Plenty of contributors
to Arsenal fans websites have cited the many instances
of injustice the team have suffered at the hands of
journalists. Even the manager has noticed it. I take
it as read that I'm preaching to the converted when
I say that the club do not receive favourable treatment
by the press. But is there a greater reason for caring
if the daily fishpaper, or Sky Sports News, keep having
a pop out our beloved club, other than simple loyalty?
I think there is.
Britain's political chattering classes are still
enamoured of the David Kelly story because it may
be the first chink in the armour of the New Labour
project. As an Arsenal fan I see it as more evidence
of a phenomenon that we should be very worried about
indeed. It might not appear to have much to do with
football, but I'd like you to hear me out.
Alistair Campbell went after the BBC on this occasion
because he thought they'd made an error that he could
exploit. They had attacked the government (fairly
in many people's opinion) on the casus belli: the
reasoning behind the second gulf war. In doing so
they exercised their right to protect a source - one
who claimed that the document justifying Iraq's chemical
and biological arsenal was a threat to Britain was
fabricated to look make that threat look more frightening
than it really was. Mr Kelly's death was unfortunate
and very sad, but the story itself appears to be one
of those arguments that should have just gone away.
That it wasn't ignored by Downing St, who instead
had their spin-meister general on full advance, surprised
people in the mainstream media. But the real chink
in the chain mail that has been exposed by this is
not a slight dent in the impressively impervious metalled
torso of Tony Blair. Rather it is the inherent precariousness
of the public service broadcaster that we all know
and love and pay a licence fee to.
What we get in return for our licence fee (and sometimes
it doesn't seem like a very great deal) is a national
media outlet that is supposedly untouched by corporatism.
Its new chief, DG Greg Dyke, is a populist and has
a background in the commercial television sector,
and may well have been appointed to get Auntie to
put on an apron and serve out front in the shop. But
things haven't moved fast enough for some people.
The reason is; the corporate world doesn't like the
idea that there is a major media power out there that
it can't control.
Don't believe me? Listen to this. In Ben Bagdikians
book The Media Monopoly, written back in 1983, he
noted that 50 corporations controlled the majority
of the media in the United States. By the second edition
of his book it was 28, third edition only 23. By the
fourth edition a mere 14 corporations were in charge;
and only 10 corporations by the fifth edition. The
latest 2000 edition cites the control of the greater
part of the various media in the US as being in the
hands of only 6 corporations.
As far as television news reporting is concerned;
Disney controls CNN and ABC, NBC is controlled by
General Electric and Fox News is owned and controlled
by Rupert Murdoch's News International Group ą a gigantic
media conglomerate. So almost all of the news in America
is now managed by a tiny handful of very powerful
business interests. Around the world they are joined
by AOL Time Warner, Vivendi, AT&T, Viacom, Bertelsman,
Liberty and Sony.
The media relies on advertising to remain viable
(you only have to look at the cover price of the Times,
the number of copies they circulate, and how much
you think you'd have to pay a good writer, to figure
it out). In a single day Americans are exposed to
12 billion display ads, 3 billion radio ads and 200,000
TV ads. That costs a lot, but it is obviously worth
it. Consumption in the US today has increased by half
as much again compared to the 1970's. 5% of the worlds
population consumes 30% of its resources; a period
coinciding with the increased power of media in all
its forms to reach every last one of us.
But why spend money on advertising and toss your
product into that maelstrom and hope that it comes
out a winner, when you can control the media itself
and give your corporate interests an advantage? Coca
Cola insists that its adverts are never placed alongside
hard news, sex, political issues and anything to do
with dieting. It usually gets its own way. That level
of influence is now common to many other global corporates.
Well, why not go one stage further.
If a corporate owns a media outlet, there are all
kinds of opportunities available for cross selling
and promotion and significant economies to be made
into the bargain. Why pay for an ad for a product
when you can plug it for free in editorial? And if
the global corporate is already a media conglomerate,
why diversify into areas where your strength in the
media can give a leg up to other parts of your portfolio?
It all makes perfect sense.
In the midst of all this theorising it might seem
flippant to grumble about football coverage. Hell,
millions are dying of starvation or live under the
jackboot of political oppression. Cosy middle class
gripes about Arsenal not getting a fair shake in the
press are frankly pathetic. But sports ownership by
media is actually a very useful way of understanding
how, when more power is in the hands of less people,
the little guys always suffer.
Only 3 of the top 10 media giants have any sports
ownership credentials. Disney has its own Hockey team,
the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (no, me neither). AOL
Time Warner part-own all three Atlanta Sports teams.
And then there's BskyB, part of News International
that owns 50% of Australian Rugby League, the Dodgers,
20% of the Rangers and the Knicks, valuable options
on the Kings and the Lakers, oh, and a significant
shareholding in some outfit called Manchester United.
Down the scale the relaxed situation in Britain allows
for major media shareholdings in sports clubs (NTL
in Newcastle and Aston Villa, Granada in Arsenal etc).
Okay so far, but BskyB proposed a takeover of Manchester
United last year and NTL tried out a merger with the
Magpies for size. Both were rejected but in the MMC's
discussion of why the Red Devils couldn't be wholly
a part of the Murdoch empire they pointed out Sky's
own current domination of premiership football coverage
and the fact that it is nearly impossible for new
entrants to challenge them.
Manchester United's only market is football (especially
now Beckham has gone). What the MMC were saying is
that Sky already monopolise sports media and Manchester
United are already dominant in their market. Therefore
a merger between the two would be to the detriment
of every other club in Britain. So far every attempted
sports/media marriage has fallen foul of competition
Only the Man U/Murdoch match-up though was a real
society wedding, every other proposal was a registry
office job with a buffet lunch reception down the
Dog and Duck by comparison. Now Manchester United
can counter that because the merger failed we all
have nothing to worry about, even more so because
they have their own pay-tv channel on satellite (as
do Chelsea) free, so I'm told, from Sky interference.
Well, the main problem is that BskyB still hold those
shares and didn't flog them when the MMC went all
shy. Why bother keeping up the ownership of Man U
if the door to outright hegemony has been shut? The
reason is that their investment is a good one. And
it's one that they can still cause to improve in value
with minimal effort. It is well known that if you
tell someone something often enough they believe it,
and that you can sow a seed of doubt into almost any
belief. The modern media can influence just about
anything. They can get court cases abandoned, lose
high profile people their jobs, influence public opinion
in an election, incite a riot.
How hard would it be to simply push the interests
of one football club and encourage the vilification
of one of its rivals (especially if that particular
rival has a habit of gift wrapping ammunition for
you to use). That The Times and The Sun, The Sunday
Times and The News of the World are also owned by
the same corporation means that it is possible to
put a story on to Britain's most watched news program
,most watched sports channel, most read tabloid and
most respected broadsheet. Basically if you want the
country's sports loving public to know something,
they are in an almost unequalled position to tell
them for you.
So what of Auntie Beeb? After all they have squandered
most of their sports coverage for a mess or potage
and now only show the odd Audley Harrison fight and
a bit of athletics. The BBC, however, is the only
major media organisation not to be accountable to
OFCOM, the office of fair trade established to regulate
the media. The BBC, much to its rivals disgust, escapes
the regulator because of its state ownership. Many
in the media and in government would like to see that
rectified, ironically using the arguments of fairness
and a level playing field.
The BBC's charter is to be reviewed in 2006. Also
they are advert free, everyone who owns a television
has to pay them money and there is still, despite
the advent of digital television, an insistence that,
in the national interest, our national teams efforts
are broadcast on terrestrial channels. The game is
already afoot to ensure that Auntie looks anachronistic,
haughty and biased. Traditionally a left wing artistic
tendency has been quite apparent within the Corporation.
This is probably the last stronghold, unless the unions
re-emerge, of any kind of militancy in British political
life. And that militancy is utterly opposed to privatisation.
Once the BBC goes what is to stop ever increasing
contraction of media ownership into the hands of a
few ever more powerful players. And where else will
the hand of major media business diversify?
What this all means for Arsenal is that the club
are second fiddle to United in the press as well as
on the playing field. Any majorly successful club
will attract a certain amount of disapprobation but
only one now has all the means to counter the natural
antipathy of the have-nots. Being second only to United
means we are nearly as hated by the little guy as
them. Being about 5th (and thatĒs a seriously long
way back) behind them in income means we struggle
to compete for players and lack the capital to develop
- making us a kind of big little guy ourselves. But
being seriously disadvantaged in the popular press
has the capacity to ruin Arsenal football club. I
mean that sincerely.
Ashburton Grove is yet to be built because of a struggle
to find private finance when the option of public
funding is staring them in the face. But could Arsenal
ever risk becoming a public company - our stock performance
would be whimsical, bordering on erratic at the first
decent broadside from The Sun. The clubs dealings
with the press and supporters alike is opaque to say
the least. At least, in private hands, the club can
shrug off the press by keeping as much as possible
behind closed doors. As a strategy it works - just
about. The private lives of the manager and a number
of the players have been the subject of scandalous
conjecture, their imminent move to a new stadium fraught
with accusations of bullying of the locals, bodging
of the financing, unrest among the contractors.
They exhibited abject timidity in the transfer markets
biggest ever bumper British summer, and they choked
on the league title yet again. There are disciplinary
problems that are painted redder than they really
are, exacerbated by trials by video from the FA, where
Arsenal players are consistently the most significant
It's nothing less than a litany. Being a big club
who play cards behind a hat, a wig and sunglasses
may serve to increase rumour mongering, in and of
itself. And our stars are attractive, marketable and
interesting (if distinctly behind the pack in off-field
antics). But as a fan I have never known a time when
more media pressure was heaped on a club who are really
not a lot different from the rest of the premiership
herd. What really makes us stand out is that we are
currently the only club in Britain with a track record
of seriously thwarting the ambitions of Manchester
And for that, I think, someone up there has decided
we have to pay.