SJA Notebook: Toxic culture exposed, accreditation woes and popular Vera retires

Catch up with our regular column of sports journalists making the news …

And don’t forget, dates for your diaries … our annual SJA British Sports Awards will be going virtual on December 10th and the deadline for the British Sports Journalism Awards is January 10th enter here.

Toxic behaviour to sports journalists on the rise, says top executive

Abuse aimed at sports journalists has reached an ‘unprecedented level’, according to a senior executive a regional media group Reach.

Jon Birchall believes ‘toxic behaviour’ from readers has sparked a ‘crisis’ for the sports reporters he leads at titles across the UK, including the Manchester Evening News and Birmingham Mail.

“Our challenges are different [from other journalists] but with a team of 150 journalists on sportdesks, they’re certainly no less evasive when it comes to mental health,” said Birchall, Reach’s sport audience and content director.

“Unfortunately sports media is still shamefully behind other areas of the industry when it comes to diversity, particularly gender diversity, and as such I work with far more men than women – which is a separate but equally important cultural issue that we need to challenge.

“The reason I say this, and the reason it matters, is because Mental Health Foundation research shows that men are far less likely to talk about their mental health with somebody they know or seek medical attention for mental health problems.

“In addition, I believe we’re facing a crisis when it comes to toxic behaviour towards sports journalists – and all journalists – on social media, where sadly the tribal nature of sport has led to an unprecedented level of abuse online.

“Particularly, and predictably sadly, this is often more frequent when it comes to sports journalists who are women, who are openly gay or who are from a minority ethnic background. I know that these are issues that exist beyond sport as well.”

Birchall was speaking at the Society of Editors Virtual Conference in a panel session titled ‘Mental Health in the Newsroom’.

“Sport is indeed an intense environment and lockdown has shone a real light on the pressures for young and senior staff in our department,” wrote Steve Wollaston, Reach’s deputy football editor in Midlands in a text discussion.

“Simply telling people to ignore Twitter trolls just isn’t good enough anymore.

“Jon Birchall has been brilliant at encouraging us all to listen very carefully and keep talking to our staff. It’s certainly a much bigger issue than I have faced before in 20 years.”


Match reports are ‘non-essential’ says non-league club

Journalists have been denied access to report a crunch FA Women’s Super League match and FA Cup tie because the host club deemed their work ‘non-essential’.

Chris Phillips, the chief sports reporter at Essex daily The Echo, watched Boreham Wood’s match with Southend United last weekend on a live stream provided free of charge by the club.

Broadcast journalists from BBC Essex, BBC Three Counties Radio and BBC 5 live were allowed access but Phillips was locked out, a decision slammed as ‘bonkers’ by Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling.

And Molly Hudson and Suzy Wrack, football reporters at The Times and Guardian, are among those denied access to this weekend’s FA WSL match at Boreham Wood between Arsenal and Chelsea, who are second and third in the league.

Confirming their decision in a statement headed ‘A match report is non-essential’, Boreham Wood said: “Following the recent advice sent to us by the National League Board and the FA, and in line with all present government guidelines, due to Covid-19, the club has had to make tough decisions in regard to who we can give entry to for Saturday’s FA Cup game against Southend United.

“Our decisions are based entirely on if somebody is deemed an essential worker or not. We believe a cautious, common sense approach is needed at this time and we are taking our guidance from our appropriate governing bodies; the FA and the National League, as well as our very own Covid officer and safety officer.

“Unfortunately, we cannot look after away match reporters during this lockdown, as match reporters are not deemed as essential workers and can do their work from the safety of their homes via the live streams we provide. As such we will not be able to accommodate any non-essential media during this latest Covid-19 lockdown.”

Press ops pro Atkinson to retire

British Gymnastics have announced that popular media specialist Vera Atkinson has retired after 25 years at the organisation.

They said: “Vera began her career at British Gymnastics in 1995 and has since led the transformation of the organisation’s media, communications and digital production departments, utilising her years of experience at the forefront of gymnastics coverage to ensure we are able to fulfil all the needs of the modern media environment.

“As Head of Press Operations at major championship such as the 2009 and 2015 Artistic World Championships, the 2008 Acrobatic World Championships and the 2011 Trampoline, Tumbling and DMT World Championships, Vera created world class facilities and managed and motivated workforces, welcoming the world’s media and inspiring increased coverage and exposure for the sport of gymnastics.

“Vera’s knowledge and expertise are based on a lifetime within the sport. Vera, was twice World Champion and one-time World Bronze medallist with the Bulgarian Rhythmic Gymnastics Group and was Head of Sport for Bulgarian National Television before coming to Great Britain in 1995.

“She was the first woman from the world of gymnastics to receive the International Olympic Committee’s Diploma for Women in Sport in 2002, and in 2008 she was awarded the “Bulgarian State Award” for her services to sport. Vera has also played a number of influential roles for the International Gymnastics Federation where she is an Honorary Member and sits on the prestigious Ambassador Commission.

“Vera’s unique insight, experience and knowledge of all aspects of media and sport have been invaluable to British Gymnastics and everyone wishes her the best in her well-deserved retirement.”