Leading Article: Mr Murdoch goes over the top

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The Independent Online
Rugby league - you know, the one Will Carling doesn't play - is discovering the price of selling its soul to Rupert Murdoch. In exchange for an pounds 87m investment in a new Super League, Mr Murdoch's company News Corporation will have a veto over transfers by the top players. Imagine if a media magnate had this kind of power on the football field; Stan Collymore's pounds 8.5m transfer from Nottingham Forest to Liverpool could have been blocked by a mere nod from Mr M. Thanks to a clause in the contracts signed by the Super League's top players, this may well happen in rugby league.

Still, all's fair in love, war and commerce. These top players are getting large sums of money for signing their independence away. And News Corporation is pouring millions of pounds into rugby league clubs which were heading for broke. To the dismay of the local communities who turned out to support their league teams whatever the weather, the game is being changed to suit the living-room rather than the grandstand. But as rugby league can no longer support itself on the takings from the turnstile, it is inevitable that the broadcast media should get involved with the future of the sport.

The big problem with the Super League deal is not the link between sport and business - it is Rupert Murdoch. News Corporation is fast developing a monopoly on international sports broadcasting. This allows him to bid up the price viewers pay to watch sport on TV. But it also gives him considerable power over the sports he broadcasts. Ideally, rugby league clubs should have been able to choose between several competing broadcast companies, negotiating their terms and preserving their control over the game. Instead, they were faced with a single "take it or leave it" Murdoch deal, the terms of which are only just starting to become clear.

Rupert Murdoch has crossed the boundary between controlling the broadcasting and controlling the sport itself. At least with football, Mr Murdoch still has to negotiate with the Football Association: the media mogul cannot make the final decision. The contracts for top players in the Super League demonstrate just how much power Mr Murdoch wants over the day to day running of the sport. No one mentioned this when the deal was announced in March. How much more is there still to be revealed?

In his defence, Mr Murdoch might argue that his intervention will improve competition on the field. Right now Wigan are far and away the best team in the league. If Mr Murdoch uses his veto to stop good players flocking Wigan-wards, other clubs might improve. More evenly matched teams will make better rugby league. But there are better ways to achieve this than handing over power to a multinational.

Power over broadcasting should remain separate and distinct from power over sport. The extent of Mr Murdoch's power over rugby league is unacceptable. One fears for the future of sport should this principle be extended to other games, as probably will be the case. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission should watch out - this is not in the public interest.

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