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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

Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United
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

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.