NORMAN GILLER goes all Dave Spart on us, calling for a media black-out of Newcastle United, as owner Mike Ashley provides an excellent demonstration of the dangers of the sort of press regulation that is being imposed on newspapers
I am looking for volunteers to chip in towards booking a coach for a trip to the North-east, with a starting point of Westminster. Among those for whom I will reserve seats are Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Hacked Off spokesman Hugh Grant and that nice Lord Leveson. Oh, and Cleggy and Balls can come along, too.
Our destination: St James’ Park, Newcastle. Silly me, I almost said the Sports Direct Arena.
Objective: I want these VIPs to see how the erosion of press freedom can easily lead to a style of Stalinist State censorship.
Their “crime”: reporting the protests of Geordie supporters against the leadership of Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley and, in particular, his insensitive decision to sign a sponsorship deal with pay-day loan company Wonga.
Journalists at the Newcastle Chronicle, The Journal and Sunday Sun did their duty in reporting the campaign against Ashley, and have been punished with a blanket ban.
I want my VIP coach party to study what they may consider a little local squall, and then consider the bigger picture. Imagine a politician – perhaps a Cabinet minister – slapping a gag on any journalists whose questions he does not like.
It might help them (and you) understand why any free-thinking person is against the restrictions suggested in the Leveson plans for press regulation. There are laws of the land to stop journalists crossing barriers of proper behaviour. Have a look at what is happening at the Central Criminal Court at this very moment if you want evidence.
There should also be laws to stop the likes of Mike Ashley handing out bans in Great Dictator fashion, just because he does not like the reporting of criticism aimed in his direction. If the reporting is false, he has the laws of libel on his side.
The NUJ is making all the right noises in protest, but it is not words that are needed against Ashley and his cronies, but action.
It needs the national papers to show their support of the Newcastle publications. Make the Newcastle press box a no-go area for all football writers. Stop writing about them until they lift the ban on the Chronicle, The Journal and Sunday Sun.
But will the nationals support their little brothers? Not a hope. They are making sympathetic noises but where’s the action? There is more chance of them taking out a Wonga loan than coming to the aid of their provincial colleagues.
I like the sounds coming from David Baines, the NUJ’s Newcastle branch representative. “We have seen this kind of bullying by Newcastle United before,” he said. “They have form; they are serial offenders. They just can’t take criticism, can they?
“The club has placed itself alongside many unsavoury organisations around the world which, instead of doing something about their own failings, inadequacies, incompetency, brutalities, try to stop people mentioning them. That way, they hope, criticism will disappear.
“But they can’t stop people talking about their inadequacies around the water cooler, in the bars, on the terraces, on Twitter and Facebook – so they try to stop journalists doing their jobs, writing about them, reporting on them.
“The leaders of Newcastle United emerge as rather pathetic figures, thin-skinned and paranoid. But what this bullying behaviour really betrays is an ingrained lack of respect for the team’s fans – whose money pays the executive wages. It is the fans who ultimately lose out when a football club bans the local papers,” Baines said.
“I was going to suggest that this kind of behaviour was more suited to the primary school playground than the big boys’ game, but that would be very unfair on the children who are for the most part far more mature and sporting.”
Now that’s fighting talk. But it is toothless stuff unless the NUJ show muscle to go with the words.
Back in the springtime of my journalistic career I used to sit shoulder to shoulder on the Daily Herald sports subs desk with a brilliant young Geordie journalist called John Gibson.
The year I went off to join the Daily Express, he went home to Newcastle as the “Voice of the Chronicle“. These days he looks as if he is doing an impersonation of the first Dr Who, William Hartnell, but still writes with a mix of venom, verve and vision.
I know his black and white blood will be boiling over the ban on his colleagues, and he is the sort of wise old professor who could bring peace back to the St James’ press box.
But it will be much easier for him to set the peace ball rolling if the nationals would get behind the North-east papers. Now then, where’s that coach?
I WOULD LIKE TO offer you a quote from my SJA column published here in July:
“Memo to man of the moment Andy Murray: please ink into your diary – awards lunch with members and guests of the Sports Journalists’ Association in London on Thursday December 12. That’s the day that I predict with confidence that ‘Sir Andy’ will become the first British-born tennis player to win the SJA Sportsman of the Year Award.
“If I am proved wrong, then Chris Froome will have to have won the Tour de France carrying his bike on the mountain climbs, Alistair Cook to have out-Bradmanned Bradman with the bat, or Mo Farah to have broken the 12-minute barrier in retaining his world title for the 5,000 metres.
“Murray’s Wimbledon win rates with the greatest one-man performance by a British sportsman in my 70-plus years on this mortal coil. The feel-good factor he created is close to what England’s World Cup-winners achieved in 1966.”
I have found no reason to change my mind, and Andy gets my vote. New balls, please.
- Who get’s your vote? SJA members are invited to submit their article, of around 500 words, on why they have chosen their Sportsman, Sportswoman or Team of the Year by email here
- Or consider the other leading candidates for the British Sports Awards here
- Between now and the end of 2013, anyone wishing to join the SJA may apply, with their initial fee covering their membership through until the end of 2014 – effectively 15 months’ membership for the price of 12. Click here for more details
UPCOMING SJA EVENTS
Mon Mar 24: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, Grand Connaught Rooms, London
Mon Apr 14: SJA Spring Golf Day: Croham Hurst GC, Surrey. Booking details to be announced