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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