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In case anyone else is wondering what to write, here's my full submission. I have structured it so that it contains the main points but my overall message is that it cannot be in the public interest for a media organisation to control ANY sport:

David Peel Esq.
Reference Secretary
Monopolies and Mergers Commission
New Court
48 Carey Street
London WC2A 2JT

BSkyB - Manchester United Football Club PLC - Proposed Acquisition

Dear Mr. Peel

The purpose of this letter is to outline the reasons why in my opinion the aforementioned acquisition :-

  1. Constitutes Unfair, Monopolistic Trading.
  2. Is not in the Public Interest.

I will state first of all that I am a supporter of Manchester United, and have been for some 32 years. I believe, however, that my arguments would be the same irrespective of my allegiance.

1. Unfair and Monopolistic Trading

  1. Assuming that the forthcoming investigation of the BSkyB-Premier League contract reveals no grounds for further action, the next time the League Clubs sit down to negotiate with BSkyB one party will be represented on both sides of the negotiating table. It could be argued that Manchester United have only one vote, but in reality the Premier League would not be nearly as lucrative without Manchester United due to them being by far the largest club in terms of support. It surely must be an unfair trading situation for BSkyB to sit on one side of the table negotiating television deals with football clubs, especially those in the Premier League, then at the same time be sitting on the other side of the table, as owners of the biggest football club in Europe, negotiating TV deals for or against itself.

  2. BSkyB would, if they so chose, hold a total monopoly on the coverage of Manchester United games on television. Viewing figures from recent European matches demonstrate that an extremely large proportion of the football viewing population wants to watch Manchester United - it could be argued well in excess of 25%. Despite (not legally-binding in any way) promises by BSkyB, there would be nothing to stop them making all Manchester United games pay-per-view and charging whatever the market would bear. It could be argued that Manchester United on their could do the same, with or without BSkyB. However, the difference is that the money the fans paid to watch the game would stay within the club (less relatively small shareholder dividends) rather than (effectively) disappear into an off-shore subsidiary of NewsCorp.

  3. Currently the money Sky put into football, based on appearances and League table merit, is open to fair competition This competition would be open to distortion if one of the recipients was owned by the promoters. Furthermore, subscriber money (after BSkyB's healthy profit) is currently passed onto the clubs and is used to finance the game. If BSkyB owned Manchester United, it would effectively be passing supporters' hard-earned money on to itself.

  4. Rupert Murdoch's pay satellite television is already an unfair competitor to both ITV and the BBC. ITV companies have to be awarded franchises and satisfy the adjudicators, to ensure they will act in the public interest. The BBC charter insists on this too. Yet. Mr Murdoch's terms of satellite pay TV appear to have no such restrictions, which gives him a very unfair advantage. This deal would exaggerate the situation even further.

2. Not in the Public Interest

The reasons for the deal not being in the Public Interest fall into two distinct categories:-

  1. The unacceptable situation regarding the ownership of sporting clubs by commercial media organisations.
  2. The identity of (who controls) this particular media organisation.

2.1. Unacceptable Ownership

I have several points to make regarding why it is not in the public interest generally for a media organisation to own any large sporting club - let alone the 'jewel in the crown' of our national sport, and what could happen if the takeover were allowed to proceed:-

  1. Football is a competitive sport. Public interest in the sport depends on it being competitive. When the public watch 'their team' that is exactly what they are doing - watching a team paid for by supporters (even Jack Walker, who owns and bankrolls Blackburn Rovers is a supporter). If a football club is just another part of a commercial media organisation, people are quite literally no longer watching 'their team'. Football ceases to be the sport the public loves, and in effect they are watching a version of WWF with a ball. Powerful commercial media organisations owning/controlling major football clubs takes away the real meaning from the game.

  2. Football is not just another product like a soap-powder, car or washing machine. It is part of our national heritage and culture - the people's game. In the words of Lord Justice Taylor in the Hillsborough report at para 10), "Football is our national game. We gave it to the world." In 1990 it is estimated that half the population - 26 million people - watched England play West Germany in the World Cup semi-final.

    The main motivation of BSkyB in taking over Manchester United is not love of football. Should the Restrictive Practices Court rule against the ability of the FA Premier League to negotiate collectively BSkyB want to preserve their position by having control of the biggest club. They want an important seat at the table in any future collective negotiations including over a breakaway European super league. As Raymond Snoddy and Jason Nisse explained in a recent article on the merger (The Times 9.9.98) :-

    "BSkyB's prime purpose in buying United is as an insurance policy to protect it's exclusive live football. In January, the Restrictive Practices Court will consider whether the Premier League is an illegal cartel that cannot collectively negotiate television rights. If the case were proven agreements between BSkyB, the BBC and the Premier League could be struck down and television companies would have to negotiate with individual clubs. The Manchester United deal subject to approval be shareholders and regulators would at least give BSkyB the right to televised games at Old Trafford. The insurance policy could also work in the longer term. The BSkyB Premier League television deal runs out in 2001 and after that a number of clubs may be tempted to use digital television to create their own football channels."

  3. In Mexico, two media conglomerates own four of the 18 first division clubs, all of whom are linked to one of the two broadcasters that transmit every league and cup game. These teams regularly swap players. They organise competitions and play a part in arranging kick-off times. They determine who will represent Mexico in international competitions. This is not based on winning domestic trophies but viewing figures; see Downie & Twain, The Guardian 12.9.98 at p29. If this deal were to go through, the door would be opened to the same happening in the UK - hardly in the public interest.

  4. The advent of clubs being owned by television stations could see football becoming almost continuous as they seek to avoid other big matches which might damage viewing figures. Already live televised football can be seen virtually every night of the week. This over-saturation will kill the game. Furthermore the impact on changing kick-off times to suit the schedules of media companies is only negative so far as the fan is concerned: for the match-going supporter, the reasons are obvious and there are already cases of inconvenienced supporters; for the TV-watching supporter, it can only be inconvenient if kick-off times are re-scheduled rather than being published in advance and stuck to.

  5. It is not in the commercial interest of a media organisation which owns a football club to have people watching other teams instead of the 'TV Team'. I think we can all work out what such a media organisation would do about this. Hopes of smaller teams rising to the top are already increasingly remote. They will become non-existent, particularly, if a European super league is established with no automatic promotion or relegation. Already struggling financially, most lower league football clubs (with millions of supporters) would simply disappear.

  6. Every representative football body which has expressed an opinion (i.e. all of them) is against this deal. In effect, this means that the public is saying "this is not in our interest". On the other side, the only bodies of any kind who have spoken out in favour of the takeover are BSkyB and the Directors of Manchester United.

2.2. The Identity of the Bidder

I am sure that you are aware of who effectively controls BSkyB. One look at the list of directors - only one of them is an executive director - is enough to satisfy all but the most naive that BSkyB is a part of the Rupert Murdoch empire. I take it that the MMC is familiar with the business ethics of this 'gentleman' but just in case not, here's an example :-

When Murdoch took over The Times & the Sunday Times in 1981 he agreed to make a number of guarantees in order to avoid a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. These included a pledge to give his editors complete editorial independence, that the newspapers should remain separate from the rest of his company, News International, and that ownership of the titles should not be transferred without approval from the independent directors. In December 1981, at a board meeting without the independent directors present, it was decided to transfer ownership of the titles to News International - in complete breach of the guarantee made. After Harold Evans was sacked as editor of The Times in March 1982, he revealed numerous examples of editorial interference by Murdoch.

Sources: Evans; Leapman, pp.235-85; Shawcross, pp.244-55.

I have two further pieces of material which, for me, say everything about what we can expect should Mr. Murdoch get his hands on Manchester United - with or without him having to make undertakings to the MMC :-

  1. "One thing you must understand, Tom," Murdoch told the biographer Thomas Kiernan in 1981, while negotiating to buy Times Newspapers. "You tell these bloody politicians whatever they want to hear, and once the deal is done you don't worry about it. They're not going to chase after you later if they suddenly decide what you said wasn't what they wanted to hear. Otherwise they're made to look bad, and they can't abide that. So they just stick their heads up their asses and wait for the blow to pass."

    Source: Thomas Kiernan, Citizen Murdoch, Dodd, Mead, 1986, p.238

  2. Business and politics are his only two passions: art, music, hobbies, poetry, theatre, fiction, even sport (sailing may be an exception) have no interest for him. He is fascinated by the politics for its own sake - but also because politics affects the business environment in which he operates.

    Source: Andrew Neil, Full Disclosure.

Conclusion

This is very much a test case. It is clear that if this merger goes ahead it will be followed by the take-over of other football clubs by media/communications companies. Already, for instance, Carlton have been linked to Arsenal and it is reported that Tottenham are negotiating with ENIC who have strong links with Time-Warner. Very soon there could be no more than half a dozen English clubs monopolising football, and the rest would disappear.

  1. BSkyB and Rupert Murdoch are trying to create a monopoly and control British Football, so that they can use it as a "battering ram" (Rupert Murdoch's words) to increase viewing figures worldwide.

  2. It is not the role of media organisations to own or control sport. Legislation should be introduced to prevent such deals ever being proposed, let alone referred to the MMC.

  3. I am horrified for British Football should the most heartless and ruthless businessman in the Western world get his hands on the biggest representative of our national game.

  4. Not one single football body does not agree with me.

Or, put another way :-

Football is a sport. The public loves sport because of its unpredictability, because it represents real life. The people who currently run sport have the maintaining of this principle at the very top of their agenda.

The role of the media is to cover sport. Commercial media organisations have a totally different agenda to that described above. The role of the media is not to control sport for their own financial gain. To say (or permit) otherwise is to seriously contravene the public interest.

IN THE INTEREST OF EVERY SPORTS FAN IN THE COUNTRY, THIS TAKEOVER MUST NOT BE ALLOWED TO PROCEED.

Yours sincerely

Jon ............