defamation protection, MPs might expose of any dodgy dealing surrounding the ownership of Leeds United – because there has been absolutely none of that whatsoever while Bates has been at the club (blogs and defamation have a different legal relationship). It was because he had bronchitis, a near fatal condition for someone so fond of speaking.
In contrast, Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn clearly said too much when he let slip last month that the Premier League had appointed a specialist law firm to root out potentially dodgy club bidders before they could dodgily bid. Yet the assembled parliamentarians didn’t feel privileged enough to react when it was revealed that transparency around this appointment might lead to the Premier League being sued. No-one felt privileged enough to ask “why’s that, then?” or “blimey, what has this firm been up to?” And a chance to put the Premier League’s true ownership policy under rigorous scrutiny was lost.
Thus far, though, the committee has taken most of its chances to get required information from its witnesses; even though the exchanges between MPs and football people such as former FA chief executive Ian Watmore or Stoke City’s impossibly young-looking equivalent Tony Scholes have lacked the intensity some observers would like. That criticism hasn’t just come from predictable sources such as the Mail’s Martin Samuel, whose contempt for parliamentarians has, not unusually, outweighed his desire to get his facts straight about the inquiry.
But witnesses aren’t defendants in a court case, facing prosecution counsel. No-one is on trial, whatever many may feel about witnesses such as former FA leaders such as Watmore and Lord Triesman. Nor is this the Iraq or the Bloody Sunday inquiry, where possible past misdemeanours are scrutinised in an attempt to apportion responsibility and blame. One discussion did develop relatively excitingly into a courtroom-esque battle, with Damian Collins MP an impressive prosecutor in the case of the “football creditors rule” – guaranteeing football debt repayment in club insolvency events – arguing with ‘defendants’ that clubs would be more careful about their expenditure if they didn’t receive the repayment guarantees offered by the rule.
The select committee’s inquiry is an exercise in fact-finding, diagnosing problems and teasing suggested solutions from witnesses. And final judgement on the committee’s performance should wait until it produces its report, after it has finished its public sessions later this month. And until the Premier League finally gives evidence this week, possibly as you are reading this. But so far, the exercise has worked. The committee has five Conservative, five Labour and one Liberal Democrat member. And there has been a consistent pattern to their performances. The most forensic questioners have been Tories Dr Therese Coffey and Collins, alongside Labour’s Paul Farrelly. Working class solidarity has come from Labour’s utterly deadpan Jim Sheridan. Directionless ramblings have been provided by ‘Labour co-operative’ member Alan Keen, the all-party parliamentary football group chair (this committee’s chair is Tory John Whittingdale). And Labour’s Tom Watson has randomly appeared to ask witnesses whether their phones have been hacked… then disappeared. Whittingdale initially asked, quite reasonably, what this had to do with the inquiry. Bereft of a sensible answer, he has since let Watson continue, while various witnesses have just smiled and moved on.
There’s been a pattern to the answers too. Witnesses appear almost contractually-obliged to call the Premier League a magnificent success story. Or, to be more precise, “a magnificent success story but…’. This was no better illustrated than by FA general secretary, Alex Horne. Having fulfilled his “Premier League is wonderful” remit, Horne responded to a four-and-a-half-minute question from Keen (succinct, for him) about the inadequacy of the league’s financial contributions to the ‘grassroots’ by remembering that Premier League clubs were not making any money. This fundamental contradiction has been lost on all but a few football observers since the TV money started to really boom in the mid-1990s. And it was lost here, as was the room’s collective focus – and maybe even consciousness – as Keen (r)ambled on.
Other key contradictions came during the session in Burnley. The first witnesses were club representatives from Burnley, Crewe, Exeter and, from Leeds, Ken Bates’ representative on Planet Earth, chief executive Shaun Harvey. Harvey’s well-publicised ignorance about the personal identities of Leeds’ ultimate beneficial owners dominated his contribution and were as unconvincing on camera as they appeared in various newspaper reports. “True, accurate and also rather uninformative,” noted Whittingdale, correctly. Harvey joined a consensus on other issues, notably the football creditors rule. Harvey and Burnley chairman Barry Kilby also agreed about supporters place in football’s governance. Harvey saw no place at all. Kilby suggested boards made tough decisions, implying that fans had neither the will nor the finance and trustworthiness required.
All these arguments were systematically refuted by the Football Supporters Federation’s Malcolm Clarke and Supporters Direct’s Dave Boyle in the session immediately following. Clarke criticised the “patronising caricature of fans, some of which we heard in the previous session.” Boyle compared clubs’ relations with supporters were “redolent of an Edwardian marriage where the wife would not be told her husband’s salary because those matters were not for her,” suggesting that Kilby’s views in particular were from the same era, perhaps unaware that Kilby had slipped into the press seats behind him. Boyle’s and Clarke’s evidence, alongside that of the Federation’s Stephen Powell, was detailed, coherent and well-considered – the antithesis of most everything Kilby had suggested. And when it was suggested that supporter-ownership models might not be credible, Boyle noted that “the investor-owned model has some serious flaws with 81 insolvencies since 1986,” adding that it was hard to know if investors were credible when “you don’t even know who they are.”
The witnesses, thus far, largely seem to accept that the FA’s problems are based on the sectional make-up of the FA Board, although whether this consensus will survive the Premier League’s evidence is unclear, given that the critics have mainly suggested that the Premier League is the main beneficiary of this sectionalism. The board consists of the ‘independent’ chairman, the chief executive (now ‘general secretary’), five members from the ‘professional game’ (the Premier and Football Leagues), five from the ‘national’ game (top non-league football downwards) and consistent representation from groups such as players, managers, supporters, referees and minorities – i.e. none whatsoever. This lack of representation from players particularly vexed Professional Football Association chief Graham Taylor – one man who, allegedly, could have said ‘yes’ to Watson’s phone-tapping question but chose to follow Whittingdale in wondering what it had to do with football governance. And Richard Bevan from the League Managers Association felt much the same about managers, even though he shook considerably less than Taylor when he said so.
Concerns about, and some downright objections to, this extra representation largely centred on the size of board this would require. This was a curious objection, you might think, from people who quite merrily praised the FA Council, the second level of FA ‘management’, and the ‘excellent’ work done by its ONE… HUNDRED… AND… FOURTEEN members. That’s 114. And supporters of this factional make-up of the FA’s board unwittingly highlighted the problems in some of their answers. Roger Burdon, a National Game representative on the FA Board, was asked one question by Farrelly and was in the process of brushing it aside as not part of his remit when Farrelly reminded him that he was a member of the FA Board and that the question was quite reasonably directed to him in that role. It was just as if, as Malcolm Clarke noted in his evidence some weeks earlier, Burdon and colleagues only attended FA Board meetings as delegates from their respective areas of, and interests in, the game, rather than as policy-makers for the whole of the game.
Among the often quite dry minutiae of the discussions were some fascinating insights into certain minds. Stoke chairman Peter Coates was concerned with the implementation of Uefa’s financial fair play initiative. “I want it to apply to Italy and Spain just as rigorously,” he said. Because you know what these dodgy foreigners are like. “Our Premier League will apply it,” noted Scholes confidently, which might be news to many in the league still awaiting the debate. “Our concern and our request is that every other country throughout Europe does the same.” Because you know what these dodgy foreigners are like. Jim Sheridan MP looked straight into the eyes of Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill and asked “Is it unhealthy or bad practice for the player and the manager to have the same agent?” O’Neill answered: “Yes, absolutely,” a view he is believed to have come to since he sold his shares in Proactive, a football agency he shared with a number of…players. And Manchester United chief executive David Gill put his club’s detractors in their place by pointing out that United’s net transfer spend was larger under the Glazer family’s ownership than it had been in the previous five years. One in the eye for all the critics of foreign owners and leveraged buy-outs… if only it had been true.
As hinted at earlier, the Mail newspaper’s Martin Samuel has been at the vanguard of the inquiry’s critics, with his traditional combination of MP-character-assassinating (Watson) and misrepresenting evidence (Triesman’s and Watmore’s). He also noted, apparently in relation to the FA’s non-diversity, that the last two FA Chairmen have been 67-year-old Jews. To be fair to Samuel, he has had a lot of right-wing trash to spew recently. He appears to have given up research for Lent (read his criticism of Ireland’s rugby captain Andrew Trimble on March 23rd for details on both). And his criticism of some evidence as “telling the MPs what they want to hear” has credibility. The committee has reportedly already had specific thoughts on football legislation, even to the point of giving their thoughts a name, the “Football Governance and Major Events Act”, for which the Guardian’s Matt Scott claims “parliamentary time” has already “been set aside.”
This suggests that the inquiry has been largely for show and that MPs have prejudged the issue of football governance, especially as the Premier League has yet to give oral evidence. But at regular intervals since about 1999, these governance issues have arisen, parliamentarians have gathered evidence and drawn the same conclusions that seem likely to emerge from this inquiry’s report. And only now have these conclusions threatened to be the basis of legislation, as this inquiry refuses to be cowed by misleading suggestions that Fifa would oppose such government interference.
So, will the FA be restored as the actual, rather than theoretical, governing body of English football? Will sensible financial practice and scrutiny be the order of the day in the future? Sadly, the key question might still be “will the Premier League stand for it?” Their evidence will tell that tale. I suspect Dave Richards has been tearing ‘his’ hair out in frustration at having to wait for his say. And under the cover of parliamentary privilege, his say could be very interesting indeed.
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