Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Trying to gag media always backfires in the long run

Tirade: Jim McGuinness

There's little gives me a good chuckle more than the sight of an irate team manager, or club boss, 'banning' the media from sports stadiums, or Press conferences.

It's a dumb, short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating act that usually ends in in a U-turn by the chastened manager, or boss, involved.

There is, for example, an unhappy little spat over at Newcastle United. The Newcastle Chronicle and its sister titles, The Journal and Sunday Sun, have been denied access to media facilities, players, or managers, of the club.

The reason? The club was unhappy about coverage given to the fan protest march last month by an action group called 'Time 4 Change'. The papers have been barred indefinitely from the Press box and Press conferences at St James' Park and reporters were prevented from asking questions of Newcastle boss Alan Pardew at a post-match Press conference.

Predictably, the newspapers refused to take the ban lying down and have hit back hard at the club's tactics. The Chronicle, for example, published a front-page appeal to club owner Mike Ashley and then promptly gave away free posters of the front page before a high-profile game.

Hundreds of fans waved the message at St James' Park in blatant defiance of club bosses to support the Change movement and the affected newspapers.

The Chronicle also opened up a new front in its offensive – a Twitter hashtag #ReadThisMrAshley was created and responses printed inside the newspaper as well as online.

The reporters were forced to do their job of reporting from the match from the stands, instead of the Press box. And guess what? They got a better understanding of the views of the real fans on the terraces than cloistered away in a hi-tech Press box.

The point is that the club's over-reaction to pressure from a section of fans, reported in the newspapers, has now become a story the entire city is talking about – and not in a sympathetic way.

There have, of course, been many famous spats down through the years between clubs and the Press – Sir Alex Ferguson's feud with the BBC comes to mind. And just recently, the Sentinel newspaper in Stoke got embroiled in a spat with Port Vale Football Club, which culminated in a (now-resolved) demand for £10,000 a year for access to its media facilities.

Last year, the Belfast Telegraph's GAA correspondent, Declan Bogue, felt the ire of Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. At a post-match All-Ireland victory Press conference, McGuinness refused to speak until Bogue had left the room.

He was angered over parts of a book Bogue had co-authored some time previously (before he had joined the Telegraph). It was only when Bogue left that the Press conference began – with a bizarre tirade from McGuinness.

Bogue was characteristically gracious about the affair afterwards. Frankly, I thought that all the GAA correspondents present should have walked out in sympathy until McGuinness rescinded his threat.

Many readers probably don't realise that clubs – particularly in cash-rich sports – regularly attempt to influence media coverage. Mostly, this happens within the normal rules of the cat-and-mouse game between media and public relations officers. Sometimes a line is crossed and the media organisation must stand up for itself. Occasionally, as at Newcastle, the club takes extreme action and bans reporters. It almost always backfires.

A club belongs to its supporters far more than it is owned by its owners, or managers. Media bans are effectively bans on the fans, or sections of them, at least.

Not only does it look intemperate, but it is self-defeating and ultimately disenfranchises the very people the club should cherish: the fans.

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