The recent ruling of Ofcom to uphold the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust complaints against Yorkshire Radio and Ken Bates were held up as a victory by the organisation, but to one supporter at least, looking at the finer details of the case poses significant questions. Miss Florentina explains…
You can’t have failed to notice that Margaret Thatcher died last week…but fear not readers, this is not a political article. Thatcher came to power after the strike epidemic of the 1970s, determined to stop the unions and their stranglehold on the UK economy. I’ve always disliked the idea of unions – yes, they are designed to represent the interests of a group of workers and negotiate terms and conditions on a collective level so everyone gets a fair deal, and that’s a good thing. But I’ve always thought of unions as the kind of group where only the strongest, loudest voices get heard. Perhaps it’s a sweeping generalisation, but shop stewards were never shy and retiring folk – they were opinionated and brash. They represented themselves and a minority who wanted to speak up. The ‘silent majority’, however, were not represented. And this leads me on to the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust.
Last Monday morning, I read Ofcom’s Broadcast Bulletin (I’m quite the media law geek), and noticed Gary Cooper’s case against Yorkshire Radio was in the investigations list. Now, we all know what Kenneth did was categorically wrong – he shouldn’t have accessed the details of the Supporters’ Trust board, even though the information that was broadcast wasn’t particularly sensitive. Personally speaking, I interpreted Bates’ ramblings as an attempt to show Mr Cooper, the Chairman of the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust, that he knew more about him that just his ticket purchasing history. There’s an inference that if Bates knows that, he also knows your address, your phone number, your credit card details and many other pieces of confidential data – to me, it sounded like a thinly veiled threat of potential harassment. Bearing in mind the result of the Levi v Bates case of June 2012, Bates proved that not only the threat of harassment, but also delivering on that threat, is a weapon in his arsenal that he is prepared to use. So I’m not pro-Bates by any stretch of the imagination. However, there were two aspects to the investigation that disturbed me:
Firstly, that after the Yorkshire Radio broadcast in question, Gary Cooper sent what has been referred to as an ‘inflammatory email’ to station. Yorkshire Radio subsequently decided it would be irresponsible to give Mr Cooper the right to reply ‘considering the language used in the email’. Ofcom was provided with a copy of the email so we have no reason to dispute that this happened.
Secondly, that Mr Cooper took part in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live seven months after the Yorkshire Radio broadcast and said:
“Ken Bates has always been his own man. He’s had an awful lot to say about different aspects of the support, about me personally but I really don’t take any of that to heart at all. Ken’s his own man; he’ll say what he wants and he’ll do what he wants…I respect his right to do that”
It’s difficult to say that you’re offended by comments that have been made when you’ve openly declared that you don’t take them to heart and that the man doesn’t actually bother you.
These are two very naïve mistakes to make when you’re going up against someone who’s as familiar to legalities as humans are to breathing. So although the Trust view the Ofcom ruling as a victory, I actually see it as a bit of an embarrassment – like two schoolboys who have got into a playground slanging match. Is this something we really want to see from a representative of the fans? Just as the Trust has told us to question the intentions of the club and its senior employees, we as fans should be questioning the people that represent us.
If you read the report in full, you’ll see that Mr Cooper’s complaint was initially rejected by Ofcom, and it took a further submission before it was upheld. The crucial difference between the two submissions appears to be the inclusion of details of the Levi v Bates court case – a case that proved that Bates was using Yorkshire Radio to pursue his own vendetta. Obviously, none of us laypeople are aware as to the timings of the Ofcom investigation, but if the Levi case had concluded when the initial submission was made, why was it not included? It also suggests that this was a ruling that could have, and did, go either way, so wasn’t quite as cut and dried as the Trust suggested.
When you go up against someone as contentious as Ken Bates, you need to be whiter than white (no pun intended!), and you need to be savvy. The email and the 5 Live interview were both poor decisions, but you’ll now see Mr Cooper constantly tweeting the Yorkshire Radio Twitter account asking for an apology.
Realistically, he’s not going to get a response, so what’s the point? It’s a Twitter account, not a formal channel of communication. In my eyes, it looks unprofessional, childish and, for someone who complained about Bates’ harassing behaviour, it seems a bit like a ‘pot-kettle-black’ situation. When you consider it at the same time as the ‘inflammatory email’, it seems as though Mr Cooper needs to smarten up his act.
I’m not saying that his task has been particularly easy. The Trust was established at a time when fans didn’t have a voice – Bates’ state-run media outlets were seemingly dictating every story that came out of the club and censoring anything that wasn’t approved by the man himself. His weekly spot on Yorkshire Radio was becoming increasingly vicious; a departure from the slightly more innocent ‘granddad-esque’ inappropriate comments that most families have to put up with every Sunday lunchtime. Fans were growing more and more frustrated by the day, and something had to change. The Trust was incredibly helpful when it came to the investment situation – they advertised the club in a positive way when it seemed like Shaun Harvey et al weren’t doing anything proactive at all. I think we should always be appreciative for the part they played. These were ordinary fans doing extraordinary things.
Gary Cooper was also attacked by the journalist Neil Ashton in a shocking Daily Mail article, which just happened to be published at the same time as an interview with Bates. Coincidence? I’m not concerned about Mr Cooper’s bank accounts, loans, family or his ticket purchasing history. I am only interested in the way in which he conducts himself as the Chairman of the Trust.
However, even in the early days, I was slightly dubious about the Trust’s intentions. During the summer, TOMA speculation converted everyday supporters of Leeds United into sleep deprived zombies, spending up to 24 hours a day refreshing the pages of WACCOE, desperate for even the most tenuous piece of ‘ITK’ information. It was a bleak time for us all. However, the Trust seemed to insinuate (and on more than one occasion, openly declare) that they had been in direct contact with potential buyers. This irritated me on two levels: firstly, why should a very small subsection of fans be privy to this information whilst the vast majority are kept in the dark? I have just as much right to know the facts as any other fan, so comments made by the Trust that secrecy was required so as not to jeopardise any future deal felt a little bit like telling a child “I’ll let you know when you’re older…” Secondly, why would any self-respecting businessman consult with a group of fans prior to a takeover? This isn’t some cosy coffee club; it’s a multi-million pound business. Can you imagine the Glazers calling the Manchester United Supporters Club to have a quick chat before their deal went through? It made me think that the people who were speaking to the Trust must be pranksters, very unprofessional, or that the Trust wasn’t as ‘ITK’ as they led us to believe.
We then began to see Trust statements being released. “The Trust welcomes news that…”, “The Trust responds to…” and “The Trust would like to…” Speaking as an average fan who joined the Trust as a member rather than a shareholder, I wondered where these opinions were coming from. Was it just five men having a chat in the pub? Had they carefully analysed the feedback they had received and released the majority’s opinion? Was it just the opinions of the paying shareholders? Either way, I didn’t feel like the statements were representing me, and for an organisation that was fighting for transparency and fairness at the heart of Leeds United, I had no idea as to their own processes.
Some people would argue that I should have been proactively expressing my opinion in order for it to be heard. I disagree, and this goes back to the union analogy – if the Trust only listens to the members who get in touch with them, passive members are not being represented. These passive members could very easily become lapsed members, and all of a sudden, the active base of supporters is not looking as robust as we first thought. Members need to be kept engaged, and I believe the Trust should be consulting fans on a much more frequent basis. At the moment, it seems a bit like an exclusive club.
The split base of free members and shareholders is particularly helpful. Why should I pay another fan £5 to have more of a say? According to the Trust’s website, you gain the following perks:
- take part in the Trust’s decision making
- vote at the Trust’s AGM
- select the Trust’s Board members
- stand for election to the Trust Board yourself
The board members have obviously done their research and make a compelling argument for their current status as an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS), which is the reason there is a ‘paid for’ level of membership. But do we really need our supporters’ group to have a legal status where individual members are liable for £1 if the Trust is sued? Do we really need a legal status where the Trust can employ staff or even own a part of the club? I truly believe that Trust has good intentions – they say on their website: “why always be criticising, when we can be running and participating – we think we can bring huge benefits to the club, so give us a chance – to own the club we love (or a part of it)”. Based on what’s happened so far, I believe they would also be out of their depth.
To use my previous example, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (another IPS) has been trying to regain control of their club since 2005. They have 175,000 members and even hired a web strategy company to boost their numbers and promote their cause. Nothing has happened. So I don’t think the Trust’s aim should be buying into the club – it should be getting into the club. The most obvious way to do this is by having a fan representative on the Leeds United board. Someone like Dominic Matteo, who has the full respect of the club’s fanbase, but also has a business background. As much as I love Leeds, fan ownership of the club is not something I’m interested in. The last time a fan was in charge of our club, I seem to remember it all went a bit sour? Leave business to the business people and we’ll concentrate on supporting our club.
We used to have Ray Fell and the Leeds United Supporters Club representing us. I don’t think anyone disputes the fact that it didn’t work. LUSC weren’t really supported or even acknowledged by the vast majority of Leeds fans. The new LUS Trust (I’m sorry, but despite using the acronym for my title, ‘LUST’ really has to stop…) has the numbers, the respect and the right attitude. It’s what they do with all of that power now that will either make or break them.