Sinister moves to bar reporters as football clubs move media coverage in-house

Left behind. Where do fans sit in the new hierarchy? Andrew Yates/Reuters

Nostalgia, as they say, is not what it used to be. That is certainly the case for my ageing generation of sports reporters. Gone are the days of travelling on the team coach and sharing the inner sanctum of a club with key personnel. Events at a handful of high-profile clubs in recent weeks show access to players now is increasingly by appointment only.

I consider myself fortunate to have seen football from all sides. An embedded reporter in local radio during the final days of Brian Clough’s momentous reign at Nottingham Forest; a flag-bearer for club TV Channels at the turn of the millennium with Derby County’s VisionRams; a nomadic reporter for BBC’s flagship football programmes Match of the Day and Final Score; and an event organiser for the Football Association. There is little I have not witnessed as football and the media forged a feud of Montague versus Capulet proportions.

But is it a case of “can’t live with them, can’t live without them?” Well, certainly from a media perspective, some organisations who felt a perceived arrogance by the clubs would soon be reversed are still waiting for that to happen. Local radio stations have been priced out of rights packages to provide match commentaries and those local newspapers that have managed to survive a national cull of the football fan’s once staple diet are questioning the value of their relationships.

Rights and privileges

At national and international level, with TV rights now selling in the billions of pounds, few can compete. And the ramifications are yet to be unearthed of the most recent deal, which has seen BT Sport replace Sky Sports and ITV as “the home of the UEFA Champions League”.

But bigger than any debate over money is a new player in the power game between football and the media. It is the one that raised its ugly head recently at clubs like Newcastle, Glasgow Rangers and Swindon Town, when club owners struck blows against the idea of an open-house policy for media reporting.

Capturing the magic, at the owner’s discretion. Mark Botham, CC BY-NC

It has been reported that Swindon Town has banned media from press conferences as it apparently seeks to control the message through a smartphone app aimed directly at fans. Newcastle, meanwhile, has given the Daily Mirror preferred status after a history of barring journalists from press conferences, and Newcastle managing director Lee Charnley has openly said that the move was designed to “control and reinforce the positive messages the club wished to deliver”. In Scotland, the BBC has refused to send its journalists to Ibrox stadium after Glasgow Rangers barred one of its reporters in the wake of complaints from fans.

For Rangers and Newcastle, with fan bases of up to 50,000 each, this is a test of strength. However for Swindon, (average home attendance 7,940 in season 2014/15), it is a defiant but inflamatory stance that many will watch with interest.

Sick as a parrot

It would be hypocritical of me, as a former employee of a football club that in some way started this trend fifteen years ago, to criticise it now. VisionRams never made the big-time, with 300 cable subscribers at peak. But ChelseaTV brought identical kit and hired some of the Derby staff and they are now a hugely successful operation, as are their rivals at most of the big clubs.

Flag bearers. Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

But all those early pioneers were guilty of was perhaps a misplaced notion that clubs were big enough to fund their own media operations. Derby County, along with Aston Villa, Chelsea and Southampton had their own radio stations as well as TV operations in those days. They were “living the dream”; managing their own image and lucrative relationship with supporters.

What we see now is a nightmare scenario with a sinister twist. The latest moves are not about building a rival powerhouse to mainstream media organisations like those referred to above. What is happening now is about denying access to create a monopoly by the clubs and to control the news agenda.

Owner power

More worrying still, there is a common denominator. All three clubs at the heart of this latest move to disenfranchise the media, and in turn the fans, have what you might call “high-profile owners”. None of the clubs can be described as stable in recent years, and in the case of Newcastle United and Glasgow Rangers, you have to wonder whether it’s a coincidence that Mike Ashley is a prominent presence at both clubs.

So does anyone believe club claims that “in-house media” is more credible, or has this simply been a crude swipe at media organisations which football club owners have taken against?

Club media operations have rightly won admirers by providing a service fans could not previously get elsewhere. They also employ many of the young aspiring sports journalists who can no longer find work in a shrinking media village. But to take the dramatic further step, and deny access to the media at large is a sad and sorry development. This country values free speech more than it values football; who will hold the game’s moral compass in stormy waters if owners are no longer held to account by the fourth estate?.

It is an own goal for football and a feather in the cap of those who say football has become an arrogant and monstrous portrayal of the people’s game it was meant to be.

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