Rangers, Alex Thomson & Presbytarian Slaps
The one Rangers issue to attract more criticism recently than their financial management – alleged and actual – has been Scottish media coverage of it, especially in Glasgow itself. Scottish football journalists’ inability to comprehend Rangers’ current financial woes is already the stuff of legend. So for a truly remarkable angle to emerge now is… well… truly remarkable.
London-based Channel 4 News has run a series of features on Rangers’ insolvency which has thrown new light on the story, thereby exposing flaws in Glasgow’s football journalism and its subservient attitude to the story’s subject. This, in turn, has caused trouble for the features’ presenter, Channel 4’s ‘chief correspondent’ Alex Thomson. His willingness to highlight those flaws has led the story into murkier waters, as the Glasgow media’s attitude to his criticisms has ranged from ultra-defensiveness to alleged threats of violence from another, as yet unnamed, journalist. Thomson’s work has been designed to detail the Rangers story to a national audience. As such, much of it has been familiar to Scottish media aficionados.
Yet Thomson’s basic research into “corporate misgovernance” at Rangers and the Scottish Football Association has uncovered important details which Glasgow journalists overlooked, somehow. On March 20th, Thomson interviewed Rangers ex-director Hugh Adam, who had been quoted at length in the Scottish Daily Mail newspaper on March 2nd on the issues of player registrations and alleged “secondary” or “side” contracts during his Ibrox boardroom tenure. Thomson’s interview merely put a face – and an almost endearing octogenarian voice – to the name. But what was old news in Glasgow was relevant background to anyone in England without access to the Mail’s decent web-site coverage. And genuinely revelatory material followed ten days later, when Thomson forensically assessed the issue of the Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs) used by Rangers from 2000 to 2009 – the focus of the “big tax case” which still, at the time of typing, hangs over the club.
He obtained rare access to oddball struck-off solicitor Paul Baxendale-Walker, who designed the scheme he says Rangers misapplied – “that is why there is a tax case.” And he revealed emails from Rangers ex-CEO Martin Bain on his EBT, including a genuinely attention-grabbing reference to giving relevant documents to then-chairman John McClelland’s secretary “for her to shred.” Thompson had already encountered hostility from Glasgow football journalists. On March 24th, he wrote that while he “expected paranoia, insults, spin etc…” from fans, he “didn’t expect… the insults (and in at least one case a direct physical threat) from Scottish journalists.” Thomson said he never got such an “interesting reaction” in 20 years as a war correspondent in “Sarajevo, Mogadishu” elsewhere. “Only in Glasgow,” he noted. “Something about asking questions about RFC clearly angers some in the Glasgow media.”
The issue attracted more attention on Monday when Thomson accepted an invitation to participate in the Superscoreboard phone-in programme on Glasgow local radio station Clyde Radio, who sat him in-between two “Glasgow media” representatives, Hugh Keevins, of the Daily Record newspaper and the Scottish Sun’s Roger Hannah. Their close proximity failed to inhibit Thomson, who claimed Rangers fans had been “sold down the river” by “the people who run their club,” the football authorities and “the state of football journalism in Glasgow.” Presenter Gerry McCulloch sped to his colleagues’ defence, calling the Rangers story “a type of journalism they didn’t expect to be speaking about.” And Keevins excused himself as “a mainstream football writer… matters of corporate governance, I hand over to Alex and those like him.”
That argument died instantly. Wasn’t there “anyone in Glasgow you could hand over to?” Thomson asked. “Surely it was in your gift to go to your editor and say ‘there are serious questions to be asked of, for instance, David Murray, of Craig Whyte? It didn’t happen.” Hannah slowly and laboriously explained that the story was “a slow and laborious process.” Thompson argued that there was nothing slow and laborious about “googling” Craig Whyte “but instead the story went out, as you well know; a billionaire, not true, off-the-radar wealth and all the rest of it.”
Keevins then bid for infamy by suggesting Whyte had “paid for his Google history to be deleted.” But before listeners choked on their tea, Thomson said: “It’s at Companies House, though. They don’t delete their books.” Thomson then moved to local journalists “sycophancy towards the big two, certainly towards Rangers,” marvelling that “you even have your own word for it…I didn’t know what ‘succulent lamb culture’ was until I came on this story” (during a 1998 interview with the Daily Record’s Jim Traynor, Rangers’ then-owner David Murray took “mouthfuls of the most succulent lamb” before dispensing ‘wise’ words for Traynor to unquestioningly reproduce in the paper – the wise words in question were “there’s more to come from Rangers” – how right he was). And he seemed over-proud (“I did an amazing thing”) of persuading four “Glasgow-based” hacks to go on camera to “basically dump on their own patch” and admit that “our house is not in order.”
So when Rangers fan David asked “how do you feel about people criticising your journalism?” Hannah counter-attacked. “What have you learned about the Rangers story from Alex and Channel 4 that you hadn’t learned from the Scottish media? Superscoreboard had condemned the poor Scottish football coverage in the UK-wide media the previous week, so Hannah knew well that Thomson was teaching most of the nation – or at least the bit that watches Channel 4 news. But David dutifully said he’d “learnt nothing” from Thompson and that Glasgow journalists were “fair journalists… as far as I’m concerned that’s how I know what’s happening.”
From that answer it was unclear whether David had ever watched Channel 4 at all, let alone Thompson’s investigations. But he fitted Supoerscoreboard’s anti-Thompson narrative as if he’d been a plant. And McCulloch went into smugness overdrive, asking Thomson if there was “anything that you’re about to break?” Not to be outdone in the smug stakes, Thomson replied: “I assume the gentleman who just phoned in already knew Martin Bain had put £100,000 in an EBT scheme and was asking for another and was asking for documents to be shred.” Had David been planted, he’d have been watching Emmerdale on the telly by now. But he stayed on the line and could only muster a bewildered “sorry?” before spluttering that: “I’m not 100% sure about everything. That’s not what I phoned about.”
It was too late and McCulloch couldn’t retrieve the situation with “members of the public and journalists are saying that you telling us what we already know,” as David clearly didn’t “already know.” It was the same on the subject of Campbell Ogilvie. The SFA president eventually revealed details of his EBT; but only a week after a Hampden ‘media breakfast’ (succulent bacon and eggs?) where journalists accepted it was “inappropriate to divulge” Ogilvie’s “personal” finances. Then things hotted up. Celtic fan Eddie brought up Thomson’s alleged threatening by another journalist. This also felt set-up, as it allowed Thomson to “prove” the threats.
Having “rustled the piece of paper for radio” and admonished Hannah – “no good trying to look at the names because they are blacked out Roger, good effort” – he read “a twitter message I had from this journalist.” It said: “It was me who threatened Timmy Thomson: you’d better desist, or you’ll get a real Presbyterian slap.” Thomson noted, in a perversely admiring tone, that “in the space of less than 140 characters, he’s managed to admit he’s previously threatened me, he’s called me Timmy Thomson which, apologies Celtic fans, is defamatory, and then issued another threat.”
Eddie had asked Thomson and the others to “name and shame” the journalist. “That will come out in court,” Thomson noted, having told listeners that “I have been in touch with Strathclyde Police and I fully expect a prosecution here.” He then addressed what happened when the issue had previously arisen on Superscoreboard. “At least two journalists implied that I had made up the story (which) is potentially extremely defamatory”, he noted before issuing his own wee ‘threat’: “There are certain potentially serious commercial implications for this radio station if you do that sort of thing.” He continued: “Something like this can be tolerated within Glasgow journalism… that’s appalling. Why didn’t they condemn it? Answer me that.” Despite Thomson’s repeated pleas that he “wasn’t the story,” he was making himself the story. Superscoreboard’s audio archive explained why.
Eddie had also phoned the programme on April 6th, asking why Glasgow journalists were not naming and shaming anyone threatening Thomson. But rather than explaining the potentially-damaging legal implications of doing so, the Sunday Mail’s Mark Guidi launched into a fearful tirade: “That’s the whole point, why doesn’t he?” Guidi replied, turning Eddie’s question on its head. “If you’ve been threatened, name them, if you’re that brave. What has he actually revealed that hasn’t already been out there?” Before Eddie could properly answer, Guidi was off again: “Ach, listen Eddie, don’t fall for that garbage. He can’t find anything… all this about media members have threatened him, I don’t believe that for a minute. If it’s true I don’t condone it but name the guys.” Thus, in less than 140 words, Guidi questioned Thomson’s courage, journalistic integrity and honesty, barely acknowledging that threatening fellow journalists was at all wrong.
Eddie asked, pertinently: “Why would he want to make something like that up?” to which he was told: “Don’t speak to me like that, who do you think you are talking to?” before being unceremoniously cut off by McCulloch. It was shocking, bullying stuff. Eddie had clearly struck a raw nerve. Little wonder Thompson wished to appear this week, refusing Clyde Radio’s initial suggestion that he contribute via telephone. “Not much use for revealing evidence of a threat, is it?” he noted, correctly, before challenging “every hack who doubted I’d been threatened to say it face-to-face. They talk tough when I’m 400 miles away – let’s see them show up when it matters.”
Predictably, Guidi didn’t “show up” despite Thomson questioning his courage, journalistic integrity and honesty. Hannah said that “the guys who spoke about this last week weren’t scheduled to be on this week’s show.” But if Thompson made it, why not Guidi? Cut from the above context, Channel 4 have simply spread a Glasgow story to a UK audience which, as Superscoreboard acknowledged, was previously ill-informed by an Anglo centric UK media. That they could add any new material, let alone significant material concerning Bain and Ogilvie, exposed much of Glasgow football journalism, its subservience to Rangers and ignorance of their financial troubles. And however serious the ‘threats’ to Thomson (“presbyterian slap” is the sound of a playground), the response has been an ultra-defensive, offensive closure of ranks.
And you don’t have to be a Celtic fan to believe that isn’t right.
STV – FAIR PLAY FROM TOP TO BOTTOM
As a postscript to this Glasgow tale, I was directed towards an intriguing STV story by 200% reader Tom Cassidy. “Celtic bottom of the league – disciplinary watch” ran the headline, leading to expectations that Celtic’s discipline had been the SPL’s worst this season. Of course, if Neil Lennon’s outbursts at officialdom were included, Celtic could be up for a perverse nine-in-a-row and a European Cup for indiscipline. However, the story revealed that Celtic’s disciplinary record was actually the SPL’s best and they were only “bottom” because “points” were awarded for red and yellow cards (two and one respectively) and Celtic had the lowest points total.
Mindful that teams topped fair play leagues with lowest scores, Tom took up STV’s offer to get in touch if he’d “spotted an error.” He told us: “I had an excruciating ping-pong match with STV trying to get them to admit the headline was a nonsense in relation to the story. Rob Woodward, the article’s author, was addressed at one point in the process. He delegated to Suzanne Burns who, in extremis, confirmed that the choice of headline accorded with STV’s journalistic standards.” I can’t but imagine that Alex Thomson, among others, would probably agree.
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