A FULL COURT PRESS

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 law.

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 defendants.

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 United.

And for that, I think, someone up there has decided we have to pay.

 


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