Thomas Sutcliffe: Tout wars make monkeys of us all

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The Independent Online

However low your reputation sinks, you can usually find someone to look down on - and it has to be said that ticket touts provide a valuable public service in this regard. When Tessa Jowell stood up at last week's Ticket Touting Summit, for example, and announced that the battle to stamp out touting had begun, she would hardly have been human if she hadn't enjoyed the sensation of moral elevation. How blissful to be on the offensive for once, after so many rearguard actions - and who could contradict her crusading call to arms on behalf of "the genuine fan" - the abstract entity on behalf of whom she has gone to war?

At the summit - also attended by representatives from Ticketmaster and eBay, rock promoters and sporting bodies - the Culture Secretary set out a list of basic principles. Ticket agencies, she said, should limit the number of tickets that can be sold in a single transaction, blacklist known touts, set up a more effective returns policy and ban futures trading in tickets - in which someone sells you a ticket they don't actually have yet. All this, she explained, was to "protect genuine fans from being frozen out of the market".

Splendid all round. Riding down from the high ground comes Tessa on a white charger, scattering the touts before her. I see them as Orcs in Hackett leisurewear, spitting curses as they retreat and leaving the ground littered with wildly overpriced tickets.

There is a problem, though. Even if we don't care that a government is setting out to rig a market (it's done in other areas, and it isn't impossible to think of good reasons why it should be so), there is the question of whether it can be successfully rigged - and what part the "genuine fan" plays in its creation. I confess myself that I don't entirely see what is "fake" about a fan who's prepared to shell out four or five times the face value for a ticket to see the object of their adulation.

And I wonder too how the authenticity of concert-goers' fandom could be established by means other than market pricing. If you set up an online trivia quiz that purchasers have to complete successfully before putting in their orders, it would take about 10 minutes before the answers were on sale to less diligent devotees. Perhaps the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could set up invigilated exams, at which prospective moshers would be obliged to turn up in person to answer multiple-choice questions on the Arctic Monkeys.

The anti-touting groups rightly point out that touts already rig the market themselves, block-buying tickets as soon as they go on sale and turning them round within minutes on eBay. It would do no harm at all to make this more difficult, and it surely can't be beyond the ingenuity of man to circumvent the software packages that give some touts advantages over individual punters.

But markets only get cornered when someone knows that the consumer will pay more - and the real problem here is the gap between the unsustainable fiction of face value and the actual going rate. Even the most altruistic attempts to cut out the touts are likely to fall victim to that. A noble website called Scarlet Mist has set up a clearing house for fans unable to use their tickets and prepared to sell at face value. You can, for instance, get Madonna tickets at Wembley for about £320 a pair (yes, that really is face value). But as they're currently trading on eBay at £510, it isn't going to take the touts long to spot another source of supply.

In truth, the only mechanism that "genuine fans" have to defeat the touts is boycott. If the price is intolerably high, don't pay it and punish them where it hurts. Unfortunately, the more genuine your fandom the stronger the temptation to defect from this common purpose. And once one person defects others are likely to follow in a rush that sends the price spiralling until demand approximates supply.

It's possible, I suppose, that Jowell could press the Government to make attendance at rock concerts and sports events a universal civic right - along the lines of child benefit - but as the principles she advanced the other day are voluntary only, and involve no promise of legislation, that seems unlikely. Genuine fans of music may have to settle for the realisation that the genuine fans of money will get it out of them one way or another. Rob Ballantine, a concert promoter, was recently quoted putting his case against touts: "If someone spends £50 on a £25 ticket, that's £25 they don't have to spend on the night." In other words, some bastard milked this punter dry before I could get to the udders.

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