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Why Mike Ashley’s Latest Actions Show Weakness, Not Strength

7 years ago
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When a football club bans a journalist it is nearly always an expression of vulnerability rather than strength.

Of course a club has the power to ban the press, but failing to exercise that power is usually a better idea.

Has Sir Alex Ferguson ever looked more vulnerable than when he refused to appear for interviews on the BBC? That was after a programme exposing the activities of his then football agent son, and which was not the work of any sport journalist at all.

Nottingham Forest are currently banning The Guardian because the paper wrote a story about an executive at the club who was banned in a certain capacity but, perhaps because he was related to the manager, was still working for the club under a different title.

Rangers and Celtic have banned legions of journalists over the years, and few can remember why. Even humble Crawley Town this year banned the reporter from the Crawley News after the club objected to a headline which the journalist in question didn’t write.

English law provides an ample range of remedies for the football club that has been wronged. But the ban is what comes to hand first, and is certainly an expression of the club’s ability to make a newspaper’s life more difficult.

The thing is, it makes the club look little, stupid, and a bully.

This is certainly what most fans are thinking after the Toon banned any journalist from our three main local papers speaking to any club official, player, or manager. A Chronicle reporter was even stopped from asking a question at a press conference.

The Toon has form. Luke Edwards was banned in May this year for reporting a schism in the dressing room which was threatening performances on the field. It was a well-sourced story with quotes both in statements and in a shorthand notebook. The story appeared first in the Daily Telegraph and The Telegraph’s response reeked of contempt and the editor said they would get round the ban easily. Which they have done.

I wonder, though, if  football clubs expect local papers to be little more than cheerleaders and don’t expect bracing scepticism.

For most of the time that the Italian banker Nicola Cortese has been the owner of Southampton (since 2009) his club has banned the local paper, the Evening Echo. Quite recently this has culminated in a niggling, petty refusal to allow the paper to interview supporters outside the ground. The club said this was because of health and safety issues, but everyone knows it’s because the paper has reported objectively on disputes that Cortese has had with great old players like Francis Benali and Matt Le Tissier.

The origins of the Southampton feud seem to lie in Cortese thinking it was a good wheeze to sell photographs of players and matches to newspapers, without allowing the papers to take their own pictures.

This requirement seems to have been quietly dropped for all papers except the local ones.

It does seem that local papers are expected to put up with any old rubbish from the football clubs they cover. And football clubs have an exaggerated idea of their own importance to these papers, who can and do continue to cover them in an objective and sceptical manner.

I think the Chronicle, which may have been cowed by the earlier treatment of Luke Edwards, is genuinely angered at Ashley’s peeved and queeny reaction to a pretty balanced report of the fans’ march.

Lee Ryder’s report of the performance against Sunderland used the word ‘shameful’ in the first paragraph. That was new.

It’s a shame other journalists don’t stand shoulder to shoulder with our local papers. It’s significant that when fans stand shoulder to shoulder, even if it’s just five hundred of us, Ashley throws a fit.

He’s not being strong. He’s being weak.

He will regret this flouncing episode. He may think he doesn’t need the papers. He needs the fans. And now both the fans and the papers might find they are – at last – on the same side.

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