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Journalists pen letter to Ulster Rugby in protest over ban on news reporters

By Mairead Holland

An open letter from 80 journalists has been sent to Ulster Rugby, in protest at a ban on news reporters attending press conferences.

The journalists are members of Belfast & District and Derry & North West branches of the National Union of Journalists.

The Belfast branch has also requested an urgent meeting with the chief executive officer of Ulster Rugby, Shane Logan.

The club has confined its pre-match press conferences to rugby writers since last week.

This follows media interest in the trial and subsequent sacking of two players acquitted of rape.

Paddy Jackson (26) and Stuart Olding (25) had been accused of raping the same woman at a party at Jackson's home in June 2016. Last month, a jury of eight men and three women found the players unanimously not guilty.

In the letter, the journalists said the "attempt to stifle media coverage of the context and consequences of the recent trial is an unjustifiable interference with the freedom of the press, and with the rights of everyone to freedom of information and expression".

It went on: "The sports journalists among our membership fully understand the wider public interest in this matter. We reject and condemn the attempt by Ulster Rugby to divide us by restricting access to rugby correspondents, while denying other bona fide journalists the right to ask questions and inform their readerships and audiences.

"A free and open media is the cornerstone of democracy in which openness and transparency of information is crucial."

The ban on news media came after an apparent concern that too many questions about Jackson and Olding's high-profile trial were asked at the first press conference in the aftermath of their acquittal.

Local rugby writers were angered last week when Ulster Rugby issued a statement saying the decision to restrict the media event to sports journalists was made "following consultation with regular press conference attendees".

The rugby reporters insisted they had not requested any ban on news counterparts attending.

It is understood they had voiced concern with club officials about how the previous press conference had unfolded, but they insist they only asked for a more structured format to ensure rugby matters were definitely covered.

NUJ Irish secretary Seamus Dooley said the union was "deeply concerned" by Ulster Rugby's actions in continuing the ban, and argued that both news and sports reporters could be accommodated.

He said: "This is an unacceptable attempt to control media coverage and reflects a wider failure to understand the level of public interest in the story."

Earlier this week, a spokesman for Ulster Rugby said: "As previously stated, the conduct of news journalists at a recent press conference negatively impacted our ability to deliver a meaningful event that focused on rugby content."

Jackson and Olding were sacked following an internal review into their conduct by their employers Ulster Rugby and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU). While the men were found not guilty of rape, other aspects of their behaviour had been heavily criticised, with major sponsors of Ulster Rugby having voiced concern.

The IRFU and Ulster Rugby review had focused on a series of sexually explicit WhatsApp conversations involving the players and their friends about the sexual encounter at the centre of the rape trial.

Two other men, Blane McIlroy (26) and Rory Harrison (25), were also unanimously acquitted of lesser charges connected to the case during the nine-week trial at Belfast Crown Court.

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