By Tony Attwood
Put simply, I’m worried about what the press in England are up to. .
Not the ordinary everyday biased stuff that we see all the time. Not the fact that today the press will be full of the number of years in a row Arsenal has gone out at the last 16 stage, and won’t mention just how many years in a row we’ve been getting into the last 16. Not the fact that they comment on the issue that such a feat would have been considered fantasy land during the era of the long term manager who preceded Arsene Wenger – George Graham.
Graham’s tenure gave us final positionings of 4th, 6th, 1st, 4th, 1st, 4th, 10th, 4th, 12th. Imagine the press reaction if Arsene Wenger delivered a couple of sixth places, a 10th and a 12th.
But we know that, and we live with that. They live in a bubble and tell us what to think.
However in the last few years something far more insidious has crept into football journalism – and it is this that worries me. It is the running of press releases from clubs and organisations, and treating them as news stories.
The great problem with this is that the “serious” newspapers are supposed to be investigative and responsible. Sure they have their own political viewpoint, which we all know, but when it comes to digging up facts and exposing corruption they are supposed to be doing just that. And doing it independently.
And yes sometimes they do it. The Telegraph’s revelations about the defrauding of the state by MPs in their expenses claims was an excellent piece of work. The Guardian’s decision to stand alone and publish the Edward Snowden revelations concerning at least 58,000 files revealing how the UK government spies on its own population, was worthy of their traditions.
However matters started to go seriously wrong in football in the build up to the Rangers FC tax fraud case and their subsequent descent into insolvency. The press in the UK simply failed to report what was going on, instead taking press releases from Rangers FC and printing them as news. When challenged in 2012 after Rangers had entered administration, as to why they had done this, the papers cited obscure “legal reasons” and left it at that, and pretended nothing untoward had happened.
The press had been tried and found seriously wanting, and the optimist in me hoped that they might learn their lesson. But rather than see the Rangers fiasco as a dire warning most of the “serious” press have taken it as a way to work. Thus when PGMO gave the Telegraph a load of highly questionable information about what it does earlier this season, they took it and printed it, without any consideration as to whether the piece had any merit, was balanced, or needed further investigation.
I mention all this today because FC Barcelona is using the same trick, and to its eternal shame, the Independent has fallen for it, running a series of “articles” as “exclusives” when in fact they are simply churning out propaganda for the club.
Of course interviews with senior people in any major football organisation are important and worthy of note – but they need to be investigative, not pats on the back.
In the pieces in the Independent today the Barcelona club president Josep Maria Bartomeu says of the one year transfer ban on the club “The ban is completely disproportionate, completely. It makes no sense that Barça is punished because some young players have come to our La Masia academy without their parents.
“I am completely in agreement with the spirit of the law. Fifa should give very strong punishments to clubs or individuals that mistreat children. But [it is] one thing to protect them and another to punish us for going around the world giving what are effectively football scholarships.”
OK, that comment is worthy of publication, but my point here is that it is printed with zero analysis of why Fifa might have given such a punishment, upheld it through appeals, and why the Council of Arbitration in Sport should have upheld it at appeal too. It’s just a statement from Barcelona with no comment.
In a separate article today (which the paper calls an “exclusive and rare interview in the Nou Camp, the Barça president, Josep Maria Bartomeu”) the President talks about fighting the Neymar tax case.
Besides, “Barça has not set out to commit any tax offence. We will fight it because it’s open to interpretation. You pay in Brazil or you pay in Spain. To be prudent we have also now made the payment in Spain so when this is resolved we will get the money back from Brazil or from Spain.” So given the fact that Barcelona has now paid €13.5m to the Spanish tax authorities is all right!
No, of course not. Each of us in his/her own country has a duty to pay taxes as the state demands. In Spanish law if Barcelona is guilty the club can be fined up to six times the amount of tax avoided. But still, Qatar Airlines will presumably pay that. (That’s my comment, its not in the press release/article).
Oh and just in case you are still not convinced, the President adds, without a word of serious questioning from the “interviewer”, “There is zero fiscal advantage. In fact, in Catalonia we pay 56 per cent tax on earnings, which is the highest rate in Europe, so when it comes to matching salaries with other big clubs we are actually at a disadvantage.”
Now I am not a tax expert (self-evidently) but I did bother to take a trip to www.catalonia.com and looked up their article on taxation. Given that the site is catalonia.com one can take it that it speaks with a certain authority.
“The Corporate Income Tax general rate is 28% (25% for SMEs) and can be noticeably reduced when certain legally established tax benefits, such as those affecting R&D and innovation, are applied.”
Might the Independent not have raised this point? Well, it didn’t. But still, 56% tax, 28% tax, I mean, its just numbers. Like how many years in a row Arsenal have been knocked out of the Champions League at the round of 16 stage. It’s just numbers!
Here’s another little piece, that might have been investigated by the Independent had it not been running an “I love Barcelona” campaign. “Bartomeu says the club’s charitable foundation that puts €12m annually into projects in 48 countries, with players giving 0.5 per cent of their wages to it, is the side of the club the critics don’t want to see.”
What is needed here is context. Barcelona’s turnover for 2013/14 was €530m, which means that 2.3% is given to the foundation. Is that good? Is that enough? How much does Arsenal give? Those are the interesting questions at this point, but they are also the questions that no one asks, so no one answers.
Of course the Independent is not alone in all this. Rather it is just part of a trend. And indeed there is worse to come, because on their web sites the papers are now printing paid-for links (“promoted stories” they are called).
Just recently a senior journalist at the Telegraph resigned because the paper refused to run serious articles on the activities of the bank HSBC in helping UK citizens illegally avoid UK tax. The Telegraphy still won’t touch that story.
But perhaps that is a matter for another web site.
Today’s anniversary: defeat with honour
18 March 1910: Woolwich Arsenal went into liquidation. Fortunately Henry Norris was on hand to bail the club out, and he eventually paid all the debts including non-football debts and debts that were not disclosed at this moment. See also here.
And the books that tell the tale
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal