4 Aug 2015

How can it be normal to ban journalists from the football?

So we return to the unhappy state of affairs across English and Scottish football, where some clubs feel it is perfectly normal to ban any journalist guilty of perpetrating journalism the club disapproves of.

I suppose Alex Ferguson was one of the most prominent people in football back in the day to think this was acceptable. He banned the BBC for seven years. It has gone on from there. He was not the first and certainly not the last, as this obnoxious practice appears to be getting ever more widespread, from giant clubs to the minnows north and south of the border.

Can you imagine this happening at a major company holding a press conference? Still less a political party? In fact, can you imagine this happening in any other walk of life in what we choose to call democratic and free Britain?

Of course not – because it is pretty much unheard of.

Yet in the weird world of football it continues to happen.

Chief among the culprits: Newcastle United. One recent example being the banning of the Telegraph’s north east football reporter Luke Edwards. His “crime”? Reporting dressing room unhappiness at St James’ Park.

Newcastle United said that it had implemented the ban because Mr Edwards’s journalism has been “wholly inaccurate and written with the intention of unsettling the club, players and its supporters”.

I know, I know, leaving aside the astonishment that this could be news – the point is the Ashley empire came down upon Mr Edwards with great vehemence and force, and he was banned from the club.

And he is far from alone, either in Newcastle or across the country.

Newcastle United v Liverpool - Barclays Premier League

In football reporting circles, though, they now seem to have pretty much accepted this in some cities as a way of life, or perhaps a badge of honour in some way. Fair enough, for what else as individuals can they do?

The football governing bodies appear clueless on this issue. The FA kept telling me to ask the Premier League or the clubs, or frankly anybody but them. Eventually they did agree that if a ban happened during the FA Cup they would intervene and ask the club what was going on. But that was about as far as things got.

Crawley Town, Port Vale, Rotherham United and Nottingham Forest have all limited the actions of individual journalists. In Scotland both Celtic and Rangers have banned reporters for for reporting for years – of which more later.

The Football League looks after 72 clubs and says there are relatively few problem areas.

Others would differ. Swindon Town have gone radical all right, banning the entire media except those outlets with whom they have a commercial relationship, from their so-called “press conferences”. The Guardian recently reported that the club’s owner, Lee Power, will hold interviews with Swindon’s own “in-house journalist” for website and smartphone app distribution. For in-house journalist, read press officer.

Newcastle United, too, use club content on their own website, and many clubs are rapidly coming to see themselves as in-house media providers and players, which is fine. But it isn’t journalism, it’s PR. They are selling the club, not the story or the issues. The clear danger in all this is that many clubs are coming to see outside media merely as commercial rivals. Here they are making a very big mistake.

I would suggest that view either completely misunderstands, or willfully misrepresents, the role of the media to scrutinise accurately but without fear or favour all aspects of our society – and that includes, yes, even football.

You would like to think external media organisations would fight back. Oh, to see rows of empty seats at Newcastle, Rotherham, Swindon, Celtic, Rangers and many more in return for these acts of blatant censorship, as the media ban the offending club until they wise up. Alas, it does not seem to be happening.

Certainly in Newcastle, the un-banned have long helped out the banned, to the extent that in some quarters they wonder what the point is of being actually present at St James’ Park. As yet nothing is organised, but there are certainly stirrings and conversations being had along the Tyne that this idiocy cannot continue in the way it has thus far done.

But would the giants like Sky or BT play the game if the media decided that time has come to ban the clubs?

The football governing bodies seem to take a stand flat on their collective backs over the cynical and growing malaise.

The media do not help themselves by adopting a dog-eat-dog attitude, with every organisation out for itself and little overt sign of any solidarity.

Some individual organisations are fighting back to a degree, though, and that is commendable. The BBC was banned by Ferguson from Old Trafford for seven years and now it seems to have had enough. Rangers recently banned BBC reporter Chris McLaughlin.

In response, the Beeb in Glasgow says it will send no staff to Rangers matches. Nor should any Scottish media do so until this nonsense stops – nor to any other Scottish club that thinks they can pull this stunt.

Then, perhaps, the English would catch on and stand up to the censors and the bullies.

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