Richard Brook reports freely on a petty tyranny becoming all too common in our game.
“Systems of government that are centralised and dictatorial and require complete subservience to the state”; that is how oxford dictionaries.com define the totalitarian regime. It is a modus operandi, of which English football fans should be increasingly aware, that draws ever closer as football clubs plummet to new depths to control the flow of information that is made available to supporters. While news still comes forth through official club channels every supporter in the country should be appalled and vocally opposed, in equal measure, if their club seeks to prevent the press from reporting on club affairs.
Never has this been more evident than in the recent spate of football clubs banning particular reporters, newspapers or media agencies, from attending their matches in an official capacity. That is to say that, although they can turn up as a paying fan and cover the games to the level that such circumstances will allow, they will not be afforded any of the usual privileges. This essentially means no access to the press box or press conferences and no one-on-one interviews.
To the club and fan, on the face of it, such bans have less impact than ever. Information on our national game is more widely available than ever before, the meteoric rise of the internet has given a voice to vast numbers of fans with an opinion and computer.
As regards what happens behind the scenes, the clubs have increasingly taken control of affairs themselves. It began with premium rate telephone services such as ClubCall and TeamTalk, which promised you the big news first at an exorbitant rate per minute. Then, as the internet took off, clubs relinquished the monetisation of their news and took full advantage of having their own website to connect directly with supporters. More recently we have seen a combination of the two methods as club websites, which continue to provide free news, are invariably linked in with a paid for premium content provider which gives more depth alongside videos and live commentaries. We also see clubs utilising social media networks like twitter, facebook and YouTube to keep fans appraised of developments. Some fans are even fortunate enough for their club to have their own dedicated television channel.
Beneath the surface press bans may represent a larger problem.
The most recent occurrence involves Swindon Town and the Swindon Advertiser. The paper have been banned after their chief sports writer, Sam Morshead, tweeted that Nile Ranger was in the team to play Peterborough United, last Saturday. The reporter tweeted his information 45 minutes before the team sheet deadline, on the strength of a photo of Ranger’s shirt hanging in the dressing room posted on twitter by a fan on a ground tour. Ranger’s inclusion had been in doubt due to a series of disciplinary issues led to, manager, Mark Cooper admitting to the press he was unsure over the former Newcastle United player’s future at the club.
This is not the first instance of such a ban. In October last year, Newcastle United manager, Alan Pardew ignored questions from the local press after a derby defeat to Sunderland. The reason was that the club had taken exception to the coverage of a protest against, owner, Mike Ashley earlier in the month. Supporters had protested on the basis of the controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear, as Director of Football, the rebranding of St James’ Park, the shirt sponsorship deal with, pay-day loan company Wonga and their dissatisfaction with the club’s transfer activity.
Port Vale took the decision to charge a local paper £10,000 to continue covering their home matches. Owner, Norman Smurthwaite commented that the paper received free content by covering matches and that “other local media outlets pay for that access”. It was noticeable however that the first mention of a charge came shortly after Smurthwaite took exception to a question from the paper regarding the late delivery of the club’s limited edition third strip. The paper in question The Sentinel had, in their own words, “helped to expose the wrong-doing of a previous board” and had championed a campaign to save the club from a winding-up order, only 18 months earlier.
The Guardian and The Observer were both banned from Nottingham Forest, who weeks earlier had completely ostracised the Nottingham Post, after football writer Daniel Taylor, attended a game with press box tickets and did not write a match report. Taylor commented:
“It is what a football correspondent does, watch games, meet people, see the managers, get information. Forest say it broke their rules. It has never been a problem before.”
With current media available to facilitate communication between club and fans, it is perhaps no wonder that the clubs feel able to remove the press privileges of individuals and organisations. It is also easy to understand the apathy of fans, as news consumers: While you are getting the news it does not really matter from whom you receive it.
Therein lies the problem, and the reason for my contention that fans must fight against press bans. It is right there in the phrase; “while you are getting the news…”
In the cases above reporters and newspapers were banned for reporting a detail the club did not want reported and would not have reported themselves. There can be no dispute that a club has an absolute right to express its anger if something is reported it would not have wished to be reported. There are even instances when it is easy to see the club’s point of view. Tweeting about team selections based on shirts hanging up in the dressing room, is obviously unhelpful for preparations.
What of stories that do not meet the sugar coated standards of the official website and where publication could be avoided?
Fan’s rarely own top-level football clubs, but they are the moral custodians of these great and historic institutions. The press provide a much needed check on the almost unfettered powers of a modern football club owner. That is not to say that the press catch everything, but between their sources and their right to ask questions, reporters make fans are better empowered to look after the best interests of their club. A club is hardly likely to take to its own website to draw attention to financial mismanagement, below-par signings or ridiculous ticket prices. A well placed, investigative journalist stands half a chance of finding out about such matters while there is still a chance for the fans to act.
Swindon Town Supporter Club’s chairman, Roger Bunce has spoken similarly in words reported by the Swindon Advertiser:
“What worries me is that Lee’s [Power, Swindon Town chairman] actually gone and done this. The supporter’s don’t know what is happening.”
Football clubs that do not permit, the press into their press conferences are reminiscent of a totalitarian regime. Seeking to control attitudes and the likelihood of a dissenting fan base by censoring the flow of news is morally wrong and bad for the club itself. Democratic accountability is a phrase more associated with government than business, but it is essential to football. Business men must remember, rightly or wrongly, that a lot of people have less passion for politics than football. Football supporters have a long history of holding directors to account by protest – this is not the same as any other business.
Owners, in the business sense, come and go but a football club always truly belongs to its fans. A club that bans the members of the press from covering the club is a club exposed; unprotected by its supporters and for that reason the ban must be fought.