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BANNING FOOTBALL WRITERS IS A BRITISH HABIT

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

YOU’RE BANNED.

The sadly all too familiar words directed at football writers. Clubs, usually at the behest of the manager, exclude a reporter, even the newspaper, from press conferences and at times from match days. And there is nothing the Football Writers’ Association or anyone can do.

The joke in Manchester is that any journalist covering United who hasn’t been banned at some time is not doing his job properly. Yet excluding football writers is not funny, with Luke Edwards of the Daily Telegraph the latest to be given a banning order by Newcastle United who were upset at his claim that the club’s significant French contingent have yet to fully adapt to the needs of English football.

Edwards wrote: “The tension is believed to be down to the fact some individuals have been more interested in complaining about tactics and worrying about their own personal agendas rather than helping the club to survive in the Barclays Premier League. That has infuriated those who are deeply concerned by the manner in which the team have imploded since losing to Benfica in the quarter-finals of the Europa League earlier this month.

“Telegraph Sport understands that there is concern that the large French contingent on Tyneside do not care as much about the team’s demise and have failed to grasp what is needed to succeed in English football.”

Newcastle sent the newspaper a solicitors letter demanding a retraction and the removal of the article from the Telegraph web site. Until that happens “both Luke Edwards and any representative of the Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph will be banned from attending St James’ Park and from attending any Newcastle United pre-match press conferences and all Newcastle United player interviews at the training facilities.”

Edwards, who previously worked on the Journal, said: “I’ve been covering Newcastle for 12 years now. My sources are 100 per cent trusted and reliable.”

Something, somewhere is wrong at Newcastle who were 66-1 to be relegated before the January transfer window when the club signed four more French-speaking players. As 2012/13 comes to an end, Newcastle are facing the prospect of Championship football next season but the club deny that having a majority of French players in the side is a contributory factor though many had voiced their concern that “Le Toon” could have a negative effect on the team.

Football writers are not cheerleaders, they are not programme editors always having to fly the flag for clubs or putting a positive spin on things after a seventh consecutive defeat. It is worrying that clubs can ban newspapers for not being supportive and Edwards said: “It is a danger. It’s indicative of an industry that’s trying to get greater control over the messages that come out and what is written about their football clubs and their products.

“Clubs expect the local paper to be like fans and show loyalty and not criticise them. And they can actually be a lot more sensitive to criticism from local newspapers. I think every sports journalist out there, local or national, will take an interest in this because it could happen to them.”

Perhaps the most frustrating is when a reporter is banned for writing a story that is totally correct but the club were angry the news leaked out. Clubs demand accurate reporting yet still show the red card to accurate reporters.

Kaylee Seckington, who covers Crawley Town for the Crawley News, was banned from speaking to players and manager Richie Barker after he was unhappy with two headlines.

Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News believes newspapers should show solidarity and boycott clubs who operate bans. He wrote in a recent blog: “It’s this bizarre thing in British football where reporters or even entire organisations are banned (i.e. censored) for doing their job, in a way which would surely never be tolerated in any other media field in Britain. This is what the nastier and more corrupt regimes around the world do – pick on individuals and organisations, safe in the knowledge that the rest, the herd, are far too cowed and terrified to do one goddam thing about it.

“So after Syria, corrupt West African despots and so on, I see something similar in the way big British football handles its craven media. I refer to the practice of football clubs simply banning any journalist, paper, broadcaster who dares write something seriously critical about a club.

“There are some long-established abusers of press freedom. Cities where this is as accepted a part of life as rain. Celtic and Rangers share a shameful pedigree in this: for years they’ve felt able to ban reporters with impunity and nobody seems to lift a finger in protest. Where’s the boycott of Old Trafford, St James’s Park, Ibrox and Celtic Park? Where’s the solidarity? Where’s the sense that a free and fair media matters a hell of a lot more than a bunch of football managers who think they can come over all Stasi because they’re so damned precious they can’t take any stick?

“It’s pathetic. It’s inexcusable. It’s another reflection of the tawdry morality in modern British football. And the media from Sky Sports (with their oh-so-cosy first question in the press conference) and the BBC to local papers should call time on this. Where is the Football Writers’ Association? Next time this happens wouldn’t it be a fine thing if there was nobody at the manager’s press conference and no cameras or radio at their match?

“Banning reporters should become a breach of contract and regulation which it is the clear duty of the FA to impose upon the game which looks more powerless and weak every time this happens””

The FWA have put forward the idea of an arbitration panel comprising representatives from the organisation plus English football’s major stakeholders to rule on disputes. Legally a club can ban anyone from entering their premises though such treatment of football writers and their newspapers is a practice that is not widespread in Europe.

Gabriele Marcotti, the England-based Italian sports journalist who writes a column in The Times each Monday, said: “Italy would not ban a newspaper. In Italy we have a strong newspapers and journalists guild. People wouldn’t stand for it or some of the stuff that happens here, like assistant managers going to press conferences or managers having private briefings.

“I think it’s ridiculous [to ban papers]. If a  newspaper was banned in Italy I think what would happen is that people would boycott the next press conference. When Jose Mourinho was coach at Inter Milan he banned an individual journalist. At his next press conference the moment he sat down everyone got up and walked out. In Italy we tend to sink or fall together.”

Guillem Balague, who is part of Sky Sports’ La Liga coverage and the magazine programme Revista De La Liga, said: “In Spain they don’t ban you but they have another way of making sure you don’t get stories. Clubs would just give them to others.

“There was an incident with Mourinho who took a journalist aside and into a room where there were six people. He started to have a go at the reporter because stories had been leaking from the camp and Mourinho wanted the writer to reveal his source.

“It’s interesting here that even though you cannot access clubs who control who says what yet they still they feel the need to ban.

“But banning in Spain? No. It’s a bit of a medal though, isn’t it?”

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