3 May 2013

Banning journalists? It’s time for football clubs to grow up

I am not a football journalist.

But because of the slightly random nature of my job I am familiar with how Nato handles journalists; how the Syrian Arab army does media; how Hezbollah work their PR thang; or the Serb warlords and Tamil Tigers of yesteryear; the MoD and Pentagon of today do so.

And when I’m in the UK I am also increasingly aware of how big football clubs do it. And big football managers. Big football managers who seem to think they are now Very Big Indeed.

But no – I am not a football journalist.

So I look in from the outside with a different perspective on how international organisations of killers (legit and less so) handle their media relations – and how big football in the UK does so.

And I’m increasingly astonished at the casual brutality and slimy sycophancy which characterise one particular aspect, one particularly miserable little scene of British football journalism. It reminds me that I’ve seen this kind of paranoid bullying of a cowed and terrified media elsewhere in the world from people who wear khaki, not tracksuits. But the pathology is similar.

It’s this bizarre thing in British football where reporters or even entire organisations are banned (i.e. censored) for doing their job, in a way which would surely never be tolerated in any other media field in Britain.

This is what the nastier and more corrupt regimes around the world do – pick on individuals and organisations, safe in the knowledge that the rest, the herd, are far too cowed and terrified to do one goddam thing about it.

So after Syria, corrupt West African despots and so on, I see something similar in the way big British football handles its craven media.

I refer to the practice of football clubs simply banning any journalist, paper, broadcaster who dares write something seriously critical about a club.

There are some long-established abusers of press freedom. Cities where this is as accepted a part of life as rain. Celtic and Rangers share a shameful pedigree in this: for years they’ve felt able to ban reporters with impunity and nobody seems to lift a finger in protest.

In the psychotic world that has been Rangers in recent years, I was last year invited to a “press conference” at Ibrox where questions were banned. Yes, really. And nobody thought that odd. Ratko Mladic, the Serb General currently facing a war crimes indictment once did this near Sarajevo I recall – but I digress.

A prominent, respected Glasgow football writer of many years experience is currently banned from Celtic for doing something to upset some thin-skinned pansy or other up the East End.

I don’t know what he did or why. And you know what? I don’t care much either. Because it doesn’t matter. If you don’t like what someone writes as a club, you sue them or you take it. That goes in other walks of public life and it should go in sport too – God knows, they get enough taxpayers’ money in the form of BBC rights.

Time to grow up

This has gone on for far too long, and the Glasgow football media have taken a stand flat on their collective back on this issue as the Parkhead and Ibrox bootboys monster them at will and continue to do so.

Not just them. Oh no. Down in Manchester life is equally dismal. The Great Sulker himself, Alex Ferguson, notoriously banned the BBC for pricking his oh-so-delicate skin.

And guess what? Yet again nobody did a thing about it – the media (BBC included) just trotted on with their creepy Yes Siralex, No Siralex, Three Bags Full Siralex thing as if nothing had happened and for years you got Mr Notsiralex interviewed on MOTD and everybody pretended this was totally acceptable -normal – in modern Britain.

So now we have the club I’ve supported all my life, Newcastle United FC, banning the Telegraph’s man in stottie-land Luke Edwards.

As he told a somewhat nonplussed Peter Allen on BBC Radio 5 last night, he’d been called on a day off by a source inside the club.

He’d then backed his source’s story up and he’d the shorthand note to prove it all and wrote his piece for the paper. And what was the banworthy bombshell? Nothing more, he says, than a well-sourced statement of the bleedin’ obvious: that all is not well in Toonland and the club is on the verge of a damaging internal split.

On the verge of, note, not even actually happening.

Once again a ban. Once again no noticeable protest from his colleagues. Sure, they’ll no doubt sling Luckless Luke the odd quote as he sits disconsolate in the Bigg Market, sundered from the hallowed words of Mr Pardew.

What did NUFC think people were going to write after Liverpool’s six nothing dismantling of the Gallic Geordies at Not Fortress St James’s? Plucky Display By Unlucky Mags?

What’s more dispiriting even than that game is that the bovine north-east press pack (just like Manchester and Glasgow) simply appears to accept this state of affairs.

Where’s the boycott of Old Trafford, St James’s Park, Ibrox and Celtic Park? Where’s the solidarity? Where’s the sense that a free and fair media matters a hell of a lot more than a bunch of football managers who think they can come over all Stasi because they’re so damned precious they can’t take any stick?

It’s pathetic. It’s inexcusable. It’s another reflection of the tawdry morality in modern British football. And the media from Sky Sports (with their oh-so-cosy first question in the press conference) and the BBC to local papers should call time on this. Where is the Football Writers’ Association? Next time this happens wouldn’t it be a fine thing if there was nobody at the manager’s press conference and no cameras or radio at their match?

Banning reporters should become a breach of contract and regulation which it is the clear duty of the FA to impose upon the game which looks more powerless and weak every time this happens.

Papers terrified of circulation implosion are not going to stand up and be counted. The BBC has never taken a stand on this. Sky? Dream on. Over to the FA blazers then, to act I’m afraid and if they do it in London they’ll do it in Glasgow the next day.

It’s time clubs who ban journalists were forced to grow up a wee bit  – and well past time that football journalism and the FA stood up for the game and not the money and put a stop to this nonsense.

Just do it.

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