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28 May 2024

Seeing justice from one’s own angle

By Martin Baker

I have taken to the hills – out of choice, I stress. As far as I am aware, flight from justice is not yet a necessity: no-one is coming after me. I have filed my UK tax return, and my conscience is clear (which probably just means I’ve either forgotten or repressed all the bad behaviour that makes life interesting). No, I was drawn to the Lake District in the north of England, whence I file this column, by a combination of business, pleasure and nostalgia.

The business reason was a day at a university in Lancashire, where I conducted  two seminars on the workings of the UK online media. It was a master class, apparently (the university’s words, not mine). Anyway, in that spirit of complacent self-congratulation, I decided to indulge in a little pleasure, and headed further north to take in some of the wonderful mountain scenery which inspired writers and poets such as Wordsworth and other renowned Romantics to a state of euphoria.

It was also a nostalgic trip, in that the north of England was where I passed the majority of my embarrassingly well-spent youth (it was largely study and sport, precious little time smoking furtive cigarettes behind the bike sheds and wondering about what was going on in the girls’ school over the road).

Perhaps the best part of my trip was a visit to the boardroom at Deepdale. Deepdale is the stadium of one of football’s oldest clubs, Preston North End. Preston were playing host to the mighty Chelsea in the fourth round of England’s FA Cup. The stadium was packed, and the boardroom was a jolly place after the game (a predictable 2-0 win to Chelsea). My hosts from the Preston North End boardroom had told me that in the days before the game the club had had a visit from several well-built Russian men who had come to cast an eye over the place. These fellows seemed to have plenty of bulges in their pockets – but apparently it didn’t seem quite polite to ask if they’d like to keep whatever it was they were carrying in a bag.

In the event, Roman Abramovich did not make the trip to watch his team play, but the chap who did the deal for him showed up. Bruce Buck is an American lawyer who left the London office of White and Case, an established Wall Street law firm, and single-handedly built the European practice of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (known, for reasons of brevity, as Skaddens – or Skadden Arps at most) into one of the UK’s and Europe’s most respected players in the mergers and acquisitions field.

Buck is turned 60 years of age now, but his enthusiasm for the game and for Chelsea Football Club is as fresh as ever. He is a pleasure to be around. Buck’s been a season-ticket holder at Chelsea since 1989. One imagines that he probably doesn’t need to buy one now, as a decent seat must be a perk of being chairman.

Buck’s energy and enthusiasm extend to doing deals – and there have been plenty in the recent mergers and acquisitions pick-up. When we first met, some five years ago, he told me what it took to be a top legal deal executioner:  “If it takes 72 hours to do a deal, we do it. We don’t complain. People in our line of work get a real excitement and thrive on it. It’s a knack – a little judgment, street sense, understanding the ultimate objective for the client, some intellectual capability, some of it is technical.”

That still holds good today, but, while still a very active lawyer, he gives more of his time to running Chelsea than he used to back then. Football, as they say, is a funny game – and it needs very careful watching  - especially the commercial side of things.

Preston North End’s new manager, Darren Ferguson, also come into the boardroom after Saturday’s match. Darren is the son of Sir Alex, the Manchester United manager.  The impression I got is that both clubs are on an upward trajectory. Although, of course, it’s very, very difficult to predict anything in football, both on and off the field. As Buck says, football is an extraordinary world all to itself. Which brings me to a worrying development for those who’ve invested in showcasing sports content. I won’t return to this topic any time soon – so please forgive this latest iteration.

The prototype of the new online content revenue model is with us: Google has announced that it is to stream Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches live via its YouTube video-sharing website.

The details of the deal are a little sketchy at the moment, but it is known that Google has acquired exclusive online rights over the cricket for two years. Google and the IPL will take revenue in the form of sponsorship and advertising deals, and will share that revenue stream. Just how it’s split is not in the public domain yet.

The deal is described a “global” one. But that’s the nature of the internet. Google’s Indian subsidiary is the IPL’s official partner. But the location of the company is irrelevant: once the content is online the whole world will have access to it (it would be available via a secondary content provider if needed – ie, if there were a restriction on non-Indian subscribers – which there isn’t).

The pay wall experiment

And finally, there’s another development in this area. This really is the moment when things are happening online.

I see that the New York Times (NYT) has decided to try to attempt the near-impossible and put its most-valued content behind a pay wall. The decision has just been announced, but it will not be implemented for a year. This, allegedly, is because the NYT is so desperate to get it right, and to offer only the highest-quality content for subscription. Well, it may be that this is the real reason. But it may also be that the NYT is trying to throw its weight behind the idea of a pay wall but does not want to have to be seen to execute a humiliating u-turn if consumers decide they want free content.

And free content will win. Just listen out for the deafening silence from the NYT on this topic a year or so from now...

The writer is a journalist, author and commentator on international business affairs. The views expressed are his own