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.

A pro-union march in 2014. Photo: Getty
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The legacy of sectarianism is still poisoning the air of Scotland

Ruth Davidson has reinstated two Stirling councillors who posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media. That this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles.

Kenny Dalglish was a bluenose: as a boy in the mid-60s, he and his father would make the short journey to Ibrox to cheer on Rangers, then Scotland’s most successful team. With the football allegiance came a cultural one, too. Or, probably, the other way round.

Wee Kenny could play a bit, obviously, and dreamed that his beloved Gers would sign him up. But, as Richard T Kelly writes in Keegan and Dalglish, his enjoyable new double biography of the two footballing greats, "Rangers had a certain preference for big lads, or else lads with an obvious turn of pace; and Dalglish, despite his promise, had neither of those easy attributes."

Rangers’ loss was Celtic’s gain, but it took some effort. The former, writes Kelly, "was the club of the Queen, the Union, Scotland’s Protestant majority… founded by Freemasons and members of the Orange Order, strongly tied to the shipyards of Govan. Glasgow Celtic was the team of Irish Catholic patriots, revolutionary Fenians and Home Rulers, begun as a charitable organisation… a means to bolster the faith and keep the flock out of the clutches of Protestant soup kitchens. It was going to be a serious step across a threshold for Dalglish to accept the overtures of Celtic."

In the end, Jock Stein dispatched his number two, the unhelpfully named Sean Fallon, to meet the young starlet’s family. "Fallon entered a domestic environment he felt to be 'a bit tense' -  a Rangers house, a lion’s den, if you will. Fallon even picked up the sense that Bill [Dalglish’s father] might rather his son pursue [an] apprenticeship in joinery."

The deal was done ("My dream was to become a professional footballer – the location was just a detail," Dalglish would later say) and the most gifted player Scotland has ever produced went on to make his reputation kitted out in green and white stripes rather than royal blue -  a quirk of those difficult times for which those of us classed as Fenian bastards rather than Orange bastards will be forever grateful.

Growing up in west and central Scotland, it was hard to avoid being designated as one type of bastard or the other, even if you supported a team outwith the Old Firm or had no interest in football at all. Thanks to 19th century immigration, the terrible religio-political divide of Ulster was the dominant cultural force even in Stirling, the town around 25 miles from Glasgow where I grew up and where I now live again. If you went to the Catholic school, as I did, you were a Fenian; if you went to the Proddy (officially, non-demominational) school, you were a Hun. You mostly hung around with your own, and youthful animosity and occasional violence was largely directed across the religious barricades. We knew the IRA slogans and the words to the Irish rebel songs; they had the UVF and the Red Hand of Ulster. We went to the Cubs, they went to the Boys’ Brigade. We got used to the Orange Walks delivering an extra-loud thump on the drums as they passed the chapel inside which we were performing our obligatory Sunday observance.

At the time – around the early and mid 80s – such pursuit of identity might not have been much more than a juvenile game, but it was part of something more serious. It was still the case that Catholics were unemployable in significant Scottish industries – "which school did you got to, son?" was the killer interview question if your answer began with "Saint". This included the media: in the late 90s, when I joined the Daily Record – the "Daily Ranger" to Celtic fans (its Sunday sister, the Sunday Mail, was known to Rangers fans as the "Sunday Liam") – vestiges of this prejudice, and the anecdotes that proved it, were still in the air.

The climate is undoubtedly better now. Secularisation has played its part - my own daughters attend non-denominational schools – even if, as the sportswriter Simon Kuper has observed, many are "not about to give up their ancient traditions just because they no longer believe in God". The peace process in Northern Ireland and important gestures such as the late public friendship between Ian Paisley Sr and Martin McGuinness have made a difference. And I suppose the collapse of Rangers as a footballing force, amid financial corruption that saw them dumped into the bottom tier of Scottish football, helped.

But the sensitivity remains. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum broke down in part across tribal lines, with many Celtic supporters, once Labour, now SNP, loudly backing a Yes vote, while Rangers fans were on the No side. The prospect of Brexit creating a significant border between the north and south of Ireland, which could inflame recently and shallowly buried tensions, makes one shudder. And even locally, the old enmities continue to raise their grubby heads. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, is currently taking flak for allowing the reinstatement of two Stirling councillors who had posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media prior to their election. The pair have apologised and agreed to take part in diversity training, but I confess that this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles. The rawness remains.

That this is so was brought to me a few years ago when I filed a column containing the word ‘sectarianism’ to a Scottish newspaper. Though the context had nothing to do with Catholic/Protestant or Celtic/Rangers, the editor asked me to remove it. "It’ll be deliberately misunderstood by one side or the other, and probably both," he said. "It’s not worth the hassle. In Scotland I’m afraid it never is."

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).