Calls for Labour to intervene

United sale: Pressure builds on Mandelson to refer deal for monopolies investigation
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The Independent Online
POLITICIANS, FANS and sports personalities reacted angrily to the news last night of Rupert Murdoch's pounds 625m deal, which looks likely to revolutionise the world of sport.

Pressure was building on the Government to use its powers to intervene in the deal. MPs from both major parties condemned the deal as against the public interest.

Labour MP Joe Ashton, chairman of the cross party Commons group on football, urged Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to intervene.

He said if Mr Mandelson listened to the industry, the fans and the voters, "he'll realise the weight of public opinion against it."

He said: "If he alienates them in supporting Mr Murdoch - well, he's a politician, he knows he's got to get votes and there are far more votes in telling Mr Murdoch he has gone a step too far than there is in supporting him."

Mr Ashton said Mr Murdoch wanted to clinch the deal ahead of a court case starting in January which will decide whether clubs can negotiate individual deals with television companies. Mr Murdoch's acquisition of Manchester Utd means that if the Restrictive Practices Court does rule that clubs are being prevented from selling rights to their own games by the BSkyB contract, he is in a perfect position to benefit as owner of the first club to set up its own television channel.

Hours before the deal was disclosed, David Mellor, the Football Task Force chairman and former Tory MP, joined those condemning the proposed takeover.

He said: "Is this proud club with all its traditions just to be a pawn in a global media power-play by Rupert Murdoch, who hardly knows where Manchester is?"

The Tory MP Roger Gale, vice-chairman of the party's backbench culture, media and sport committee, said the deal was "all to do with business and not a lot to do with football".

The takeover will present a tough decision for Mr Mandelson in the light of the close relations between the Government and Mr Murdoch's media empire.

The bid will be examined by the Office of Fair Trading, which will advise the Government on when whether to refer the deal to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC), the body that rules on whether takeovers are against the public interest.

At the grassroots level, fans united with leading figures in the game to criticise the deal and supporters are likely to voice their dissent at the team's match against Charlton today.

Gillian Howarth, secretary of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, said: "With that sum of money I suppose it was inevitable they would accept, but it proves that they don't listen to the backbone of the club - to the match-going supporters who don't want the deal ...Money talks."

The former manager of Manchester United Tommy Docherty admitted he was "very disappointed". "I think Mr Murdoch has got Manchester United very, very cheaply," he said.

Shares in the club, which would be valued at about pounds 2.40 each under the terms of the deal, have risen from below pounds 2 on Monday.

The Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson told the Sun: "Sky TV has been good for football."

Fans' wrath, page 26