Question: what is it about the appalling suits who run much of football that makes them think they and their clubs are above criticism?
Answer: a mixture of control freakery, arrogance and sheer stupidity
Rangers, a club that has known great days and grim days and has good supporters and the other kind, has joined the band of fools who regard George Orwell’s caricature of totalitarianism as no more than a depiction of how things should be.
Not content with banning the Daily Record, the club has now told a Times columnist and a BBC correspondent they are no longer welcome at Ibrox.
The Times man Graham Spiers says no one even bothered to tell him why. The BBC’s Chris McLaughlin appears to have caused offence because his report of a 6-2 Scottish Challenge Cup victory over Hibs began with mention of arrests in connection with sectarian singing (see my reference to the “other kind” and, yes, I deplore the odious pro-IRA chanting from some Celtic fans, too). And it appears Rangers’ desire to discourage mention of the actions of its more unsavoury supporters probably did for Spiers, too.
It is difficult to think of a single circumstance, other than in a sporting version of 1984, where it might be considered part of a football club’s function to decide how a report, column or broadcast should be structured. Rangers are clearly struggling to offer a rational explanation. A club spokesman is quoted (by the Sunday Mail) as saying the decision to ban McLaughlin “wasn’t taken lightly”. Phew, that’s a relief.
He or she then engaged cruise control, adding: “The BBC don’t seem to be applying proper checks and rules within their sports department … At the game you had police praising both sets of fans but he led on the fact Rangers could be in trouble because two people were arrested for alleged sectarian chants.”
Where does the Rangers management feel it acceptable to place such information? Lower down? Nowhere? I would happen to agree that two or three arrests is hardly big news, but that isn’t the point. Rangers, like any government or company or powerful individual in a democracy, should not be able to dictate how a news report or opinion piece is written.
I do realise many people pay lip service to the idea of a free press without actually believing in it at all, so I’d be wasting my time arguing to them that it is better to have a media that exasperates, annoys and even offends – as well as offering information, debate and entertainment – than to have any of the alternatives found in dictatorships and regimented societies.
With our own imperfect model, we do at least have Ofcom and the Independent Press Standards Organisation, flawed as they may be, with which complaints may be registered; banning reporters or their organisations makes clubs look at best childish, at worst bullies.
Newcastle’s new manager Steve McClaren is already seen as a ludicrously remote figure, unavailable to the sports reporters covering the club unless they work for Sky or the Mirror (though BBC Newcastle may be spared, too, judging from a recent interview). It may be part of Mike Ashley’s campaign to turn the club into a laughing stock, but such oafishness is not confined to Wongaland. Swindon Town, too, now refuse to talk to the local media for any pre-match build-up reporting, having established an “in-house” and necessarily less than objective alternative.
Blackpool temporarily banned its local newspaper, the Evening Gazette, from speaking to players and staff. One reporter, Steve Simpson, was barred from a press conference to announce the appointment of the club’s new manager. Roy Greenslade in The Guardian lists Rotherham United, Southampton and Port Vale among other snarling faces of corporate football, clubs seeking to ban or impose restrictions on individual journalists or the outlets they represent. Such a parcel of rogues in a nation, as the old Scottish song has it.
Will Watt, one of the Blackpool writers affected, wrote: “Maybe the FA should follow the lead of the NFL in America, which outlaws the practice of clubs banning the media.”
He is right. But I won’t be holding my breath. Was Sir Alex ever properly punished for his contemptuous defiance of rules requiring him to give post-match interviews to the BBC?
As for Rangers, the BBC has apparently decided to boycott Ibrox. McLaughlin will continue to report on the club, but journalists will not be assigned to matches or press conferences.
Spiers told Press Gazette the club had become “very hostile and poisonous” in recent times. “I’ve been very critical of Rangers over the years – I think totally justifiably,” he said. “There have been Rangers themes that have had to be addressed.” He suggested that his reporting on “bigoted chanting” and “controversial stewardship” of the club in recent years had probably led to his ban.
But “they never told me why”, he said. One director, contacted privately, “gave me a slightly rambling… statement, or perspective, on why I had been banned. But he said to me, ‘As far as I know it’s for nothing recent’.”
As a journalist who has been consistently critical of press – and all media – excesses, I feel entitled to ask the FA and, for that matter, Hacked Off how they propose to support reporters and media organisations sanctioned for doing their jobs properly. Again, I won’t be holding my breath.
* The pages of Salut! Sunderland are open to any who disagree with my comments and especially to representatives of the clubs mentioned should they wish to challenge my interpretations and criticism.