7 Aug 2015

Why banning football journalists makes the beautiful game ugly

The current predicament of Channel 4 News says much about the bizarre ways of modern British football.

We find ourselves banned today from a major football club because we wanted to ask about football clubs banning the media.

The club? Why, Newcastle United of course – under Mike Ashley’s controversial control they have banned more journalists than any other club since 2007.

Nowhere else in British public life is this kind of conduct tolerated.

In no other sphere are journalists asked in advance what they wish to talk about at press conferences. Only in football is this apparently tolerated.

The last time I was banned for doing my job was by the Assad regime in Damascus. That was because they didn’t like what I reported.

Back in the UK, in Newcastle, at the football club I have supported all my life, you now get banned not just for what you do report but for what questions you might ask.

Newcastle United v Swansea City - Barclays Premier League

And ask of Steve McClaren, for goodness sake! A former England manager – does anyone suppose for one second he can’t cope with this after being in that cauldron?

Outside football, organisations invite the media. The media ask questions. The organisation answers. They do not vet questions in advance, as Newcastle does, and no doubt other clubs too. They do not decide access on the basis of what questions you wish to ask.

In a free and open society, in confident organisations, that is the norm. Good for the public. Good for the club. Good for journalism. Good for football.

Bread and butter issue

But our issue is as nothing compared to football writers in the north east for whom access to Newcastle United is a real bread and butter issue.

The Daily Telegraph’s Luke Edwards is just the latest in a long list of reporters banned by Newcastle under Mike Ashley, because they report issues the club just doesn’t like and does not want fans to know about or indeed the public at large.

As he wrote recently:

“More people get their news from newspapers, whether in print or online, than any other source because it is not sanitised, controlled or written with the permission of those in power… Newcastle’s behaviour suggests they still fear proper scrutiny.”

When McClaren was unveiled as the new manager, the traditional open welcome for the media to come along just did not happen. Instead Sky and the Mirror were there. The ability for all the media to ask what they want on your behalf was gone, abolished.

The phrase “without fear or favour” is central to the free speech we claim to cherish. It is the bedrock of media freedom in a grown-up world where confident organisations do not fear scrutiny.

Spineless and incapable?

What is going on at St James’ Park makes Newcastle look weak and frightened.

It makes the football governing bodies look spineless and incapable of putting their house in order.

Only yesterday the English FA Chairman Greg Dyke said he agrees with the criticism of clubs banning journalists but said the FA can do nothing.

So what is the FA for?

The Premier League says it is for the clubs.

The Football League says it is for the clubs.

The clubs say almost nothing and won’t give interviews. Is this how we want football to be?

Same thing in Scotland where Celtic, Rangers, Dundee FC and others have form in banning reporters.

If the football authorities cannot act – what are they for?

None wished to be interviewed about this dismal state of affairs, though at least some admitted that banning reporters damages clubs as well as the game.

So they know it is wrong but will not confront the issue.

Either football wants a product open to proper scrutiny – like any other aspect of commercial, political, cultural or economic life – or it does not.

‘Old-fashioned mentality’

No football body in the UK is commenting meaningfully on that question, which should trouble all fans.

Graham Spiers, a long-respected football writer for the Times in Scotland, was recently banned by Rangers along with the BBC’s Chris McLaughlin:

“You know what? The big clubs – not just Rangers – simply do not like criticism. They can’t take it.”

“Really?” I said, “It’s really is that simple?”

“Yeah – they just seem to have this deeply old-fashioned mentality. The default position is to shut anyone out who dares offer criticism. It’s been going on for years across the UK.”

Eighty odd miles north east and we are outside the grim box that is Dens Park, home of Dundee FC. Another stadium. Another banned reporter.

Jim Spence, an experienced observer of Scottish football, queries whether public money should be going into any club which bans the media, in a democracy:

“I sense there is the beginning of a fight-back, at least I hope so. The BBC has boycotted Rangers but the media need to say, wholesale, we are just not having this kind of nonsense and censorship any more.”

Mystifying conduct

It is not as if there are not enough sanctions already in law and via various compliance bodies, should a reporter write or broadcast something untrue. The UK is coming down with such mechanisms, which makes football’s conduct all the more mystifying.

At least the Swindon Advertiser knows the terrible crime it committed. Mostly in the Kafka world of weird modern football, they don’t bother to tell you. You just get banned.

Outside Swindon Town’s ground, Chief Football Writer Tom Bassam runs through a series of reports he did concerning issues like the club having problems paying its rent through to tax wrangles.

All of it public interest and public domain – precisely the stuff journalists should be covering.

For that, his paper was and is banned. In fact Swindon abolished entirely their own pre-match press conference.

The club’s owner, Switzerland-based Lee Power, is open about wanting to channel club news through the club app and website and keep journalistic scrutiny to a minimum and maximise income.

Across the country, back at Newcastle club officials are just as up-front. Managing Director Lee Charnley admitted to the Telegraph that the aim is to “control and reinforce the positive messages the club wished to deliver”.

Except it doesn’t. Banning journalists opens a whole debate about free speech and a free media, rightly so. It makes the media redouble their scrutiny and causes yet more criticism, and rightly so. It makes the game’s “authorities” and the clubs look weak, cynical and paranoid, and rightly so.

It makes the beautiful game ugly.

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20 reader comments

  1. dalecooper57 says:

    I should say right away that I’m decidedly NOT a football fan, but I’m not an opera fan either and I’d be just as amazed if an opera house banned cultural editors that had form for dissing Carmen.
    This seems nothing short of the type of behaviour that is exhibited by governments in countries like Russia and South Korea, it beggars belief that the people who run these clubs even have the right to ban the press, especially when tabloid reporters are free to stick their telephoto lenses through the letterboxes of private individuals in the name of “public interest”.
    If they are that keen on their privacy, why don’t they play all their games behind closed doors? That way, none of you nasty, mean journalists can hurt their delicate feelings.

  2. john says:

    Yes, but are all bans or removal of press privileges is due to substained, inaccurate and biased reporting? There is a reporter for a major US daily currently writing an article about the reporting of a major world wide event in various countries around the world. He is soliciting the public around the world to submit their versions of how this event was reported in their countries worldwide. Now if you were serious about investigative journalism you would look into the issues you describe in more detail. Instead you parrot what your told and use it to further your continued agenda against one club in particular. Disguising it as an expose into banning is as transparent as Steve McLaren accents. Must do better Tomo. Isn’t there a war on somewhere…..

  3. H Statton says:

    If clubs decide not to hold any press conferences, are they not insulting their own fans? Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air for them to answer questions in an open forum, and not ban the reporters that make them feel ‘uncomfortable’?

    Holding a press conference with only journalists they approve of, i.e. obsequious little weaklings, apart from being gutless, must be quite convenient for them. They are happy for wild conjecture to be written in the tabloids, it’s a distraction.

    If clubs are having problems with a player on a personal level, it is understandable to politely decline to answer at a particular time. It is the gracious and best thing to do for all concerned.

    Ask yourself who is going to be the next manager of a big club because of its revolving door system of hiring and firing managers. It seems if you don’t win the league every year or come home with some sort of silverware, you’re deemed a failure.

    As for filling up your fantasy football team, which I’m trying to do at the moment, it’s nigh on impossible to know who is going where.

    On this one I can understand clubs wanting to hold their cards a little closer to their chests, but would it not be more exciting if there were more candid statements.

    Is it really so bad for clubs to say they have been in talks with another club? Just mention a player’s name? What are they so afraid of? Some you win, some you lose, that’s the way they game goes.

    I’m tired of hearing about a grumbling oligarch, and Louis van Gaal’s latest impossible/possible transfers. Right now, half the players in Europe are going to Old Trafford.

    The lack of action by the FA also doesn’t surprise me.

    We often see dressing room footage of club jubilation on achieving Premiership status, but only hear of the relegated team’s response along the grapevine, and even that doesn’t always bear fruit. Everything having its equal and opposite, where is the other half of the report going to come from.

    Is this a taste of the future, half a report?

  4. Russ says:

    Maybe Mr Thomson should check his facts first (I’m only talking about Rangers here) Rangers have not banned anyone they have had their press privileges taken away they can still turn up but will have to pay like us mere mortals. Why should Rangers proved everything free to them for them to turn round and stab them in back with lies?

    1. Pete le plumb says:

      Ooooh they’re all out to get you
      The journo’s must support “thame”

    2. CPT says:

      What Lies! Jim Spence from the BBC just reported the truth about fans being arrested for sectarian singing, which was confirmed to him from the match delegate,the big surprise is that there were ONLY! three arrests for this offence, quite remarkable! 3 arrests! If the police aren,t capable It,s time this cowardly SFA did something positive to try and eradicate these vile songs and chants,given that the Old SFA. Regime turned a blind eye to the clubs sectarian policy for over 120 years,I doubt if much will be done!

  5. Jon says:

    It’s really simple Alex. If journalists stop telling lies, they’ll be allowed back into football grounds. Football clubs and supporters can put up with criticism, however, they/we’ve no time for outright mistruths.

    Of course, you’ll be too stubborn to accept that the problem lies with the journalists, when it’s a lot easier to blame the football clubs.

  6. Harriet Green says:

    So does ugly, one sided, inaccurate reporting.
    Tom Bassam at the Swindon Advertiser claims he doesn’t know why the paper was banned, he is surmising it was their scurrilous reporting of financial affairs at the time the Club was trying to sort itself out with a new owner.

    Lee Power has not banned the media, he was on the radio taking fans questions for an hour this week and he is going to make it a regular occurrence. Fans would rather speak direct to the Club than hear twisted stories in the media

  7. Phil says:

    If you were invited to my house then slagged me off in every column you wrote you’d be asked to stay away too. Your ‘free society’ works both ways, so why the feigned surprise when you get yours? You obviously haven’t learned as you continue with the anti-Ashley diatribe. And you are very, very late into the banned-journo-pet-lip appeal … We footy fans are famously fickle … Good luck getting into the media room at Gallowgate though.

    1. Big Dunc says:

      Yet another inaccurate press report from Mr Thomson who’s career seems to be on a downward spiral. No press members have been banned from watching Rangers at Ibrox, they just need to pay to get in. The continued lies from BBC Scotland have led to this happening and the vast majority of the support agree with the action taken.

  8. George McLean says:

    A club has the right to withdraw press privileges at any time, without any interference from the respective football association if the club is of the opinion that the journalist has been repeatedly submitting negative or untrue reports about the club, manager or players. As far as Rangers are concerned this has been the case with McLaughlin and Speirs, whether you or any other journalist agrees with the reason or not. Maybe some journalists will realise that it isn’t open season on Rangers Football Club any longer, that is if they want their press privileges re-instated.

  9. Richard says:

    As a Rangers fan I support my clubs stance on the two particular journalists, however in principle I agree with you. In these particular cases, its widely believed they are simply not objective or impartial in their views, a belief borne over years and months of sound rationale to arrive at this conclusion. The question I asked previously was, what should clubs do? Other than demand reasonable standards and retract access if these standards are not adhered to.

    I would ask the clubs, FAs and the press to agree to conduct charters, and if the required level of conduct isn’t met, by ether party, the FA can issue action / warning orders.

    Over the last few years I have been very glad of the intrusive press and committed reporting of the Scottish press, however it needs to be honest, fair and balanced reporting and in Rangers case, that hasn’t been the case for these two journalists.

  10. Paul Woodward says:

    Why don’t media stop reporting information from these clubs. Just print or show the club results.
    When the clubs Sponsors do not receive coverage in the media, they will put pressure on theses clubs to allow all the media back.

  11. Rich says:

    Who honestly cares about this? If you’re going to a news conference just to get a rise out of those at the front then you can’t complain if you don’t like the reaction. So much utter garbage is talked about and written by the media that they deserve to be treated with contempt by the clubs, and virtually any supporter you talk to will mock the press and whoring pigs of the TV couches as well.

    Maybe if we had decent reporters interested in and clued up enough to actually write something insightful about the game then the standard of football coverage wouldn’t be such a joke. And if you’re doing an investigative piece does that really mean you should be allowed to hijack a news conference about a specific football match?

  12. Colin Buchanan says:

    Certainly North of the Border the incestuous relationship between the dinosaurs who have ruined our game flourishes.

    And, when a breath of fresh air comes along like, for example, Ann Budge of Hearts, full of great and simple ways of promoting football in Scotland, and tries to get on the SPFL committee – guess what???

    Oh no, we can’t have that and so, the same reactionary forces that have bled our game dry and sold the game short are still there.

  13. ForzaDundee says:

    “Eighty odd miles north east and we are outside the grim box that is Dens Park, home of Dundee FC. Another stadium. Another banned reporter.”

    Got to question this Alex. The Jim Spence situation at Dundee was completely different from the Rangers and as far as I’m aware it was resolved amicably between the two parties. Doesn’t seem to be any bad blood between the club, fans and Jim Spence. He is well liked.

  14. Pat says:

    Football suffers from incestuous governance.

    The Leagues and National Assiciations are run from the same resource pool.

    There is no real accountability in football, so it can make and break it’s own rules as it pleases.
    The game in Scotland has been run on this basis since 2011/12 and has not been challenged by the media. It does not want any light shone on where and when it is breaking it’s own rules.

    That is the journalists job but when they ignore or fail to report accurately or question fully some of the clearly questionable behaviour and judgements that football passes on itself, then the journos have lost their purpose and allowed clubs to fill the vacuum with PR.

    If it were not for Social Media we would have no idea at all what football was really up to, but rather than embrace it, main stream journos deride it or in some cases bravely join it to let them do their job.

  15. Allan King says:

    The media in Scotland have no voice other than what Rangers tell them to print and what questions to ask, they are mere stenogrophers for that club, the fact that they refuse to accept they are no longer Rangers but in fact Sevco, tells you who is doing the dictation.

  16. Tirnaog says:

    Banning is wrong as a rule. No ifs no buts, it isn’t acceptable in a free society. Journalists need to put their own house in order too and control the minority who spread disinformation, make mischief or are poodles of owners. It cuts both ways, respect is a two way street and true journalism is about the truth not about following agendas.

  17. John Chanin says:

    I suggest that the banned journalists do a feature on drug taking in football…….

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