10 Aug 2015

How football is tarnished and damaged by ignoring free speech

Gratifyingly, with the new season and the new rash of clubs busy censoring the media, the Great Banning Debate is now very much alive. Good.

We still have some of the most robust laws on earth relating to libel in this country. If you write or broadcast lies in the UK then you can be sued. Big FCs have deep pockets and lawyers on tap. I know of media organisations who have gone out of business as a result of libel actions.

So to those fans who defend banning reporters and approve of censorship, I say clubs have a raft of sanctions and complaints to resort to without idiotically  blasting the ball into the back of their own net and making themselves look stupid, weak and paranoid by banning reporters.

Many fans – like many people – cannot tell the difference between a lie and an opinion they disagree with. But that’s just life. Happily, the issue is not going away as clubs, football “authorities” and some fans would wish.

The National Union of Journalists General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, recently has written to the SPFL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster.

She expresses concern about Rangers banning two reporters recently and Celtic banning one.

She writes: “Sports coverage is very important to local newspapers and reporters should be able to comment on their town or city’s club without such thin-skinned responses from owners and managers.¬† If football is to maintain itself as a grassroots sport, local football correspondents must be free to write reports for their local communities and the fans.
I have received support from Greg Dyke on our stand against this censorship…”

Indeed Greg Dyke (English FA boss) says he supports the criticism of such “thin-skinned” clubs.

But here’s the rub. Asked what the position of the SPFL is, Mr Doncaster says: “It is disappointing, unhelpful and regrettable that an impasse exists between Rangers and the BBC…”

He then refers the NUJ to the Media Co-operation Requirements of the SPFL’s rules. This is dispiriting stuff and evidence again that football’s “authorities” are determined to take a stand flat on their backs as clubs trample on accepted norms of free speech and a free media.

Because that section of the rules says nothing about banning reporters whatsoever and Mr Doncaster surely knows that. It is merely a list of how the media are allowed on to press gantries, where and how many etc.

Nowhere here is the issue of editorial access to press conferences set out. Nowhere is the issue of banning even addressed, still less sanctions laid out for those that do it as one would expect.

The section begins simply with the legal catch-all: “Without prejudice to the Home Club’s right (acting reasonably) to exclude any individual from its ground…”

Mr Doncaster needs to re-read that. “Acting reasonably” cannot embrace banning a reporter for editorial reasons. In a democracy it cannot be right or “reasonable” to act like this and the SPFL should wake up to that fact and act upon it.

If you don’t like what a reporter writes or broadcasts have ’em in and have it out in time-honoured fashion like grown-ups ; demand an apology or retraction; complain to the media watchdogs or sue if it’s serious – don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

Talk about a set of rules manifestly out of date and unfit for managing the business of modern football and its fetish for censorship.

Mr Doncaster’s response ducks the issue by directing the NUJ complain to a rule book which has no rules on the nub of the complaint. Can I suggest the SPFL starts writing some as a matter of urgency?

His letter also completely ignores freelance columnist Graham Spiers, mentioned by name in the NUJ complaint.

Many would also be astonished that he characterises the situation where Rangers banned a BBC reporter somehow as a “stand-off”. This kind of head-in-the- sand parrying of valid criticism at football censorship can only bring the game into further disrepute.

For what it’s worth, Rangers said they didn’t take the decision to ban the BBC reporter “lightly” – and say that the corporation “don’t seem to be applying proper checks and rules within their sports department.” They also accuse Graham Spiers of unfairly criticising the club – which he rejects.

But on and on and on go football’s “authorities” saying it’s in the rules – it isn’t. Saying it’s a matter for clubs: they won’t talk. It’s very rare: it isn’t rare at all. We cannot intervene: of course you can if you bring your rules into the 21st century.

My sense is that football’s “governing” bodies are terrified of governing at all on this in England and Scotland and I really cannot see why.

Collectively they are dangerously behind the curve with out-of-date regulation which in no way foresaw the direction clubs would go on this issue.

It is high time they began to catch up. Governing bodies exist to govern – not pass the buck or direct complaints to regulations which do not exist.

Said it once and I say it again. Banned reporters will just redouble criticism. Banned reporters can still work effectively. Football gains a reputation for ignoring norms of free speech accepted through our culture for generations.

In the eyes of many reasonable observers clubs are tarnished and damaged. And “governing” bodies which refuse to govern are thereby also seen as tarnished and damaged.

Follow @alextomo on Twitter

Tweets by @alextomo