Football: Mellor argues to preserve status quo

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The Independent Online
DAVID MELLOR, the former Tory MP who is now the chairman of the Football Task Force, explained to a court yesterday the raison d'etre of Six O Six, the Radio Five Live football phone-in he hosts on Saturday evenings. "We try to make journeys a shade less wearisome," he said.

The statement seemed especially apt as Mellor proceeded to turn two hours of evidence in what has essentially been a dull journey - through a maze strewn with legal wranglings about contracts for televised football - into something considerably less wearisome. Using his platform as the supporters' friend ("I have my own views, but not out of line with fans' opinions") and his practiced skills as an advocate, he imposed his larger than life personality onto the proceedings.

"Where is all this going?" he asked on several occasions, affecting a bluster in the face of protracted cross-examination questions. "I've answered the same question in three forms already," he appealed at another point to the Judge, Mr Justice Ferris, as if he could not wait to get to what he considered the core issue of the case. By the time he stepped down from the stand at around 12.30pm, there were whispers in the press gallery along the lines of "if this'd been a boxing match, it would've been abandoned for the safety of Mellor's opponent."

The opponent in question was Geoffrey Vos, QC, representing the Office of Fair Trading in its case against the Premier League, Sky TV and the BBC over the League's right to negotiate television deals collectively on behalf of its 20 clubs. Mellor, called as witness for the League, was there to argue why the status quo was the best way to maintain football's current good fortune.

Having confirmed he had been an MP for 12 years, a minister for nine and the chairman of the Task Force since August 1997, Mellor had also furnished the court with the information that he pays pounds 2,500 per season for his executive season ticket at Chelsea. "It's like the Ritz," he said, denying that access to the best seats at Stamford Bridge club was a closed shop. "Open to everyone, you know." And then he got down to the business of mauling his inquisitor.

"People don't like to be criticised," Mellor said of the OFT, when Vos suggested that a Task Force report - overseen by Mellor - had been biased in suggesting an OFT win in the case would harm football. "And when they are, they say those being critical don't know what they're talking about."

He said football had a right to maximise its income. "What is valuable for the purchasers is the monopoly, and what is valuable for the game is the money that the sale of television rights brings in," he said. Clubs such as Leicester, which currently receives around pounds 6.5m per season - around 38 per cent of its total income - from television, would lose out in a free-for-all, Mellor said. Clubs such as Leicester, he said, meant every club except a small elite.

When challenged by Vos that television income could still be fairly redistributed if individual deals were introduced, Mellor replied: "That is a presentational refuge point you've taken which is not convincing." He added: "I place more confidence in the central direction of the Premier League than the individual goodwill of the clubs."

When asked to concede that individual sale of rights would at least lead to competition, Mellor replied: "It's not called competition. It's called nonsense. What is the value of something everybody's got?"

Mellor did concede that Sky's dominance in the football market might perhaps lead to inflated prices for televised football, but he added: "If proper steps are taken when these things are negotiated you can have the best of both worlds." At the time of the next rights' negotiations, he said, the Premier League could insert a price ceiling in any deal with broadcasters. To tamper with a system that appeared to be working well as it was seemed foolish, if not dangerous, he added. "You could bring the temple down on people's heads when it simply needs some re-roofing," he concluded. Having brought the house down himself, he made his exit. The case continues.