Bloggers Getting SLAPPed To Save Clubs

Interest in owners may be rising, but traditional media's ability to investigate them is diminishing. A breed of informed fans are doing the digging instead, says Tom Young...

Last Updated: 07/03/13 at 16:38

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Football and accountancy aren't natural bedfellows. The smells of related party transactions and corporate governance side letters don't mingle happily with fried onions outside grounds on a Saturday. Children rarely dream at night of stadium naming rights or Indonesian mobile rights deals. But here we all are; these things matter now. And as speculative investing and financial restrictions have increased, a group of bloggers have been quietly turning football governance reporting into a sport itself.

Almost any club with questionable finances now has a highly-respected fan blogger scrutinising it. At Manchester United, Andy Green examines Glazernomics on his Andersred blog with the skill of a man who does it for a living (he's a London-based fund manager). In Scotland, the Rangers Tax Case blogger gained access to confidential financials and helped expose the reasons behind the club's plunge into liquidation a year ago.

Examples are everywhere. Birmingham's Often Partisan blog has done more than anyone to scrutinise Carson Yeung's ownership in the Midlands, while Leeds fans are thought to be working on the background of GFH Capital. More widely read, Twohundredpercent is a sort of well-researched WordPress tapestry of gloom, highlighting amongst other things, the dubious owners churning through all levels of the game. The Swiss Ramble blog, written by a finance expert in Zurich, publishes long, detailed and granular dissections of European clubs. This isn't rabid howling on phone-ins or message boards, it's considered analysis, much of it garnered from public records, financial statements or well-cultivated sources.

"The key is to show your workings, as they used to say at school," said Green in an interview last year. "The first big piece I did had fifteen footnotes showing the sources for all the numbers. Once people know it's proper financial analysis they begin to accept what you say."

These blogs are necessary. Aside from David Conn at The Guardian, Paul Kelso at The Telegraph and few others there is an eerie silence coming from the sports desks - both national and local - regarding real details of club ownership. The news media's reluctance to examine owners' affairs is partly down to demand. The whirling narrative of the Premier League is simply more popular; a racist feud usually trumps a wonky balance sheet when it comes to web traffic.

The decline in most newspapers' advertising revenues has also meant a cutting in editorial staff. Fewer journalists mean less time to chip away at company accounts and freedom of information requests. Media outlets are also more frightened than ever of litigation, as legal budgets are cut too. One journalist on a prominent national sports desk admits that his newspaper now has a zero litigation risk. "If there is any possibility that the subject of a story may bring a case against us, we simply won't publish it," he says. Not the perfect conditions for fearless reporting.

So the bloggers have stepped in. But with even smaller legal budgets than traditional media, they are easier to silence. Last week, financier Pascal Najadi, a passive backer in Keith Harris's recent failed bid for Portsmouth, sent blogging site Fans Network website a letter via libel lawyers Mishcon de Reya, accusing blogger Micah Hall of defamation in one of his posts. Hall is adamant he doesn't have a case to answer. Much of his work over the past four years has been used by the Football League, as well as national journalists covering Portsmouth. As reported on this site in October, his blogs are one of the key reasons the club is now in a position to be taken over by its fans. Hall might be a part-time blogger, but he's a very good one.

But Micah Hall doesn't have a fund to fight lawsuits. Najadi and his legal team may well be aware of this, which suggests the letter could be little more than a so-called SLAPP suit. A SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. They're legal actions for the primary purpose of shutting down criticism, but without a strong cause of action. Many view them as legal bullying tactics. If you haven't got the cash to fight the SLAPP - and bloggers rarely have - you simply stop writing, regardless of the strength of the claim. Portsmouth, an angry old city at the best of times, has been tipped into a rage by Najadi's letter. A fighting fund has been set up to pay for Hall's legal costs.

Other bloggers are aware of Hall's case and are following it keenly. "I do worry that I'll get SLAPPed with a lawsuit," says Almajir, who writes Birmingham's Often Partisan site. "But people I've written about such as Carson Yeung have more to lose than gain by doing so. It might be the one thing that stays their hand." Leeds blogger Wayne Gamble, who has focused on Ken Bates' deeply unpopular ownership model, is more sanguine about the threat: "I know Bates has seen my work and dismissed it - exactly as I'd hope he would. Pascal Najadi should take note."

Fan journalism has been brewing for some time, since the early days of the web. Football was an early adopter of the internet, creating some of the very first forums in the 1990s. "Fans are obsessional in their ability to talk about the minutiae of club-related matters," says Dave Boyle, consultant and former chief executive of Supporters' Direct. "Those people were suddenly served by the internet, in the same way that it serves all weird subcultures." Now, a supporter with an accountancy degree could analyse the club's books and upload it. "While 95% didn't care, 5% did; and that tiny group had finally found each other," adds Boyle.

The almost sickeningly perfect Swansea were early adopters of this online activism. In 2001, long before Michu and his hair arrived, the club was faced with a takeover from Australian-based businessman Tony Petty. But fans found Petty's name on a number of digitised records of companies which had been involved in liquidation, suggesting he was either a hopeless businessman or one very good at asset-stripping companies. Swansea bloggers were able to email fans of The Brisbane Strikers, Petty's last team. The response was sharp: avoid him. Within 24 hours they had offered the local paper the story. Immediately, Petty was on the back foot, without time to organise his retaliation. His tenure was doomed and the supporters took over soon after.

The fan blogging movement continued to gather pace over the early 2000s. As more clubs were used as speculative investments, these concerns grew along with the size of the online community. "They were still considered weird, but others in the game decided that they had to know about this too," says Boyle.

And then the 2000s hit puberty. Financial Fair Play and its domestic equivalents have forced fans to view their clubs through the prism of profit and loss, not simply trophies and promotion chasing. Add in over two decades of increasingly pantomime Premier League owners, many with questionable motives, and the bloggers' seat at the table has been secured, their importance undeniable.

These sites may be crucial, but with the UK heaving under brutal libel laws unchanged since 1843, there could be more SLAPPs coming their way soon. A defamation bill, if passed, would enable journalists and bloggers to write more freely, but it risks being killed off in the political row over the Leveson report. So for now simply being right isn't enough for bloggers, who risk censure from those running the very clubs they love.

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