Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 20 November 2014

Is Sir Alex Ferguson’s final legacy a complete disregard for The Press?

Arsene Wenger, left, had a number of run-ins with Sir Alex Ferguson, right, on the touchline
Arsene Wenger, left, had a number of run-ins with Sir Alex Ferguson, right, on the touchline
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 24: Manchester United fans queue as they wait for Sir Alex Ferguson to sign their copies of his autbography at the Stretford Tesco Extra on October 24, 2013 in Manchester, England. Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has launched his new autobiography revealing the inside story on his relationships with football stars such as David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane and Wayne Rooney. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23: Former Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson chats to former United Chief Executive David Gill (R) during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between Manchester United and Real Sociedad at Old Trafford on October 23, 2013 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Sir Alex Ferguson, right, has spoken about his differences with Roy Keane, left, in his book
Roy Keane and Sir Alex Ferguson together at Manchester United in more amiable times
Sir Alex Ferguson, right, felt the time was right when David Beckham, left, moved to Real Madrid
File photo dated 22/07/2002 of Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand stands with club manager Alex Ferguson. Ferguson criticises the anti-doping testers who turned up to take a urine sample from Rio Ferdinand in September 2003
File photo dated 29/04/2009 of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (left) and Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (right). Ferguson claims his once-fiery relationship with the Arsenal manager mellowed by the end of his time in management
File photo dated 12/05/2013 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with Wayne Rooney before the trophy presentation. Ferguson does not go in to too much detail about Rooney's supposed transfer request last summer - only that the striker was annoyed at not playing often
File photo dated 18/05/2005 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and captain Roy Keane. Keane and Ferguson's relationship soured in 2005 when the United captain became angry at Ferguson over conditions at the club's pre-season training camp
File photo dated 13/09/2008 of Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez (right) and Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson shake hands after the final whistle. Ferguson says Rafael Benitez was a 'control freak' and branded the Spaniard's famous 'facts' press conference 'silly'
File photo dated 27/04/2001 Manchester United's record signing Ruud Van Nistelrooy with United manager Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, Manchester. Van Nistelrooy was one of the best goal scorer's of Ferguson's reign, but the Scot claims the striker asked to leave just three days before the FA Cup final of 2005
File photo dated 08/06/1996 of Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan (left) gets to grips with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson as they meet at Wembley. Sir Alex Ferguson has revealed he turned down the England manager's job on two separate occasions during his Manchester United reign. The Scot states in his autobiography, which is released on Thursday, that he was asked to become England boss in succession to Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Keegan
File photo dated 08/04/2013 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (right) and Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini. Ferguson describes losing the title to City in 2012 as the worst day of his life. Ferguson criticises then manager Roberto Mancini in the book over his failure to sell former United striker Carlos Tevez when he reportedly refused to come off the bench against Bayern Munich

The beauty of Jon Snow’s interview with Sir Alex Ferguson, last week, lay in the way the Channel 4 broadcaster confronted the former manager with all his own contradictions: he was the socialist supporter of rampant capitalist owners; the “God” with an extremely thin skin, as Snow put it.

For those who have been involved for years in the wars of attrition which an audience with Ferguson entailed, the deepest fascination lay in the Glaswegian’s need to hold in check the old familiar fulminations with his inquisitor – “Jesus Christ!”, “No, no, no, no” and “Get your facts right” – because there were books to be sold.

 

You certainly didn’t need to be a mind-reader to know that behind the forced smile Ferguson was making a mental note that where future interviews were concerned Snow was “f**king finished” – to quote another of his old favourites. Do your best if you’re going to take Ferguson on, because you’ll only be getting the one chance.

 

One man who knows that adage only too well is the Channel 4 journalist who was actually heaven-sent for Tuesday night’s Channel 4 News interview – Michael Crick. Crick on Ferguson really would have been TV gold, though any such prospect vanished when he produced the best piece of journalism ever undertaken on the former Manchester United manager.

 

Crick’s (extremely unauthorised) 2002 biography, entitled The Boss, showed him to be a man who knew Ferguson inside out. It was that which rendered the barbs Crick decided to toss in the direction of football journalists, on the day of the autobiography launch last week, all the more surprising. That fraternity were generally “too terrified to ask the right Qs” Crick tweeted, asking: “Will general reporters at today’s Ferguson book launch press conf be a lot tougher than football writers?”

 

Well, as it happened, it was the sportswriters who tackled Ferguson at the Institute of Directors press launch on the Magnier/McManus dispute last Tuesday morning – and also on the “disappointment” the ex-manager must have felt at being unable to “control” Wayne Rooney. Crick’s Twitter shots were cheap and certainly not smart enough to warrant a day of all-out warfare on social media. Neither was his implication that political journalists performed better amid similar journalistic constraints – as if MPs, with their perennial need of the publicity attendant on getting re-elected, are honestly comparable with football managers.

 

But Snow’s interview – a vastly more revealing one than the audience Ferguson granted a gushing Charlie Rose in the United States – does raise the question of whether those who write on sport should allow this autocracy to go on. There were times over the years when Ferguson seemed to decide in advance what to say, with reporters in place as go-betweens, and there would have been less fear of the consequences of breaking his grip if the press had been willing to boycott Manchester United when some of the more ridiculous exclusions were doled out.

 

(The Daily Mail incurred four in 10 years. There were three in six for The Independent and a permanent exclusion for The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor, for the temerity of writing a good – and actually rather affectionate – book This is the One about the process of covering United.) None of that would have happened on the Continent. Journalists in Milan memorably stood up en masse and walked out on one occasion after Jose Mourinho had taken his seat, a week after banning an individual journalist. Here the bans are dished out like confetti – two more in the last 24 hours – as clubs continue to wield their muscle in the most miserable ways.

 

 At Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, on Sunday, we were treated to the spectacle of the chief sportswriter from Newcastle’s The Journal, Mark Douglas, being told by the visiting club’s media manager that he could not put any questions in a post-match press conference, after he had asked Alan Pardew how he felt his team had played in the Tyne-Wear derby. The Journal, Evening Chronicle and Sunday Sun have all been banned from press conferences and matches at St James’ Park, after covering a fans’ protest march against Newcastle’s owner, Mike Ashley, a week or so ago. A debate on the 500-strong march was carried on the Chronicle front page, with an editorial inside the paper, which was in no way partisan. The papers had known of the ban last week but had been trying to keep it in-house while they sought an accommodation with the club. To see the ban enforced on another club’s premises was extraordinary.

 

News also surfaced yesterday of the ban imposed on the Stoke Sentinel by Port Vale, whose chairman, Norman Smurthwaite, has also taken what appears to be an unprecedented step, in demanding the paper pays out £10,000 a year for the privilege of covering the club. Their crime? Asking Mr Smurthwaite about delays in the arrival of limited edition third-choice shirts, after some of the 1,000 fans who paid £55 for them several months ago had told the paper that theirs had not arrived. The Sentinel’s reporters and photographers are both now excluded.

 

You have to hope that the collective ranks of those who cover Vale will tell the club where to stick their matches and press conferences, though we know that won’t happen. Just as it hasn’t at Nottingham Forest, where bans are being handed out like there’s no tomorrow. Clubs believe they can act with impunity because of the commercial dependence on football material shared by local and national media. But collective action is possible. The News Media Coalition successfully showed the way last season when clubs collectively tried to ban tweeting and live blogging from games. Restrictions imposed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India prompted a similar blackout on photographic coverage of England’s tour last year.

 

Press conference bans for individual journalists are more complex but simply require a spirit of solidarity to take hold at a local level. “We’d rather be banned than gagged,” the Evening Chronicle’s editor Darren Thwaites said yesterday and, though clubs may feel their local media is especially in thrall to them, the alternative diet of saccharine, uncritical in-house website material will soon reveal itself to be a desperately poor alternative to journalism.

 

No one pretends that a Premier League manager will be facing Snow’s kind of inquisition. Diplomacy is part of this job, too. But it was hard not to observe Snow going to work on Ferguson last week – “How do you sleep with the debt your owners created?” and “How do you marry an admiration of raw capitalism with your politics?” – without being fortified in the belief that there can be another way.

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