by Tony Attwood
Managers, TV commentators and newspaper journalists don’t talk about PGMO, the referees organisation, just as they are mostly restrained in talking about individual referees, the organisation of the Premier League, Fifa, Uefa and the like.
It has not always been like that but the big time restriction on who can say what was introduced in August 2009 when ahead of the new season the FA formally warned managers that they were longer allowed to comment on referee appointments before a match. It was this move (along with others) that first made me think about launching Untold Arsenal, which happened the following January. If they were not going to talk about such things, I would. I didn’t expect many (if any) people to read my ramblings, but I thought I would have a go.
The 2009 rule was very clear: managers, players or anyone involved with a club were not allowed to say anything – positive, negative or otherwise – about an appointed referee.
The FA statement statement said, “Such pre-match comments will be deemed improper and dealt with accordingly. Post-match comments in relation to match officials and incidents are still permitted provided they are not personal in their nature, imply bias or attack the integrity of the officials in charge of the match, or in any other respect bring the game into disrepute.”
As a result interviewers stopped asking players and managers about referee performances since all they would get were bland answers. When a few said on air “You know I am not allowed to talk about the referee” the rule was modified so that it included the fact that players and managers were not allowed to talk about the rule that stopped them talking about the refs.
This all came to the boil because prior to Everton’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United in 2008/9, David Moyes questioned Mike Riley’s appointment as referee. Everton won that game and Sir Alex Ferguson then said Moyes’ comments had influenced Riley in a crucial decision relating to Danny Welbeck being fouled by Jagielka in the area. No penalty was given, but as so often seemed to happen, the authorities took note of Sir Alex’ commentary, afraid perhaps of what he might say next.
But then, having established the precedent the rule has been expanded to include all mention of PGMO and its organisational structure, the low number of refs compared to other leagues, and of course the fact that clubs can have the same ref six or eight times a season, instead of the conventional limit of twice.
However this was not the first attempt to restrict or change the way football is debated. On 13 April 1974 in a report of the match which ended Chelsea 1 Arsenal 3 the Observer newspaper stated for what I believe was the first time that “through skillful editing of such matches the games were being made to look attractive on TV while in fact they were mind-numbingly dull.” The argument thus was that broadcasters were making poor games look good, in order to keep the audience numbers up. It was the same technique (although used for totally different purposes) that led to the Italian match fixing scandal in 2006. Edit the game to cut out the bits you don’t want to reveal.
Comments also were made at the time about the way the crowd was shown by focusing on small parts of the ground where hard core fans grouped and ignoring the open spaces (exactly the opposite of the commentary today on empty seats at the Ems!) In that particular Chelsea game 29,152 turned up at Stamford Bridge. It had a capacity at the time of 80,000 but the cameras only showed certain parts of the ground.
It was the success of these early manipulations of what was presented and who could say what that gave the football authorities the confidence to manipulate the way football was perceived, through allowing the League and FA to extend their control over the commentaries of managers (through fear of banishment) and the commentaries on TV.
The whole situation was extended when the FA Premier League (as it was at the time) decided to argue that football fixtures are protected by copyright under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998 and are owned by the Premier League. That approach effectively set up their right to licence the use of the fixture list. It meant that the League had control over an ever more compliant media.
There is no obligation in the 1988 Act for any copyright owner to agree to licence anything or how it should be licensed; it is entirely a commercial matter. Thus over time the League and its chums the PGMO have started to add to the requirements that must be met before license is granted.
Untold of course doesn’t publish fixtures – all we do is refer to the next match or two of Arsenal, and the Act (of which I know a little having been a writer and publisher for a number of years) allows such minor references on the grounds of “fair comment”.
But that is where all the broader power and control comes from: the FA and League can impose any conditions they like both in their licences to cover football matches on TV and radio and their licence to publish fixture lists. Hence crowd trouble can’t be show, referees can’t be criticised beyond a very modest point, the structure of the PGMO must not be mentioned, and so forth. As I have said before, if you want a before and after version find a recording of Alan Green commentating on a league match ten years ago and now.
It is perfect control. The broadcasters’ licenses are ever more restrictive, and the major media are controlled by restrictions attached to the licensing of fixtures. Only the blogs are left to fight back, but sadly, instead of seeing the sanitised version of reality that the mainstream media put out as a warning, they see it as a blueprint and follow their lead.
It is indeed a sad state of affairs.
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