ESL League – What’s the Lessons for Community Media?

ESL Controversy
ESL Controversy

There hasn’t been a similar controversy for some time, where corporate interest have been pushed back by the combined might of grassroots supporters, politicians of all parties, and the national media. The European Super League debacle will go down in history as one of those moments when otherwise impregnable fortresses are breached, and for a short time, there is a social shift in attitudes that gives everyone pause for thought, and leaves us asking where do we go next?

Larry Eliot, writing in The Guardian suggests that

“Where the free-market critics of the ESL are wrong is in thinking the ESL is some sort of aberration, a one-off deviation from established practice, rather than a metaphor for what global capitalism has become: an edifice built on piles of debt where the owners of businesses say they love competition but do everything they can to avoid it.”

Elliot goes on to say,

“The ESL has demonstrated that global capitalism operates on the basis of rigged markets not free markets, and those running the show are only interested in entrenching existing inequalities. It was a truly bad idea, but by providing a lesson in economics to millions of fans it may have performed a public service.”

The message is: this is how global capitalism works. The question is: will this message get through to enough people to change anything? Will this single example of corrupted capitalism and corporate greed be enough to cause a general reaction against what has been going on in the global economy for decades? Or, is this too narrow a topic for non-football people, like myself, to take a deep interest in? Why would I be concerned about the financial structure of these football clubs? The point is these are not, in fact, football clubs at all, they are global corporate brands.

I’m sure there are public relations agencies working hard right now to smooth over the cracks and encourage people to move on, in the hope that we forget the whole thing ever happened. Expect lots of people in prominent positions of trust in the so-called ‘football family,’ to be coming forward to say that the important thing now is to put this behind us and to move on. There’s nothing to see apparently.

And yet, there is every reason to keep looking. Surely this is a fitting time to ask how the rules of international commerce and markets can be monopolised and turned into cartels so easily? Surely this an opportune moment to ask where power resides more generally? With grassroots supporters, or with billionaire financiers? It is ironic that this is the issue that captures the popular imagination and starts a wider debate about how our economy is rigged against the ninety-nine percent. The activists of the Occupy Movement’s jaws must have hit the floor when this story broke!

Will the public, for example, make the connection between grassroots football and the community services that small and local clubs provide, and the services that are similarly provided by community and local media? Will the value of having a well-funded and resilient grassroots sport movement be likewise recognised when it comes to our media? Grassroots and community activity have long been recognised for the local social gain and social value that they bring to a community. Many have been arguing for some time that the social gain purpose of community media needs similar recognition.

If it is okay for the government to intervene in this case, where else might they intervene to support civil society? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, though you might need to be able to text the Prime Minister or the Chancellor to get access to the sauce on offer. Will Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) now turn his attention to how civically accountable and participative community media is supported in the UK? Will he take a similar view when it comes to corporate consolidation in the media sector because they are now clearly aligned to the actions being perpetrated in the sports sector?

Ofcom and DCMS seem to have done little to investigate and examine the impact that media consolidation has been having on our local life. Research about the loss of media at a local and neighbourhood level is seldom included in governmental discussions about sustainability and social adaptation to change. While being in the same ministry, the Office for Civic Society doesn’t seem to ever talk with the teams in the media departments. Surely it is time to look at how our local communities at the parish, village, neighbourhood, town and city levels are served by dedicated and accessible media outlets that are open and accountable to the residents of the place that they represent and serve?

If Prime Minister Johnson is now prepared to intervene to block anti-competitive practices in football, when will he similarly intervene to protect and promote the interests of local and independent media producers, both commercial and community?

Football clearly plays a significant role in people’s identity, but it is only part of a local conversation. Local communities are an amalgam of different activities and points of view, but they have been shown to be most effective when there is a clear sense of identity and belonging. Surely the promotion of media for social gain purposes is deserving of equal political attention?

Politicians move quickly when it is in their self-interest, and football has a galvanising effect which is championed across the social spectrum. The comments of the Duke of Cambridge move this issue into a seemingly non-political sphere. It has quickly becomes, instead, a touchstone issue of national identity which we can all be united against. The merchants of greed against the solidarity ad will of the people.

I find it ironic, however, that it has taken this moment for people to realise that their opinions and views can make a difference. The threat of mass non-renewal of season tickets might not bother the billionaires who run these clubs, but it sends a signal to populist politicians that the people are leading, and they may need to deploy some nifty footwork to get back ahead of them. Some will argue that denying oneself the pleasures offered by top-flight sport is simply cutting one’s nose off to spite oneself. But can’t the same principle be applied to our media, of which football ownership and media ownership are tightly interlinked and bound?

It is entirely in our own power to seek out and support alternative outlets and platforms. No one forces us to buy a season ticket for a football club. We could, if we have the will, however, quite easily seek out and attend non-league and community football matches. Are we deluding ourselves that this would make any difference? Would it change and shift the balance of power, or are we stuck with the system that we have today?

The news this week that Apple is changing its podcasting platform to integrate subscription services should be considered in a similar vein to the ESL proposals. It isn’t clear if Apple will be turning off their support for basic RSS fed podcast services, like the Decentered Media podcast. This podcast is hosted on this website, but an RSS feed sends an instruction to iTunes, Google and Amazon Music that a new episode is available, which can be picked-up and updated automatically on subscribers devices. There is no fee, and I have no interest in charging for content. Leave a donation instead.

Under Apple’s new terms, though, will independent feeds be gradually strangled because their paid-for content and subscription services will be given greater prominence in Apple’s listings? Perhaps Apple has no intention of blocking free podcasts, but my hunch is that they won’t achieve the visibility and popularity of services that pay Apple to promote this content across their range of platforms and devices.

At some point governments really do have to step in and protect consumers, independent producers and small-scale content providers. It’s only governments who can ensure that the small operators are not subject to unfair market distorting practices, and that consumers are not subject to price-gouging. There is a well justified complaint that Ofcom has not regulated the radio industry in the UK sufficiently in the interest of consumers. The consolidation of the Global and Bauer networks has quickened, and there is less and less space for independent radio operators to survive.

Format and branded radio stations now dominate the mediascape. Little provision is made by government and Ofcom to support genuinely local and meaningful forms of radio. If grassroots and community football is being given a lifeline by Boris Johnson, then we should expect that he ties this in with similar reforms and changes of policy that give priority to locally owned, locally run, and locally accountable radio stations and community media projects.

If grassroots football is valued for the participation it enables, either directly as a player, or indirectly as a supporter, then media should likewise be subject to the same principles of investment, regulation and integration with other public and civic services.

None of us should ever be more than a short bus ride away from a local sports club or project that we can get involved with, take part in and help run. The same applies to our media. If the ESL debacle teachers us one thing, it’s that we must protect access to our grassroots resources and facilities, because once they have gone, they will never be replaced.

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