ANTON RIPPON reports on the latest outbreak of friction between a Premier League club and football reporters
That must have been a bizarre post-match press conference at the Stadium of Light on Sunday. When Lee Ryder and Mark Douglas, chief sports writers of Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle and The Journal respectively, tried to quiz Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew in the wake of the Magpies’ defeat in the Tyne-Wear derby, the Newcastle club’s head of communications, Wendy Taylor, jumped in to tell the local journalists: “Sorry, but you can’t ask any questions.”
Not surprisingly, that altered the focus of those national reporters present. “Why not?” they wanted to know.
It was a fair question – but one that received no response. And so the press conference moved on, leaving Ryder and Douglas no alternative but to report Pardew’s responses to questions asked by other journalists, but not by themselves. All rather silly.
Newcastle United had taken umbrage – journalists from the Chronicle, The Journal and sister title the Sunday Sun are now banned from press conferences and matches at St James’s Park – for a several reasons, culminating in the club’s objection to the way that the papers covered a fan demonstration on October 19, when there was a march to highlight disquiet over Mike Ashley’s ownership of the football club.
This followed the Chronicle’s refusal to refer to the St James’s Park ground as the Sports Direct Arena, named after Ashley’s company, and the paper’s earlier criticism of the appointment of Joe Kinnear as Newcastle United’s director of football. It also follows a previous ban on a former Journal reporter, Luke Edwards, for a story last May about an alleged dressing-room row at Newcastle (Edwards has since joined the Daily Telegraph).
Chronicle editor, Darren Thwaites, said: “We may be banned but we won’t be gagged. We want Newcastle United to be successful but it would be nonsense to pretend that the fans are happy about what is going on behind the scenes.”
One north-east sportswriter, who preferred not to be identified, told sportjournalists.co.uk: “The Time 4 Change march that has led to all the fuss was actually a very positive affair, with several different fan groups and many different opinions represented. The focus – conveyed in speeches – was on the great opportunity that a club the size of Newcastle represents, rather than on anti-Mike Ashley negativity.
“I think the main contentious issue with Mike Ashley is his use of the club to promote Sports Direct, with an estimated £25million of free advertising each season. Many fans believe that if Ashley were made to account for this advertising, then he would have no further interest in the club and would walk away.
“The local papers are very influential here, and if they were to really turn against the club it could have disastrous consequences for Ashley.
“The cynic in me thinks the ban will be short-lived, and has simply been effected to serve as a ‘warning’ to local reporters against criticising the club in the future.
“But, as I say, it could backfire on Ashley. The local papers have traditionally treated the club with kid gloves in order to protect their access. However, post-ban we are already seeing reporters such as the Evening Chronicle’s Lee Ryder uncharacteristically lash out.”
In his report on the defeat by Sunderland, Ryder certainly pulled no punches, accusing Newcastle of “bottling it” and adding: “It’s difficult to know where to start with this mess in truth. To win a north-east derby you have to match the passion of the fans and be certain that you are sweating blood for the cause.
“It is performances like this that get football managers the sack.”
But Alan Pardew shouldn’t be the only one blamed for the latest disaster. “With a board that thinks the top 10 is an achievement, the cups don’t matter and after bringing in Joe Kinnear as transfer chief, what chance have the Magpies realistically got these days?” Ryder wrote.
“The bean counters and directors may be happy with good balance sheets, but let’s be honest, even Southampton are streets ahead of United right now.”
Some Newcastle fans, however, feel little sympathy for the Evening Chronicle, which signed a promotional deal with Wonga, the controversial payday loan firm.
Blogger Mark Brophy, who has contributed to When Saturday Comes and BT’s Life’s A Pitch, highlighted the paper’s joint scheme with Wonga. The language used by the Chronicle to describe Wonga had been changed, Brophy said, from “payday lender” to “digital finance company” as it put forward the scheme to provide a £30,000 fund to which local sports clubs can apply: “Wonga are Newcastle United’s main sponsors and there’s been some discussion about the rights and wrongs of whether a company with their business model should be sponsoring the club,” Brophy wrote.
“Even so, the Chronicle seemed to see no conflict of interest in entering such an arrangement with an organisation that was at the centre of controversy about sponsoring an institution so central to the city.”
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