Football clubs score own goals by penalising journalists

A new football season heralds a new round of conflicts between clubs and media outlets. The latest concern Middlesbrough and Rangers (the Glasgow team, rather than the one in west London).

In the former instance, the town’s daily newspaper, the Teesside Gazette, has served itself with a self-imposed ban on interviewing Middlesbrough’s manager and players.

It did so in response to the club having informed one if its sports reporters that he would not be allowed to interview the manager. Another reporter would, however, be welcome to do so.

In an article headlined “Why the Gazette did not publish an interview with Middlesbrough manager Garry Monk”, the paper explained why it would not permit any organisation to “apply restrictions on our journalism by dictating which of our staff they are happy to speak to”.

It registered its “deep regret” at refusing to interview Monk and his team but agreed to go on reporting matches and carrying news items.

The Rangers case, which has received little publicity despite being mentioned in a hard-hitting Daily Record article by its chief football writer, Keith Jackson, is bizarre.

He referred to “highly curious goings on” during press conferences in which reporters find themselves being filmed by the club when asking questions of its manager, Pedro Caixinha.

It resulted in a mass walk out of football writers from last Saturday’s pre-match briefing. Calling it an “intimidatory tactic”, Jackson wrote: “There is a sinister sub text to all of this. Ask anything too difficult and the club reserves the right to put it [the video] up online in order that the support can act as judge and jury”.

In other words, it might well stimulate greater backing for a group of Rangers fans who have previously called for the Record to be boycotted over its coverage of the club.

Curious indeed. But, sadly, neither of these examples are untypical. Down the years, I have recorded many similar cases of clubs banning reporters, banning photographers, banning newspapers and generally making life as tough as possible for journalists to do their job.

Here’s a partial roll call of the banners and blockers: Blackpool (interviews’ ban, 2015); Chesterfield (interviews’ ban, Derbyshire Times, 2016); Coventry City (Evening Telegraph, 2016); Crawley Town (interviews’ ban, Crawley News, 2013); Newcastle United (The Journal, Evening Chronicle and Daily Telegraph, 2013); Notts County (Nottingham Post and BBC Radio Nottingham, 2015); Port Vale (Stoke Sentinel, 2013); Rotherham United (Rotherham Advertiser, 2013); Southampton (all photographers and news agencies, 2010); and Swindon Town (interviews’ ban, Swindon Advertiser 2015).

Some were petulant knee-jerk responses to what clubs regarded as “negative” coverage. Newcastle’s owner, Mike Ashley, objected to reporting of a protest march against him. Port Vale was upset because a reporter asked why fans had not received their promised commemorative shirts. Crawley Town banned a reporter because the club did not like two headlines (which, of course, the reporter didn’t write).

The majority of these disputes were quickly resolved after negotiations and/or a dash of common sense. Some lingered on, none more memorably than the decision by the former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, not to give interviews to the BBC.

He imposed it in 2004, following a documentary that made allegations against his son, and maintained it for the following seven years. It was not until August 2011 that he graciously agreed to make himself available to the corporation’s radio and TV channels.

There has long been a specific ban on The Sun by Liverpool over its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, and a more recent one on the same paper by Everton, relating to a columnist’s criticism of one of its players.

All such bans, whatever the supposed justifications, have freedom of the press implications. In the end, it is about news management, about clubs attempting to exert control.

Neither the Premier League nor the Football Association seem anxious to get involved. A couple of years ago, a Blackpool Gazette sports writer, Will Watt, made a sensible plea for the FA to outlaw media bans. “Open and honest reporting is at risk,” he wrote.

But the FA did not respond. Watt also mentioned another worrying aspect: commerce. Clubs are seeking to exploit every possible opportunity to make money.

In 2002, Celtic demanded copyright of any photographs taken in its ground in return for granting accreditation. The demand was revoked after Scottish newspapers ran blank spaces where match pictures should have appeared. Celtic had scored a spetacular own goal.

Some club bosses were sympathetic to Celtic’s move, arguing that the football "industry" is no different from the media "industry"? Both are commercial entities struggling to make profits and are therefore seizing on any opportunity to maximise revenue. But the activity of journalism, the provision of information, comment and analysis, is not an industry.

Of course, seen from a business perspective, it is possible to view negative reporting as potentially harmful to a club. Similarly, as far as coaches are concerned, a critical assessment of their performance could affect whether they keep their jobs.

At sensitive moments, clubs may therefore wish to restrict reporting by using (more properly, misusing) their power to gag newspapers.

In essence, however, this whole business of bans is surely a revelation of human weakness. Football owners, managers and players – and, yes, the fans too – find it difficult to accept criticism. Perhaps they need a lesson from Westminster.

As Martin Cloake once observed in the New Statesman: "Imagine the uproar if a group of lobby correspondents were banned from parliament for reporting criticism of the government."


*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*