Why are football clubs able to ban journalists when they don't like what they report?

Reporters across the UK are constantly fighting against overbearing clubs and their petty behaviour. As freedom of the press is examined in other spheres, we should remember the sports writers who are trying to balance the need to maintain access with the

Imagine the uproar if a group of lobby correspondents were banned from parliament for reporting criticism of the government. Even with government figures feeling increasingly emboldened in threatening media outlets they feel are not toeing the line, they have stopped short of outright bans. Football clubs, however, have no such qualms.

This week, Newcastle United prevented local newspaper reporters from asking questions at a post-match press conference. The club objected to coverage of a protest march against owner Mike Ashley. At Port Vale, the Stoke Sentinel’s reporter has been banned from the press box after asking why 1,000 fans had not received commemorative shirts they had been promised. Earlier this year Crawley Town banned a reporter from the Crawley News because the club did not like two headlines.

The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor was banned from Nottingham Forest in September. The club gave as the reason the fact that he had attended a game but not filed a match report. As Taylor pointed out, it’s common practice for reporters to attend games to circulate with players and officials but not necessarily to file a report, and the Guardian is not banned from 30 or 40 other clubs where this goes on. Forest’s ban also applies to the Observer, and Taylor alleges that a local freelance and the Nottingham Evening Post have also been ostracised for being to close to the previous board.

And of course there’s former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, now benefitting from blanket coverage of his book in all media outlets, who infamously would not speak to the BBC for seven years after the broadcaster aired a documentary in which critical questions were asked about his son. Ferguson was also caught on microphone at a Manchester United press conference in 2011 saying “we’ll get him. Ban him on Friday” after a reporter asked a question he disapproved of.

None of this is new. In 1997 I wrote a piece for When Saturday Comes magazine about journalists’ freedom to write being attacked by football clubs. That year, the magazine ran story after story about clubs banning the press. I wrote:

“Let’s be clear about what many senior football figures object to. It’s not dirt being dished or controversy being created, but awkward questions, rational criticism – anything, in fact, that fails to market the club.”

But the problem is not just the football clubs and a game that long ago lost its sense of perspective when assessing its own importance.

Much of the media has seemed happy enough to go along with a state of affairs where the line between journalism and PR has become blurred. Big football, it is clear, wants to make money from everything it does. And football brings the audiences that enables media big and small to make money. Amidst the blanket coverage by Sky, for example, there’s rarely a difficult question to disturb the hype – unless it’s on one of the many personality-driven spats regularly confected into an issue of significance.

For local papers, standing up to clubs that will always be bigger brands is undoubtedly difficult. In many towns outside Britain’s big cities, the local club is the biggest story and the loss of access could be the difference between survival and failure. Bigger media has more clout, but too often chooses not to challenge a game that provides it with vital audience and income.

The question of whether or not the relationship between football and those who report it is too close is one that has been chewed over at length within the trade. A discussion of just that point, based on Raymond Boyle’s excellent article in the British Journalism Review that asks if sports reporters are “too close to the circus”, used to form part of the course programme in my brief spell teaching journalism. Channel 4’s Alex Thomson, in a hard-hitting blog post, asks why the hell so many journalists put up with it, and when football clubs “are going to grow up”.

It’s a complex issue. Someone would inevitably say the Murdoch-owned media would never raise tricky questions because of Sky’s involvement with the game, then be forced to reconsider when the journalism of the Times’s excellent football section was pointed out. Media, both big and small, does ask the difficult questions – particularly writers such as David Conn in the Guardian and Tariq Panja for Bloomberg. But there is a constant battle, and the further down the food chain you are, the harder it is to win that battle.

The questions all this raises go far beyond sport. As the NUJ’s northern organiser Chris Morley, a consistent and steadfast campaigner, said of the Newcastle ban: “This is a denial of freedom of the media and expression and an attempt by powerful people at the club to take retribution for coverage they did not like. . . worst of all it is an attack on their own supporters in the north-east who look to their local paper to report on their favourite football club.” The club’s subsequent decision to ban the official Newcastle United Supporters Trust from its fans’ forum shows how right Morley is to make the connection between the media and the public.

Alex Thomson has a point when he says journalists should do more to assert themselves against sport’s vested interests. But it’s also true that across the country, week in, week out, journalists who earn salaries far short of the popular conception of the handsomely-renumerated hack fight the battle against overbearing clubs and their petty behaviour, balancing the need to maintain access with the need to question and inform. They do so honestly and professionally, and they can never afford to drop their guard.

In a week in which we are hearing much about the things journalists should not have done, and about the need for the power of the press to be reined in, this seems worth mentioning.

 

 

Alex Ferguson infamously would not speak to the BBC for seven years after the broadcaster aired a documentary in which critical questions were asked about his son. Photo: Getty

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.