One in the eye for Sky?
The last couple of years have seen complaints that the “dumbing-down” of the BBC’s output has reached such depths that it barely produces any factual programmes any more worth watching. In particular, Panorama has come in for some sustained criticism for the apparent loss of its cutting edge.
There is probably some substance to this charge and the programme is certainly not the essential viewing it was for long periods in the 1980s. Nevertheless, it was pleasing to see that the edition of 16 May bucked the prevailing trend with a sharp and insightful report on the current state of the British football industry.
The theme of this edition was the increasingly incestuous relationship now existing between the major broadcasters of televised sport in Britain and the top Premier League football clubs. In particular, Panorama focused on the bidding process currently underway for football television rights for the next three years. With the BBC and TV now just bit-part players, the main movers and shakers are the ubiquitous Sky corporation, cable company NTL and digital television broadcasters OnDigital. Each of these corporations (or their constituent parts) have been attempting to buy large stakes in the very Premier League clubs deciding who will get the franchises.
Of course, the TV corporations have denied that there has been any ulterior motive in them buying up shares in clubs like Manchester United, Leeds and Chelsea. What the Panorama team were able to unearth was the former Sky chairman enunciating exactly what Sky’s interest in football clubs is, and – even better – a memo from NTL boldly stating that their own interest in buying shares in Premier League clubs is based on securing influence for when the commercial rights are handed out.
That major media corporations should seek to operate in such a way is no surprise to socialists of course. What was interesting, however, was the way in which Panorama pursued the theme that football is now a fully fledged industry’ and is subject to all the shenanigans and sharp practices that are commonplace in the rest of the business world, including the attempt by the big clubs to secure an oligopolistic control over soccer in the UK, systematicalIy starving the smaller clubs of cash and influence and, in some cases, becoming a law unto themselves in the pursuit of wealth, power and status.
Thankfully, Panorama decided that it would not spare the mealy-mouthed government ministers in all this. They chose well when they decided to interview Culture Secretary Chris Smith, putting to him the evidence they had collected about the way soccer in Britain is now run. His answers were a master-class in how to appear sympathetic about a problem while at the same time having no intention whatsoever to actually do anything about it. Smith was very “concerned” and “worried” about what was going on but said that he had no real powers to act so long as the companies kept within the minimum regulations laid down by what used to be called the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
This is, of course, true enough, but what he didn’t mention was that there is no serious possibility that the government is going to take on a major media multinational with unparalleled influence such as the one owned by Rupert Murdoch. Furthermore, the government is hardly likely to go out of its way to undermine the Premier League chairmen and chief executives, men (and they are nearly all men) who they’ve been working hand-in-glove with ever since they’ve been elected. These are the people who have presided over a situation whereby the correlation between wealth and league position is closer than it has ever been, while ticket prices for the ordinary fans have rocketed through the roof and the game has become the tacky, commercialised free-for-all it always threatened to be.
Sadly, the Panorama team stopped short of linking the Labour government’s attitude to the business of football to its wider view of the economy and society as a whole. If it had, it would have been able to make the point that an industry where the few receive copious wealth at the expense of the majority, where riches attract even more riches on a systematic basis and where the powerful can make up many of the rules as they go along is entirely in keeping with the business ethics of capitalism, the ethics which are very much the Labour Party’s own.