There were about 500 seats set out in rows for the AGM, and most of them were filled. I’d estimate over 300 people there, of which I’d guess 100-150 were bona-fide shareholders in their own right, a little over 100 were there as members of Fanshare and the rest were members of the press and assorted hangers-on – the rest of the Board who surrounded Stan Kroenke, for example, none of whom own a single share.
Next year Fanshare will be gone and a few more small shareholders will probably have sold to one or other billionaire, so there will be fewer attendees. However, I tend to think that those small shareholders who are left are probably the ones most likely to turn up and want to ask questions, so it will still be in three figures for a while yet I expect.
But while small shareholders can still attend, their right to say what they want to say and get answers to questions continues to be whittled away. Let’s be clear: A shareholders meeting is held for one reason only – Arsenal as a public company have a legal obligation to hold one. They don’t want to. It’s an inconvenience having to explain yourself to a bunch of people you have little or no regard for, but that’s the law. As long as Kroenke is only a majority owner rather than the sole owner, public AGMs will continue to be held. We can be thankful that Alisher Usmanov has so far chosen not to sell to Kroenke, because as I’ve explained before that would be the end for small shareholders at Arsenal, and a swift end for the remaining accountability. At the moment the Board have to come and face the crowd and explain themselves; if there were no small shareholders the scrutiny would be much less than it is.
As things stand, they face the crowd for as short a time as possible and do their best not to give away anything that resembles a fact, never mind a truth, but at least they have to go through the motions. Rather that than the totally unaccountable syphoning of the Glazers at Man Utd, or the faceless autonomy of a Sheikh or oligarch.
So what happened at the meeting? I won’t go through it blow by blow, because the pattern – already a familiar one from previous AGMs and other meetings under the current regime – becomes immediately clear.
The first agenda item was to approve the accounts, so they decided that in order to do that, the first order of business was to answer the first question of the day, the one as it happens submitted by me. It read:
“It’s reported that Arsenal paid KSE £3m for advisory services. Was a competitive tender issued for these services and can you tell us specifically what the services were, why they were needed and whether such fees will become an annual feature?”
My question, like all the others that followed, was put up on screens around the room so everyone could read it. The answer was read out by Chairman Sir Chips Keswick, and we weren’t afforded the luxury of being able to read along with him. However, The Daily Telegraph live-blogged the event, and I assume recorded some of the speeches, so their website gives this as the answer read out, and from memory I’d say it’s accurate:
“The £3m fee to was proposed by myself and Lord Harris in respect of wide range of services offered by Kroenke Sports Enterprises. They have an extensive experience and it is of upmost (sic) important (sic again) that we use it to best advantage, There was no competitive tender – they were available to us, so competitive tender was not needed. We are entirely satisfied. In terms of future fees, it will depend on the services provided.”
My question had four parts. How many were answered?
Was a competitive tender issued?
(Not a great answer, but a truthful one.)
Can you tell us specifically what the services were?
The closest to this is that there were ‘a wide range’. If it was so much you’d think an example might be possible.
Why were they needed?
Will such fees become an annual feature?
“It will depend on the services provided.”
The services that you can’t tell us about? The wide range of things that you can’t name? It’s almost Pythonesque levels of absurdity to answer questions in this way. It would be funnier though if it didn’t involve £3m of ordinary people’s hard earned money being given to a man who is already richer than all of us added together and then multiplied by 1000.
So two members of the Board who own no shares between them proposed that the company they purport to run on behalf of all shareholders, pays £3m to the majority shareholder, who allows them to sit on the Board, for services that can’t be defined but have never before been needed in 127 years of Arsenal history.
And there are people who actually say that there is no need for regulation of the activities of people at Arsenal, no need for accountability.
How do the Board members sleep at night when they stand there and spout this utter nonsense? There is no way they expect us to believe it. And don’t give me any crap about it being ‘his club, he can do what he wants’, or ‘no one would care in any other form of business’, I’m not interested. If that’s what you think then you’re part of the reason this happens.
However, back to the meeting and, as I say, the pattern was established. Questions were answered in a generally long-winded way with little substance. If the question had several parts one might be addressed, the others would be ignored.
Examples, which I’ll paraphrase:
Do Arsenal support at least looking into safe standing?
It’s a difficult issue. It’s out of our hands really.
Do Arsenal support taking any Premier League matches abroad?
It’s a difficult issue. We haven’t seen a full proposal so we can’t say.
Do Arsenal support the London Living Wage?
It’s a difficult issue. It’s political. We don’t want to get involved.
You said last season you didn’t want to arbitrarily reward some away fans with free/reduced train travel, then arbitrarily rewarded some with a voucher – why?
It’s a difficult issue.
How is it fair that longstanding season ticket holders didn’t get Cup Final tickets and newer ones did.
Yes that does seem unfair, I can’t really defend it, but it’s a difficult issue.
I am paraphrasing these into a tiny percentage of the words Ivan (it was generally Ivan) used. Some answers lasted five minutes without saying anything more concrete than “It’s a difficult issue”. Obviously some things are difficult issues – you can’t give everyone a Cup Final ticket when so few are allocated and you’ll never please everyone, but what Ivan didn’t mention on that topic is that they have lost or discarded all the season ticket records from Highbury, so there’s no chance of long-standing holders being given priority, however unfair he accepts the current situation is.
People say Ivan should be a politician. If he was, and appeared on Question Time or Newsnight or (even better) Have I Got News For You, he would end up having it fairly forcibly pointed out that he rarely provides a proper answer to a question. He’d be pinned down much more than we are able to do when he is on a podium with a script and a microphone and we are sitting in rows. He is the king of waffle. He’s too clever to believe everything he says, he’s just playing the game for Kroenke, as most of them are now. When Ivan speaks for long enough you are left with the dispiriting impression that truth itself has disappeared. You are waffled into a comatose state, unable to comprehend the words being spoken after a while, because while they’re words that individually you understand, when they’re all together they lose meaning. It’s like a team becoming less than the sum of its parts. Like all the cogs in a clock whirring but not connecting, so the hands fall limply and uselessly down.
I am depressed now. There was more that happened at the AGM, more to explain, more to talk about, more to poke fun at because of the absurdity of it.
Maybe later. In the meantime, have a nice day.