Back in 1996, about 15,000 Newcastle supporters turned up at St. James’ Park to see local hero Alan Shearer unveiled for a then world-record transfer fee of 15 million pounds.
The turnout to see Steve McClaren announced as the club’s new head coach yesterday was a bit lower: one fan, according to The Times of London. And the media presence wasn’t much better, because the club didn’t hold a press conference. That’s right: Newcastle, one of the English Premier League’s biggest clubs, third in average attendance in the 2014-15 season with over 50,000, appointed a sought-after former England manager and locked out reporters it doesn’t like. Which is almost all of them. Way to turn a good news story — replacing John Carver with someone who might actually be competent — into a public relations disaster.
As George Caulkin tells it in The Times:
“McClaren was secreted in and out of the ground in a car bearing tinted windows. There was a forlorn conversation with a handful of reporters outside the ground. Journalist: ‘Are we able to ask you one or two questions?’ McClaren: “I can’t. I’m sorry guys.’ Journalist: ‘Do you not want to speak to the independent press?’ McClaren: ‘Sorry.’”
It sounds ridiculously overblown to call this kind of thing an assault on democracy; this is sport, after all, not politics. But the principle is exactly the same, regardless of the differences in scale and context: if there’s a newsworthy event, it’s a fundamental principle of a free society that neutral media should have the unfettered right to report on it. Anything else is censorship, spin, evasion.
We can’t say that a free press is essential to democracy, then asterisk that with “yeah, but it’s only soccer, so who cares?” If it’s a right, it’s an absolute right.
It’s not even shrewd public relations on Newcastle’s part. Sure, it got friendly coverage in two places, but it also got criticism and resentment everywhere else. Instead of the story being Newcastle moving on from a bad season and facing the future with optimism, it’s become yet another tale of owner Mike Ashley’s contemptuous and misconceived governance of one of English soccer’s most cherished and important institutions.
Then there’s the short-sighted lack of solidarity among media outlets, whose desire to get an exclusive always overrides any sense of what might be best for everyone tomorrow. The Mirror and Sky Sports got their interviews — bland as they were — but at what cost? Maybe now another club will feel emboldened to try the same thing. Maybe next time it’ll be Sky Sports’ and the Mirror’s rivals who get the exclusive.
In fact, the reporter who produced the Mirror’s story yesterday – headlined “Steve McClaren exclusive: Newcastle is unique. With crowd and team together, opponents haven’t a chance” tweeted last year about a “tie-up” between Newcastle and the Mirror’s biggest rival, The Sun, after it published an article titled “Why we should love Mike Ashley.” (The paper and club denied any such deal.)
If you’re one of the select few who have been specially approved by the club to conduct the interview, it’s because it thinks you’re sympathetic to the regime. So is what you produce going to truly be journalism, or a stylishly-written variation on a press release?
Even FIFA under Sepp Blatter has only ever banned one reporter (Andrew Jennings). But Newcastle under Ashley have issued multiple bans, and even considered a scheme that would fundamentally transform the relationship between the club and the press.
In 2013, the local Chronicle reported “A mooted plan to try to make papers pay for ‘exclusive’ access – rumored for a while now – is gathering pace with talk from the club of a series of packages offering interviews for a fee.”
This is ludicrously greedy considering how much money Newcastle is given each season from the EPL’s immense pot of broadcasting rights cash (ultimately coming from fans’ pockets because of passions stoked by, ya know, the media). Blurring the lines between paid content and news isn’t healthy for the integrity of any publication.
But there’s a certain brutal honesty to Ashley’s approach. On one level, player interviews are business transactions: the outlet gets access to a celebrity, helping it sell papers/get clicks; the club and player get publicity, helping them sell tickets/jerseys. At its most basic, interviewing Cheick Tiote before a match against Queens Park Rangers is no different than interviewing Will Smith before his latest film comes out.
Already, a great many player and manager interviews in United Kingdom publications are arranged through sponsors, who exert strict conditions and get mentions of their products in the text or through a photo of the player wearing branded gear. Gone are the days when a writer could hope to get an interview with a star just because he’s got an interesting story to tell. For the piece to happen, someone, somewhere has to believe there is a valid business reason to green-light the meeting.
Also no doubt influencing Newcastle’s thinking is that, through their television channels and websites, clubs have become their own news outlets. Other than the prestige that being featured in a major newspaper still commands and the high circulations still enjoyed by a handful of big British media companies, there’s little reason for clubs to want you to read about them anywhere else than via official channels. That way, clubs can control information and monetize it as well.
Ashley’s relationship with the press is so badly damaged he probably doesn’t see any value in getting his club’s name in the papers, figuring that most of the stories will be negative. But his attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Chronicle report points out that a visit by players to a children’s hospital received scant coverage, because so few journalists were able to attend.
Maybe fans don’t care about all this, seeing it as private business between clubs and journalists that should be sorted out in private. Maybe a lot of supporters don’t like or respect professional reporters and believe their work adds nothing useful to the sport. If they think the argument that papers are conduits to the fans is facile and dated, then they’re right.
But “Do you care whether the guy from The Times gets to speak to Steve McClaren or not?” is the wrong question to ask. The right one is, “do you care about transparency, independence and choice?”