Matt Scott: ‘Bung’ revelations are just grist to the media mill, not cause for regulation

money flying

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” John Stuart Mill

Greed, egotism, immorality and corruption. These are the vices of which some of the highest-profile figures in English football have been accused as a result of the Daily Telegraph’s undercover exposé of the game. Quite rightly, people ask how can a nation such as ours, whose erstwhile chairman David Bernstein stood up at the 2011 FIFA Congress to lecture Member Associations on their governance, ever take the moral high ground again?

The revelations about agents, coaches and managers, right up to the England manager Sam Allardyce himself, have been tawdry. These are men already paid salaries the common man can only dream of, so their grasping for a few dollars more understandably offends the morality of hard-working fans.

The worst of the scandal arose on Thursday, when there were accusations of managers doing more than asking for extracurricular speaking engagements, as did Allardyce, but actively seeking cash payments for signing certain players. The reports caused a meltdown of moralising in newspaper columns, radio phone-ins and watercooler conversations all over the land. There is a widespread feeling that in English football they’re all at it.

But what, exactly, is “it”? People are upset, that much is clear. But what do they have to be upset about? As John Stuart Mill philosophised in his 1859 essay On Liberty, someone should be prevented from doing something only if his actions are injurious to anyone else. If what he is doing is between consenting adults and no one else is being harmed, he should be allowed to get on with it.

So let’s take a look at what, really, is the beef. Who really has been harmed. Let’s start with the clubs. Here is a fact about the top English football clubs: their owners are all, to a man, very successful people who are accustomed to getting their way in life. Moreover, they are penny-pinching misers when it comes to spending their football clubs’ money. It might seem strange that a game awash with billions of pounds of broadcasting cash could ever be thrifty but it is true: for the most part not a penny will be spent unless it directly and positively influences results on the pitch.

There is another thing about (most) English-football-club owners: they are very well plugged in to the rumour mill. They know exactly what is going on in the game. If they have a man on the staff who is taking side-payments from the transfer activity he conducts, they will be aware of it. Football is a gossipy industry (it is how the Daily Telegraph came by the information that led to its investigation) and if a manager is on the take, the ownership will find out sooner or later. If he has a reputation for doing that sort of thing everywhere he goes, then the ownership will have known about it before they’ve hired him.

And so here is the rub of it: clubs who do not like their money being spent, still less misspent, know if their managers/technical directors/preferred agents are creaming money off the top in transfers. Yet they do nothing about it. This suggests that clubs do not feel they are being harmed by the practice. Indeed, the status quo may very well be actively incentivising it. Those who are in charge of £50m-plus transfer budgets very often earn low-ish six-figure salaries. That’s a huge amount of money for most of us but it is only a tiny fraction of the money they routinely handle. A skewed sense of what they deserve seems to be at play here.

Furthermore, those in charge of the transfer activity also know they do not have to worry about being caught out. They know their employers already know what they are doing (see above) and they know the regulator (such as it is) at the Football Association is unable to get to the bottom of things even if it wants to. That much was made amply clear when accusations of ‘bungs’ last arose 10 years ago and the private investigator Quest was hired to make inquiries. The lack of ability to subpoena people of interest to the investigation meant it did not get very far.

The only people capable of finding out what has happened are the police and the tax authorities. But as long as the tax on the income is being paid, there is nothing for the taxman to look into. And unless tax is being evaded, the payment of a side commission is not a criminal matter.

So the only question remains is: why do the owners who so hate their clubs’ money being wasted let this go on under their noses? And the answer is: they see this practice as simply being the cost of business. If you want to acquire a particular player to directly and positively improve your performance on the pitch and the only way to achieve that is to pay this or that commission, then so be it. Indeed, if part of an employee’s pay packet is what he draws off-site from the deals he does, then there are no social-security contributions associated with those payments. So to the most frugal owners it might even be regarded as an efficient means of paying a salary.

The only exception to that would be if the primary motivation for signing a particular player becomes the side-payment incentive, ahead of the improvement of the playing squad. But signing inferior players in favour of a bung is a practice that would soon be found out: results would suffer and the first man in the firing line would be the one who bought those players. His reputation would suffer in the small, gossipy football ecosystem and his entire livelihood would be at risk.

Indeed, there is no sign that this is happening at all. The product in the Premier League is better than ever, with Leicester City as the reigning champions and at least six other clubs harbouring realistic aspirations of taking the title off them this season, this campaign could be the best ever.

The Telegraph’s investigation has been journalistically brilliant. All over the world people are poring over the revelations it gives us about the conduct of some very famous football people. It satisfies our prurient interest about what is going on in the English game and it is selling newspapers. But we should take care about how we deal with those revelations. Some have so offended fans as to lead to calls from several influential quarters, not least the UK parliament, for external regulation of football. But if the owners of the clubs do not want to change things, who is anyone else to tell them otherwise?

Regulatory powers would be excessive and unnecessary in this case, because as we can see, there is no victim. Logically, introducing a power against football’s will to prevent harm to others when no one is at risk of harm would be a power wrongfully exercised. Mill, one of history’s greatest political philosophers and a man with a keen sense of liberty, would quickly recognise that.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1500950997labto1500950997ofdlr1500950997owedi1500950997sni@t1500950997tocs.1500950997ttam1500950997