War reporter Thomson condemns ‘the ugly game’

ANTON RIPPON reports on the latest twist in the saga of football clubs banning the media

Did you hear the one about the television new reporter who was banned by a football club because he wanted to ask the football club why it kept banning the media?

Newcastle badgeThe football club in question – no one will be surprised  – is Newcastle United. The reporter is Channel 4 News‘s Alex Thomson, who wanted to produce a piece on strange goings-on that seem unique to football

Lewis Carroll couldn’t have come up with a more Mad Hatter of a storyline. Before allowing Thomson and his camera crew into its press conference, it requested notification in advance of any questions which the award-winning news reporter wanted to ask. Thomson, who is more used to reporting from war zones than sports stadiums, thought this was unusual, but duly advised that he was making a piece about football clubs that ban reporters.

And he was promptly banned by Newcastle United.

In the last 12 months, has reported on several football clubs banning local and national newspapers. The list is now so familiar that it hardly bears repeating. The Football Association claims that it has no control over the clubs in this regard – and so we are left with the question: why do clubs do it?

There is an old saying that you should never pick a fight with a newspaper, because they buy ink by the barrel. This appears to have gone over the heads of some football club owners and managers, although the situation then becomes even more of an Alice in Wonderland affair.

The clubs don’t like what the papers write about them, but instead of trying to mend their ways, or at least bring the media onside (if you’ll pardon the pun) they shut them out altogether, thus ensuring even more negative headlines. Does it hurt? Well, probably not. Most supporters will continue to push their way through the turnstiles because, forget owners, managers and players, in any club fans are the only constant. If the team was at the top of the table, they wouldn’t mind if Kim Jong-un was their club chairman.

C4 News's Alex Thomson: banned from Newcastle for asking about bans
C4 News’s Alex Thomson: banned from Newcastle for asking about bans

In his Channel 4 blog, Thomson – whose only other media ban was at the hands of the Assad regime in Damascus because it too didn’t like what he wrote – points out that it is only football which tolerates the practice of asking journalists, in advance of press conferences, what they wish to ask. And then keeps them out of those press conferences if the matters arising aren’t to the club’s liking.

Thomson writes: “Outside football, organisations invite the media. The media ask questions. The organisation answers. They do not vet questions in advance, as Newcastle does, and no doubt other clubs, too. They do not decide access on the basis of what questions you wish to ask.

“In a free and open society, in confident organisations, that is the norm. Good for the public. Good for the club. Good for journalism. Good for football.”

As another banned reporter, the Daily Telegraph’s Luke Edwards, said: “More people get their news from newspapers, whether in print or online, than any other source because it is not sanitised, controlled or written with the permission of those in power … Newcastle’s behaviour suggests they still fear proper scrutiny.”

The same could be said of all clubs that place media bans, although in the case of Swindon Town there is a new, commercial consideration, as they want to direct everyone with a thirst for news of goings-on at the County Ground to a smartphone app with its content furnished by the club’s own media department. Swindon’s is a joint venture to maximise income, but it also manages to keep independent journalistic scrutiny to a minimum.

Of course, as Trinity Mirror’s digital publishing director Dave Higgerson said recently, supporters aren’t fools. They are far more likely to trust independent news brands than in-house propaganda.
Newcastle’s managing director Lee Charnley – a man who has “risen without trace” according to the Mirror’s Andy Dunn – admitted to the Daily Telegraph that the aim at St James’s Park is to “control and reinforce the positive messages the club wished to deliver”.

“Except it doesn’t,” says Alex Thomson. “Banning journalists opens a whole debate about free speech and a free media, rightly so. It makes the media redouble their scrutiny and causes yet more criticism, and rightly so. It makes the game’s ‘authorities’ and the clubs look weak, cynical and paranoid, and rightly so.

“It makes the beautiful game ugly.”

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