Top snooker journalist Clive Everton details his lengthy running battle with the governing body that threatens the survival of the sport’s long-established and respected magazine
My sentimental attachment to a game of billiards is costing me heavily. Aged 68, not one-third the player I was 30 years ago, I nevertheless retained my billiards-only membership of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) in order to play in the one tournament a year it organises, its world championship.
This has earned me less than Â£1,000 (before expenses) in the last three years. In a 55-year career I have never even been accused of misconduct as a player. And yet, through remaining the most part-time of players, I have given the WPBSA board a chance to harass me through its Draconian disciplinary rules over articles I have written criticising their running of the sport.
While I may be most generally known as a BBC commentator (since 1978) and The Guardian‘s correspondent (since 1976), my day job for the last 35 years has been the editorship of Snooker Scene, through which I have crusaded for better governance of the sport at all levels.
We have had some brutal battles with officialdom but have never been successfully sued for libel. Only once have we published an inaccuracy sufficiently material to warrant a formal apology- though not to WPBSA, incidentally. On the other hand, in 1999, I did receive £115,000 in costs and damages from libel actions I myself instituted against WPSBA and connected persons.
A gag on free speech
WPBSA insists that its latest pursuit of me is not about my journalism, although the only matters that they have raised arise from articles about snooker politics.
In my 24 years of WPBSA membership I could not have operated as a journalist or broadcaster if the WPBSA’s rules had been interpreted in the way the board now determines. It is effectively a gag on free speech.
In June 2002, there were two cases in which players sought to use these rules – broadly amounting to a directive that no player should say anything unwelcome about any other player or board member – against me.
Quinten Hann, now banned for agreeing to fix matches, took exception to remarks I had made as a commentator which implied that “his performance bordered on ungentlemanly conduct”. Two world billiards champions, Mike Russell and Peter Gilchrist, accused of match fixing in Australia, had had a long and expensive case against them aborted by WPBSA and objected to Snooker Scene‘s coverage of it on the grounds too that I was a player.
The dismissal of these complaints against me encouraged me to believe the WPBSA, whatever its failings, had recognised the distinction between my journalistic functions and my status as a billiards member. The defences of truth and fair comment ought to protect any journalist against this kind of complaint.
It is magazine policy to correct inaccuracies and to offer right of reply to anyone who feels he has been unfairly treated. Snooker Scene has never received any letter from WPBSA requesting either. “A right of reply is irrelevant to the issue of your compliance with the association’s rules,” WPBSA stated at the outset of my latest imbroglio with them.
This had its roots in the WPBSA annual meeting of December 2004. Sir Rodney Walker had arrived as the four days a month WPBSA chairman with a free hand to choose his board. He chose to retain two key members of the board which had brought the association to the brink of financial ruin, but also introduced newcomers from outside the sport, including Adrian Metcalfe, a former head of Channel 4 Sport with extensive experience of sportsbiz and sports politics.
It was put about that it was vital to re-elect the board en bloc in order to guarantee renewal of the BBC contract.
One opposition candidate was Paul Sweeny, a minor professional at the time but a successful small businessman who was working for a law degree. He was told by WPBSA that the election address that he wished to circulate to the membership would have to be approved by the board, two of whom he explicitly criticised and one of whom, by definition, had to be displaced if he was to be elected.
“Of course he must have that right,” said Walker, agreeing with Snooker Scene that each candidate should have his manifesto circulated. In fact, Sweeny not only had to settle for watering down his manifesto but, without consultation, WPBSA inserted into the same envelope a letter from a former board member, Mike Dunn, explicitly rubbishing Sweeny’s candidacy. Sweeny endured further unpleasantness from the establishment side and failed to achieve election.
But the sensation of the meeting was that Metcalfe was rejected 32-21, some of these votes coming, basic arithmetic suggested, from the open proxies signed away by players who had been told that it was vital to re-elect the board en bloc.
A stunned Walker described this coup as “beyond my comprehension”. He told Snooker Scene:
“The whole voting system is a disgrace and a shambles caused by members abdicating ownership of their own votes.”
To my surprise, though, Walker shortly afterwards circulated a letter to the membership deploring Snooker Scene‘s coverage of the AGM and the issues it raised. It made no allegation of inaccuracy but suggested that it was “most damaging at this critical time for the sport’s future”. He called upon me to give my “support to the board and allow it to work without constant undermining of its position”. Was this an appeal for immunity from criticism?
In February 2005, WPBSA notified me that my articles might be subject not to libel proceedings, but its own internal disciplinary proceedings. There were some initial allegations of inaccuracy – not that inaccuracy is necessarily an offence, incidentally – but all these were to fade away to WPBSA’s ultimate position, 15 months later, which was that “the truth or falsity” of what I had written is “nowhere put in issue by WPBSA in these proceedings”.
In other words, it was the publication of the articles themselves which constituted the alleged offence.
A congenital aversion to bullying
It took a year for WPBSA to disclose the letters of complaint, and the identities of the complainants, which would have attracted a libel action from me if the documents had not been “privileged”. The complaints came from three past or present members of the board, Peter Ebdon, Mike Dunn and Tony Murphy. It was apparent to me that here was a concerted attempt by the entire board to retaliate against a journalist who had reported matters showing them and the functioning of the association in a poor light.
Had I not, in my love of an occasional game of billiards, still been a member of WPBSA, I would simply have said at the outset: sue me for libel or report me to the Press Complaints Commission. Having a congenital aversion to bullying I chose not to resign my membership, a decision that was to cost me far more in legal fees than I could ever expect to earn from billiards.
Correspondence proliferated and costs escalated on both sides as my lawyer, Rhory Robertson, and I attempted to pin down exactly what I was accused of and under which rules. There was some waffle about my “failure to exercise right of comment in a reasonable manner” – the board to be the judge of what was reasonable – and of “the tone” of some of my pieces.
As early as April, 2005, Robertson asked: “Is it the Association’s contention that accurate statements of fact or honest comments on matters of public interest can itself constitute a breach of rule 2.9?” We never got a straight answer to that question.
The affair ended up at the Sports Disputes Resolution Panel (SDRP), a body for sport which was set-up for speedy and inexpensive arbitration. I applied to have the WPBSA’s action struck out. It had proceeded on the basis of “tournament rules” and yet there was no incident at a tournament nor even a report of a tournament which was under discussion.
The alleged offence was publication itself
Less than two days before the hearing we learned that WPBSA had engaged a barrister, Paul Harris, at a fee we were told was £20,000. Harris’s argument was accepted that tournament rules did not apply only to tournaments.
The chairman of the SDRP hearing, Bruce Brodie, did agree that WPBSA had inadequately particularised its case. He said that from his reading of the case papers “it is not always clear what this case is about” and referred to WPBSA’s duty to “act fairly.” It was his “powerful impression” that it had been “unduly difficult for Mr Robertson and his client to obtain a clear understanding of what the charges were”.
Then, on April 7 this year, 15 months into this saga, WPBSA particularised its charges for the first time in a 35-page document which contained not a single allegation of inaccuracy or, within the meaning of the law, unfair comment. In essence, the alleged offence was publication itself.
But now we faced a contest of who had the deepest pockets. A human rights defence based on the right to free speech would ultimately have succeeded, but this would have required a huge commitment in time and initial legal expense prior to a hearing spread over several days. This seemed grossly disproportionate to what I would have been defending: the right to play in one billiards tournament a year and the right to attend AGMs and EGMs. I resigned my membership and withdrew from the disciplinary process.
The WPSBA had accumulated legal bills of £47,361. They stated that they intended to seek these costs from me with further costs of £20,447. This seemed to be pursuing a case which had nothing to do with the good of the game and everything to do with pursuing personal vendettas.
Not that I am the only WPBSA member to be pursued in this manner. In April 2005, Mark Williams (pictured) attracted such a threat through a Sunday Mirror interview in which he described the reduction in the snooker circuit’s prize money in the previous three seasons as scandalous and very worrying.
Even more upsetting to snooker’s establishment was this twice world champion’s attribution of this state of affairs to its rejection of a refinancing and reorganising proposal from Altium, who were backed by venture capital funding from Warburg Pincus.
With the WPBSA then heading for the financial rocks, its reactionary core, none of whom would have had a role in the new set up if the Altium proposal had succeeded, spurned a five-year deal guaranteeing nine world ranking events for five seasons for at least £5.4m prize money each season, plus many other benefits. But under the present WPBSA management, by the end of the current season, the players have competed for £9.5m less than would have been the case had the Altium deal gone through.
Naturally those still on the board who bear substantial responsibility for this pivotal moment in snooker’s commercial health do not like Snooker Scene reminding its readers of the roots of snooker’s commercial struggle.
Retired from snooker politics after 25 years honourable service to the game, Mark Wildman, all too briefly WPBSA’s chairman and the only supporter of the Altium deal at board level, was deprived of his honorary membership through use of the quirk of the constitution which enables this to be done without charge, trial or appeal. WPBSA refused Wildman’s request to have an appeal heard by the SDRP. The WPBSA board did not like my coverage of this issue either, although, here again, they have not alleged any inaccuracies.
Snooker is a fine sport with a broad grassroots base whose major tournaments attract substantial and at times outstanding television audiences. But it has fallen well short of its commercial potential because of the WPSBA’s deficiencies over the last 20 years. Their solution seems to be to shoot the messenger or at least try to force him out of business.
WPBSA v EVERTON
1985 WPBSA attempts to remove Everton from Canadian Masters commentary. It fails when CBC’s head of production, sport, says that he will not work on the programme unless Everton is the commentator.
1985 WPBSA persuades BBC to sack Everton from commentary team. Reinstated by Jonathan Martin, head of sport.
1996 TWI engages Everton to commentate on World Cup in Bangkok. WPBSA is footing the production costs and instructs TWI to deselect Everton, who threatens to sue WPBSA. Everton is paid full fee in compensation. Initially, WPBSA also refuses to allow Everton use of press facilities in Bangkok but it backs down after protests from Radio 5, The Guardian and the Independent on Sunday.
1998 WPBSA employs journalist “to write and edit its in-house magazine in a forthright and aggressive manner and encouraged to target specific people, including Clive Everton. – Everton sues for libel and wins, proving malice.
1998 WPBSA bans Everton from tournament venues and tries to persuade BBC to sack him. BBC refuses but he is allowed only into commentary boxes and not press rooms. Radio 5 withdraw coverage on this account. Everton covers for The Guardian from the BBC production office and his hotel room. WPBSA backs down eventually after objections from Snooker Writers’ Association and sponsors.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Sports Journalists’ Association