On the “Fit and Proper Person” Test, and the Onus of Responsibility

Our previous major post took a close look at the presumed motivations of Human Rights Watch’s criticism of the Premier League for accepting Thaksin Shinawatra into its circle of owners.

Now we look at matters from the League’s point of view. What exactly is the purpose of the “Fit and Proper Person” test?

Quite simply, to prevent clubs from being taken over by people with a clear conflict of interest, or with a history of business fraud. It’s a sound set of rules for that purpose, by all accounts.

It’s not intended, however, to be a screen for former political leaders trying to own a club. There is nothing approaching a human rights clause in the test, and Richard Scudamore and the Premier League have a point in saying it’s beyond their expertise to make judgments about the politics of other nations.

Let’s grant Scudamore that one, and agree that is the role of government ultimately to establish a set of norms for evaluating the ability of ex-politicians and others from abroad to come to the UK to do business, including setting up a football club. There are sound grounds for reaching this conclusion: the firmest foundation for social justice is a publicly enforced set of rules made in the public interest, not relying on the ethical judgments of individuals, especially in cases when one would be attempting judgments about matters well beyond one’s personal experience or direct knowledge.

The former directors at Manchester City were not experts in Thai politics, or in human rights problems; neither are the folks at the Premier League. Responsibility must fall to the government, or it will fall nowhere. To the extent that Human Rights Watch or others aim not just to score a point in the media, but to actually prevent an alleged human rights abuser from taking control of English football clubs, they should write their next letter to the Brown government, not Richard Scudamore.

Now that we’ve identified the proper locus of responsibility for cases like this, there still remains this question: Should there be a human rights clause which prospective buyers of football clubs should have to adhere to? What would it look like? What would be the point?

After all, one might say, keeping a Thaksin from buying a Manchester City isn’t going to undo any past human rights abuses. And he is unlikely (one would think) to perpetrate any abuses in his capacity as chairman of MCFC.

So what’s the point?

There are two points that speak in favor of some sort of human rights clause to be applied to football owners.

First is the thought that sending a message that rights abusers will be shunned will have some sort of effect on leaders of state now engaged or contemplating such abuses. That may be the case, but the deterrent effect of any such rule would be, at best, excruciatingly tiny. It’s hard to imagine violence-prone leaders giving up and playing nice because they are worried that they won’t be able to retire to England to run a football team after they get sent into exile.

The truth is that a human rights clause would be more about the UK and upholding a certain standard of propriety than it would be about preventing human rights abuses or comforting the victims and survivors and abuse. That may sound like a cynical take, but it’s not. Laws have the function, among other things, of expressing a society’s moral judgment about a given behavior. A law that banned owners implicated in human rights abuses from owning a football team would express society’s disapproval of persons of that type and actions of that type.

Whether there should be a law of such a type ultimately must be decided via the democratic process. If it turns out that most in the UK simply don’t want a more extensive “fit and proper person” test that offered a higher standard than the current Premier League rules, then such a law would make little sense.

But let’s suppose a majority did feel that having owners with thug-like tendencies were bad for the national game and helped corrupt the public morality. What should such a rule look like in practice?

The difficulty in a case like Thaksin is that while he is charged with overseeing a brutal reign of police violence by human rights organizations, he has been officially convicted of nothing. A standard that said any time a human rights group anywhere in the world raised a complaint would cause all kinds of havoc.

A better standard would be one that allowed nongovernmental organizations a window of time in which to file a complaint against a particular prospective owner, requesting a formal government investigation into the fitness of said person. A government committee would be charged with reviewing the initial letter of complaint, with the power to dismiss spurious charges. Charges considered worthy of serious consideration would be fully investigated, and a preliminary report filed. (An additional clause could be included to guarantee that complaint letters co-signed by a given number of MPs be automatically investigated.)

Both the complaining organizations and the person in question would then be given a short amount of time—a week—to respond to the preliminary report and provide any new relevant evidence. Then the committee would finalize the report, taking into account all available evidence, and reached a binding judgment.

That would provide a tougher standard than the bare legal minimum code of ethics now employed by the Premier League, while protecting fit persons from totally spurious charges.

In addition, I would recommend a separate criteria for ownership to apply to all politicians from abroad, not just alleged rights abusers. The proposed criteria would be simple: owners of English football clubs are not permitted to be actively involved as an elected official or candidate for office in another country while also running a football club. Violation of this rule would be cause for immediate expulsion.

The justification for that criteria is simply this: English football clubs should not be used as pawns in the politics of other nations; hence ownership of a football club and having a political role abroad is a form of conflict of interest. A rule like this would prevent English clubs being turned into propaganda tools or instruments of political advancement.

Why not apply the rule also to UK owners and prevent them from being involved in domestic politics? Presumably that would constitute a restriction of free political speech; moreover, there is a reasonably well-established convention separating sports from partisan politics in the UK. (While the UK is obliged not to abridge the political activities of its own citizens, the same obligation does not hold towards non-citizens’ activities in the politics of other nations, or so I would contend.)

A rule like that might well have dissuaded a figure like Thaksin from taking ownership in an English club, independent of any new human rights clauses. It also would eliminate scenarios in which English clubs are run for the political benefit of their owners, scenarios that would distort the identity and purpose of Premier League clubs beyond all recognition.

At the moment, however, the Premier League standard is simply not to care where the money came from or about the motivations of its owners, begging off all larger ethical questions. Whether a higher standard is ever implemented ultimately relies on the willingness of sufficient numbers of concerned persons in the UK to insist upon it, by drawing up a workable set of rules and then campaigning for them until they are adopted by the government.

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4 Comments on “On the “Fit and Proper Person” Test, and the Onus of Responsibility”

  1. mike williams Says:

    breaking news from thailand 14th august, today 9 supreme court judges in the trail of thaksin and his wife over the land deal ruled that as the defendants had not turned up then arrest warrants must be issued against them. the arrest warrants were requested at 1.40pm today by the public prosocutor.

  2. mike williams Says:

    it is now 5pm in the kindom of thailand and the arrest warrants have now been officially issued against thaksin and his wife.They are now classified as fugitives from the law.

  3. Vichai N Says:

    My own personal take on this (and I must warn people who keep up with my posts that I am extremely suspicious of our deposed leader Thaksin Shinawatra): Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra continue to play all of us for fools.

    It is easy enough for Thaksin Shinawatra to fool those rural villagers that this billionaire in dapper suit would come down to barren earth, eat their som-tams, sympathize with their daily deprivations, and promise to lift them from their poverty with the quickThaksin cash handout as downpayment (during elections).

    I did NOT however expect that it would be much easier for a Thaksin Shinawatra, already disgraced in his humble Thailand, but with a flash of few deca-millions (much cheaper than buying a majority vote Thaksin must have thought) to quickly win ‘fit and proper’ credentials to the Premier League Owners’ circle.

    Now I don’t begrude Thaksin his Manchester city venture and I wish him the best that he might find his permanent home in a Manchester city address, citizenship included. And I won’t question that Thaksin Shinawatra is qualified to be ‘fit and proper’ in Manchester city circles and anywhere else.

    It just sort of hit me however that at any place where Thaksin Shinawatra is around, Thaksin Shinawatra always succeed to get the shine while those around him gets the burn.

  4. […] London? That certainly must have been a typo. They must have meant Manchester City where Mr. Frank Shinawatra croons “I did it my way” nearly […]

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