Leading article: Blair must stop Murdoch taking over our national sport

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The Independent Culture
THERE CAN be no question that Rupert Murdoch's attempt to buy Manchester United should be stopped, but it is important to be clear about why.

The Government cannot step in to block it simply because it would increase the rampant commercialism which is changing the face of football. Man Utd Inc would be an even more exploitative business than Man Utd FC, even more hell-bent on fleecing genuine fans and charging outrageous prices for children's shirts.

But these are prices that people are prepared to pay, and it is a tribute to football's success that one club can be worth pounds 500m. The recent strength of English football owes a great deal, too, to the money brought into it by BSkyB. The fact is that sport is big business, and we should welcome it being run efficiently, even as we sigh with nostalgia for the days of the terraces.

But if this deal went ahead, it would be disastrous for the sport. One only has to look across the Atlantic at our game's unrecognisable cousin, which kicked off its season yesterday, to realise how full-blooded commercialism and television can change the nature of a game.

The argument against Mr Murdoch buying Manchester United cannot in the end be one of sentiment but one of economics. The point about sport, and especially a sport like football which is played all over the country by people of all ages and abilities, is that it generates loyalties which can be turned into a source of profit. There has always been a tension between club owners and fans, but this deal goes beyond a single club. Mr Murdoch does not want to buy Manchester United in the hope that it will compete with and beat other teams on a level playing field. He wants exclusive control of the television rights to the top games in Europe - which is almost as much a natural monopoly as a network of gas pipelines.

Tony Banks, the sports minister, has already rung the Government's alarm bells. And even if Mr Murdoch pretends that he has always been a particular fan of the club that gave us Charlton, Best and Cantona, we should not believe his promise that everyone would still be able to watch their successors. As for the idea that he would like to put a European super-league on pay- per-view television, Mr Murdoch wears an unconvincing look of wounded innocence. He has made promises before and broken them. Long ago he guaranteed the editorial independence of The Times and Sunday Times, a promise which was a dead letter within weeks. Sky Television's takeover of BSkyB saw similar promises swept aside. Since then he has used sport as a lever to gain market share, making and breaking promises of open access all along.

Mr Murdoch's aim is to build a monopoly of televised football at the top level, not just in Britain but across Europe. As with his effective purchase of the entire sport of Rugby League, which he turned from a winter to a summer game, this would give him huge power over the lower levels of the sport. A Government genuinely committed not to football but to a dynamic and competitive market economy must act aggressively and pre- emptively to stymie the inherent tendency of big business to monopoly. This is a real test of Mr Blair's young government, already on the cusp of being permanently marked with the word "cronyism". The Prime Minister allowed himself to be seen as Mr Murdoch's sales rep in that famous phone call from the Italian prime minister. What happened to all that brave pre-election talk about standing up to vested interests? He must stand up for the national interest and stop this deal going ahead.