Scottish Football: Living In Ignoreland

indexIn 1992, REM released Automatic For The People, one of the greatest albums ever. One of the tracks on that album became a hit although it was never properly released as a single.

It was written in response to the Iran-Contra scandal, and its roots in 1979, and the election of Republican candidates for years after it.

Its target, in part, was the American media who had turned the hostage crisis of that year into a referendum on Jimmy Carter. This cost him the 1980 election. They then soft pedalled on how the Reagan administration dealt with it, which allowed his team to get through his re-election campaign in 1984 without ever having explained what was going on (they were trading military hardware for the hostages; literally buying them back with heavy duty weapon systems) then almost completely ignored Bush’s role in what became a monumental scandal although he’d been director of the CIA. This led to his own election in 1988.

Michael Stipe called the song Ignoreland.

It’s probably the most fitting metaphor for Scotland, as represented by the Fourth Estate, which I’ve ever come across.

Let me tell you, before I get to the point, just how little faith I have in our media to properly execute its responsibilities and do the job it’s meant for.

I started writing this article on Thursday night, after The Tax Justice Network, through their ancillary organisation The Offshore Game published their astounding report into the SFA and the way they dealt with Rangers. They didn’t quite call the SFA corrupt, but they didn’t stop far short of it. What they did say is that there are serious questions over the ability of the organisation to act impartially.

For those unfamiliar with the kind of nuance that’s prevalent in these kind of documents, this is a polite way of saying the people running our national sport are about one step shy of deserving to be paraded through the streets to the stocks.

It is a devastating judgement.

I had fully intended to do a long piece on that and publish it the following day. When the following day came I had a million other things to do, but at the back of my mind I kept thinking this had to be written, that the report had to be explored properly and stripped down for the layperson or those who didn’t have time to go through it line by line.

But by Friday night I’d concluded that there was simply no hurry.

In fact, I actually thought the article would have greater weight if I left it until after the league title had been wrapped up.

By that point I had moved on from where I was writing only about the report itself and decided what this piece had to be was an assault on the media.

I was so confident that the press would continue to ignore that report that I actually laid everything aside over the weekend and took Saturday and Sunday off.

I mean, it’s only the most damning report an outside agency has ever written about the game here … what were the chances of the press picking it up and running with it?

None whatsoever, of course.

It wasn’t that I took a calculated risk that the story would still be waiting for me today; I knew for a fact it would.

Isn’t that damning?

Isn’t that a greater statement about these people and how useless and corrupt and gutless they are than any words in this article ever could be? I felt confident enough that our media would not touch this that I left it for four full days, knowing that I could come back to it and write it and that it would be even more potent because of that.

People probably know I have a certain contempt for our press.

I can’t put it more bluntly than this: if you are a Scottish sports reporter and you’re not all over this story then you, my friend, are a fraud. Pure and simple. You’re a thief because you’re taking money under false pretences. You are conning your bosses and you’re conning the readers. Stop pretending that a NUJ card makes you a journalist.

You are the furthest thing from it.

Yet I know the press is perfectly capable of working away when it wants to.

Why just last week I read a story that was actually researched. It was on Celtic players and their salaries. It ran on the website of a national title. It listed the wages of every player at our club. The trouble was, the writer had taken them from Football Manager.

Nevertheless, as unprofessional and ludicrous as that was, it must have required some work; booting up the game, selecting Celtic, checking every individual player. Sniggering at Efe Ambrose allegedly on £7000 a week. Writing it all down. Uploading it.

Effort. Graft. Of a sort.

The media is also capable of writing controversial stuff that offends large numbers of people, like last week’s story about a Hillsborough campaigner who was encouraged to say disparaging things about our club.

That was nothing other than a smear job against Celtic, and it backfired spectacularly and resulted in an apology. Yet it proved that these people aren’t afraid of taking on power when they want to, even if this time they were crushed like a worm.

How does a story as weak and pitiful as the first, and one as basically reeking as the second, make it past editors and end up published when the biggest football story in the country – maybe the biggest ever – can be ignored for days, and would, without articles like this from the bloggers, actually never see the light of day beyond the initial report?

Where is the professional pride in our newsrooms when the whole of the Scottish football public knows they’re simply hoping this will go away?

There was a time when people got into their profession for more than just a fat expense account and a chance to hob-nob with the beautiful people, or the Scottish celebrity equivalent thereof. These people have disgraced it. Eventually, they’re going to kill it.

What a legacy to leave behind you. The people who killed newspapers in Scotland. The people who destroyed the reputations of once great titles. The people who obliterated their own industry because they couldn’t stay one step ahead of people like me; folk who do this from their bedrooms and spare rooms and don’t make a fraction of a journalist’s wage.

Let me break it down, real quick.

An organisation which has enormous credibility in the twin spheres of politics and economics, which wrote one of the most quoted and re-published articles on tax avoidance in the history of journalism, which made international headlines and affected public policy making in a big way, published, through its offshoot a story on how the SFA had been lied to, and how its officers had lied in turn, over issues affecting Rangers Football Club. This article stated that the Lord Nimmo Smith verdict stinks to high heaven, and can no longer be left as the final word on title stripping. It made it clear that the Resolution 12 boys don’t have a case as much as they have an iron clad slam-dunker of one. It called into question the SFA’s ability to govern the game in a fair and impartial way. It said that what these issues require is a fully independent public inquiry with the power to make recommendations for sweeping changes in the sport.

They called the former head of the SFA, Campbell Ogilvie, an out and out liar. They accused Stewart Regan of presiding over a shambles and knowingly allowing corrupting – and possibly even criminal – behaviours to be swept under the carpet, or was complicit in that himself. It says there are serious doubts as to whether the SFA is even capable of reforming itself, so deeply embedded in the structure of that organisation are these underhanded and cynical methods of dealing with issues. They are to do with Rangers, yes, but Rangers was never the target of our interest – as much as their stupider fans might have thought otherwise.

This was always about football governance, or lack thereof.

This report says football governance in Scotland is a misnomer. It’s a contradiction in terms. It is non-existent. It says the people running our sport either haven’t got a clue or are bent beyond redeeming and need, instead, to be swept away.

The Offshore Game’s original article on overseas ownership of football clubs in the UK created a surge of news stories and articles poring over every detail. It wasn’t a national story; it was a national event.

Every newspaper in Britain ran a piece on it. They update what they call The Offshore League Table every single year; Celtic is 8th on it, because Dermot Desmond holds his shares in our club through an offshore trust called Line Nominees.

The larger organisation which runs The Offshore Game site, the Tax Justice Network’s 2012 story on offshore banking beat the Panama Papers on the subject by four years, and was an international news story of epic scale and consequence.

Everyone was quoting it, from The Wall Street Journal to The Sunday Times, who had to rewrite their Rich List for the following year in one big hurry.

And irony of ironies, in the aftermath of the Panama Papers, another report from the Tax Justice Network is a main story on the websites of every credible news title from The Guardian to The Independent even as I sit here and write these words.

These people redefine the word “credible” as it’s used in the context of the issues we’re talking about. This is the equivalent of Holy Writ. It’s impartial, written by people with no axe to grind at all. It’s professionally sourced and presented. Every named person was contacted for a reaction quote (and every one refused) beforehand. Every assertion is backed by facts. This is a brick bunker of an article, unimpeachable in every way.

Yet it remains wholly untouched by the media which allegedly writes about issues affecting our game. This investigation into the SFA may well prove to be the least reported on document the Tax Justice Network has ever commissioned.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Nothing, of course. It’s the same old picture. The same feeble attitude, gutless, heartless or clueless, I’ve stopped caring now. I’ve even stopped caring whether it’s the hacks themselves or their editors who stop this stuff getting a proper airing.

Journalists would once have resigned over being told to ignore an obvious news story like this. They’d have been asking their bosses who benefited from silence, whether there was an agenda.

They would threaten to take the thing to another publication.

But no publication wants a piece of this. Why?

Cause it’s not news? Are you joking?

This is the textbook definition of a news story. An independent agency has slammed a public body in a damming report, claiming that it’s incapable of impartiality and ought to be reviewed by outsiders because it can’t be trusted to reform itself?

In which parallel universe is that not news?

I can only call these people gutless frauds so many times before it all becomes just words. I know they don’t care about it, because they think theirs is the final word. They have no concept of what the historical verdict will say any more than Sevco fans do. Their supporters think because the corrupt football association that runs our game “recognises” the history and didn’t strip the titles that this is how it’s going to be, forever.

But every one of those titles will forever have an asterix beside it, because there is a permanent record of what these people did and what the governing body allowed them to do, and we’re writing that permanent record right now.

When the books are written about this period in Scottish football – and I’m more and more sure that I’ll personally write one of them – they will end up as part of the permanent record of this moment and what was happening in it, and in that record the media’s silence will be logged for posterity and future generations can draw their own conclusions from it.

When media students ask why the Scottish sporting press contracted and died, and in a few short years was supplanted by the bloggers and the citizen journalists those books and these blogs will be the permanent record, and their disgrace will be known to all.

The press can’t escape that judgement. They can’t run from that verdict. History will devour their reputations and make a mockery of everything they think they’ve achieved. If titles aren’t stripped they’ll be forever tainted. Because the real truth will be on the record, and it will be all the more illuminating because it wasn’t put there by the mainstream press.

It’s never been more important for those of us in the blogosphere to keep on doing what we do, because this is a sterling example of how little our media can be relied on, and I actually write that with great sadness and regret because until we have the reach the mainstream press does we’ll never be able to affect the kind of change they can.

I do believe that if the media was willing to write about these matters honestly and faithfully that Scottish football would change, and it would change for the better. The people running our game in this disastrous fashion can only do so because of a complete lack of oversight and the kid gloves treatment they get from the people in the newsrooms.

Even when Mike Ashley Holdings obtained the full details of the SFA’s decision over Dave King recently, that story was spun to do the minimum damage to the men at Hampden. Indeed, it was spun as a victory for the SFA and King, when actually Ashley got exactly what he wanted, a full and frank explanation, and the documentary proof of the SFA’s ludicrous decision making process. His demand for “full disclosure” – that the SFA should make this stuff public – was ignored, even when he pointed out that fans deserved the answers.

These people don’t believe we deserve answers, and the problem doesn’t just lie with the media or the governing bodies. It lies with the clubs too, and even with some of the fans. There are too many people, even those who take an interest in these affairs, who think stuff like Resolution 12 is the peculiar fixation of Celtic fans only, without seeing that it has a wider impact, even if you discount how it affected other clubs and their finances.

This is about naked corruption, and that shouldn’t be left to Celtic supporters to fight alone. There are a lot of people who wail about Scottish football and the issues in it who are all too quick to put Celtic in the same box as Rangers, although the proofs that the game here has been bent for just one club are piled high like snowdrifts on all sides of them.

An independent report has borne out two of the central allegations Celtic fans have made in the last few years. It’s now an established fact that lies were told, rules subverted, other clubs disenfranchised. Why are we still pretending these issues only matter to Celtic fans? Why do so many people still seem to believe these aren’t problems for their own teams too?

It’s been proved, conclusively, that Rangers got a European license in contravention of the rules; would Aberdeen have got one? Or Hearts? It wouldn’t have mattered if these clubs had been facing a dire financial situation, as Rangers was at the time. The SFA would have given them nothing. Why aren’t their shareholders asking for a full investigation into this?

Motherwell were denied European income as a consequence of the SFA’s action. Where are their shareholders on this issue? Why aren’t they asking the same questions as Celtic’s are? How much money was taken from them? They followed the rules. Their fans, players and management team did nothing wrong. They didn’t deserve to be penalised for playing it straight.

But how much do they care? How much have they done to bring the truth to light?

The media aren’t the only ones in Scotland living in Ignoreland. Much as Stipes’ seething commentary wasn’t only directed at the media and the Republican Party it was a pointed dig at the voting public too. There are no secrets anymore and there never were.

Ignoreland is a safe place to live, even a happy place.

Where do you think the saying “Ignorance is bliss” comes from? How do you think it came into vogue in the first place? Knowledge is power, but it’s also responsibility and for a long time now a lot of people have been hiding away from both.

There have been opportunities to change the game in the last three or four years. Even the SPL’s disgraceful 11-1 voting system would not have been a meaningful barrier to change, with Rangers out of the picture, had fans been lobbying their own clubs to do what was right. Financial Fair Play would be a reality already if shareholders at other teams pressed the people in their boardrooms to put it on the agenda.

To some, these campaigns look like Celtic fan driven vendettas. The media has had no problem painting them as such. But an independent report from a well-respected and highly influential think-tank has said everything we’re concerned about is valid, which means it’s no longer just our issue but one that belongs to the whole of the sport.

The media is going to ignore this, and I’m past trying to shame them into doing what’s right. They’re beyond shaming. They’re beyond reach of anyone who actually cares about our sport.

The game needs leadership and as we know it’s not going to come from those who’re supposed to deliver it, who do you reckon that leaves?

It leaves the fans themselves. And don’t worry Aberdeen fans and Hibs fans and Dundee Utd fans and those of our clubs who’ll say that Celtic is one of the obstacles to change; a lot of us sussed that a long time ago, and we’re working on setting that right. Do the same at your clubs and don’t spend so long worrying about ours.

Your CEO has the same vote Celtic’s does and if you get your club on board with reform it really won’t matter if we fail to do the same with ours. The numbers will be there. The change will come because it has to. Because it’s time.

Michael Stipe was one pissed off guy in 1992, and he said so in his song.

“TV tells a million lies. The paper’s terrified to report anything that isn’t handed on a presidential spoon. I’m just profoundly frustrated by all this. So, f@@@ you, man.”

Sound familiar? Yeah, doesn’t it?

REM’s angry song ends up on a bum note though, with what sounds like an admission of defeat.

“I know that this is vitriol. No solution, spleen-venting. But I feel better having screamed. Don’t you?”

We’ve been screaming a long time now. Feel better yet?

No, me neither. Nobody listens in Ignoreland.

When the world turns to crap you’ve got two choices; get comfortable living in it or pick up a shovel. I’m sick of living in this. How do you feel about it? You wanna keep screaming, or you wanna get busy with a flat headed implement?

This article has been amended. In the original I said it was Kilmarnock who had suffered because of the granting of a European license to Rangers. Actually, back then, before they made the Scottish Cup runners up ineligible, it would have been Motherwell who were due to compete in Europe had the proper procedures been followed. Thanks to Matt Leslie and a couple of others for that correction.

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Making Enemies

don-vito-corleoneThere is a moment in Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel The Godfather when a young Don Corleone is at a sit down with a hot-headed gangland rival trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to a dispute that is threatening to get out of hand.

Don Corleone is already a very powerful and dangerous man, but at this meeting he attempts to smooth over the issues that exist between himself and his opposite number in a fair and practical way. His opponent mistakes this for weakness.

Finally, Corleone’s patience is exhausted. He throws his arms up in the air and says “Ahh, he will not listen to reason.” At that, he and his entourage get up and leave the room.

No threat has been made. No anger has been shown.

Don Corleone simply expresses his frustration that a compromise could not be reached, and he leaves it at that.

Yet the rival realises at once that he is in now in the gravest peril, and he turns pale.

A few days later he is shot to death.

There’s no further warning and no attempt at last minute talks to forestall or prevent that action.

Corleone made up his mind the minute he was on his feet, and the order was given without further preamble.

I thought of that scene yesterday when I read Dave King and the Sevco board’s sneering, arrogant, spiteful response to Mike Ashley and his demand for a General Meeting.

Just when you think you’ve seen everything.

As a former political activist, I’ve studied up on brinksmanship. It is a very effective tool in statecraft when it’s handled right, but the preponderance of books on great political and military thinkers and how their analysis can be used in business has made a lot of people think they’re smarter than they are, and caused them to make tremendous mistakes.

Von Clausewitz’s On War, for example, is often misread by businessmen who buy into the concept of “war as a continuation of politics by other means.” They seem to think the best strategy is always to crush your opponent, whatever it takes.

They don’t seem to understand that avoiding war is better altogether.

Somewhere along the line, they forgot the Nash Equilibrium, where in some circumstances co-operation between parties is what achieves the best possible results for all.

It’s hard not to conclude that going to Ashley with a reasonable, respectful, proposition which benefited everyone was the only move for the Sevco board to make here. It may even have borne fruit.

King has chosen not to bother. No-one in his camp is either interested in, or has studied, Nash and that’s fair enough.

But they are poking a bear with a stick.

These people aren’t even attempting to be reasonable at this point and they can’t even muster the intelligence to make it look as if they are for public consumption, which you’d think would be the ideal move if they wanted to fight a PR war.

Instead they are very publicly trying to pick a fight, and openly provoking a guy who has bottomless pockets from which to fund this conflict.

What in God’s name are they up to?

This is the summit of arrogance and the height of stupidity.

I had a look at the proposals last night and from where I am sitting they are mostly bluster, which makes it all the harder to understand.

King is playing high stakes poker with a weak hand showing, and only the hole card to bluff with.

It’s clear he’s got nothing because his threat to publicly disclose confidential information doesn’t stack up against the legal consequences of doing so, and he appears to know this. The giveaway is in the way some of the details have been leaked to his hand-fed press toadies today.

I would imagine Ashley will be looking into legal remedies as a result of that leak.

The “proposal” to remove Ashley’s voting rights, by folding Article 19 of the SFA Constitution into their Articles of Association, is equally ridiculous as doing so needs 75% shareholder approval and the mere threat of a long, destructive court case would dissuade enough of them from pursuing that course of action as to make the idea itself redundant.

Besides, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Ashley could simply transfer control of his shares to someone else and negate the move anyway. It is hot air, and nothing more, designed to make King and his board look tough and up for a fight.

But to what purpose? As I said, their refusal to even appear conciliatory would seem to rule out a PR war, but in some ways it looks as if that’s exactly what they are determined to wage.

And you know what? In the short term that’s a war they can certainly win, especially with a subservient media on their side, but in the end there’s no real victory to be had here.

When everything’s said and done this will result in a colossal defeat, whether that happens in the courts or outside them, in a settlement, or with Ashley simply changing tactics, after much waste.

This guy has the money, and now the motivation, to run this out for years if he has to.

With the leak today that his commercial contracts with the club are on a seven year rolling basis – an astonishing reveal – the costs of getting rid of him are going to be in the tens of millions easily.

I would not bet on him having made mistakes in the drawing up of those deals either.

The previous Sevco board was perfectly – legally – entitled to negotiate those contracts with him in exchange for loans and other funding. King and his people might not like it, and it might even be wholly unscrupulous, but it was certainly not in contravention of the law.

Besides, the notion that Ashley – who made every penny of his fortune legally – should accept lectures from a “glib and shameless liar” and tax cheat, who’s only allowed on the board in the first place because of weak football governance … well the idea is ridiculous.

I’ve already said, on this site, in the second to last article in fact, that Celtic had better be ready for a media onslaught in the coming months, something that will make the Murray years look tame.

King and his people are looking for battles to join, all the better to convince the supporters that they are “fighting for the club”, and it’s a matter of time before they start taking shots at us.

The more one examines their conduct, the more you have to conclude that this a truly reckless board of directors, one that might do anything. They’ve already picked, and lost, a fight with the SPFL over ticket prices for the playoffs, and cost themselves a right few quid.

They also decided to limit the number of away fans at games and now that too has backfired on them, and the wailing of their media pals on that subject has been amusing me for days now.

In short, these people stumble into combat zones without a clear idea of how to win battles.

Even if they had a rudimentary understanding of tactics, far less strategy, Mike Ashley is an enemy far above their capabilities.

It will take more than a little public relations and media manipulation to make this guy dance to the flutes.

This man could buy and sell them ten times over with what’s in the petty cash box.

He could raise a legal action a day, and for a club that’s very soon going to have to try and find outside sources of funding that is death itself.

Perhaps that’s what King wants; to build a case for liquidating the whole sorry mess and starting again, to use Ashley as his alibi and to try and sell the fans on how he never had a choice.

At this juncture it’s the only thing that makes any sense.

Be ready for that. When those drums start beating we need to be on top of it right away.

In another great moment from Puzo’s famous novel, Don Corleone tries to convince his youngest son Michael to continue his education and enter the legitimate world. One of the professions he asks his son to consider is the law.

“A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with guns,” he says.

Something tells me Ashley employs a couple of very good legal minds.

Something tells me he’s going to keep them busy.

Dave King and the Sevco board clearly want a war.

They are doing everything they can to get one, and I think in Ashley they’ll find a man who won’t deprive them of that.

As a character in one of my own fictional pieces once said, “Everybody gets what they want, one way or another. Not everybody ends up wanting what they get.”

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is headed.

King has said, repeatedly, that his ambition is to hear the Champions League anthem at Ibrox again. Well, unless they’re changing that to the tune of Chopin’s Funeral March he’s going to be waiting a wee while.

At another juncture in The Godfather, Don Corleone utters the famous words, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

So it’s ice cream and jelly then.

Again.

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