Newcastle United’s decision to charge the press for access to their players is in some respects unsurprising when we consider their recent behaviour towards their local newspaper, the Chronicle, which was banned from St James Park following a spat, the true nature of which has never been made fully clear. What today’s announcement confirms is that the club now considers itself at the vanguard of a new form of relationship between clubs and the media, one in which only tame voices are heard, dissent against the club becomes a thing of the past, and the press pays for access to players and staff that it has enjoyed free of charge for many years.
The reflex reaction to this over the course of today has been mostly a combination of outrage and shock at a football club behaving in this respect, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We might contend, for example, that Newcastle United are, in just about the most backhanded way possible, to be thanked for showing up the senior management of the club for what they are in just about the most public way possible. A lot of football clubs cloak themselves in the dark arts of public relations, paying considerable amounts of money to companies whose job it is to spin their news in the most positive manner possible. Newcastle United don’t really need to do that any more. Their behaviour towards the Chronicle in recent weeks and today’s announcement tells us everything that we need to know about those running the club. We can join the dots from here, thank you very much.
In an even broader sense than this, it is to be hoped that seriously limiting access to players might force the media to consider a different way of reporting the game. For far too long, too much football coverage in this country has consisted of soundbites from players, managers and the like which tell us little of any value. Why this pattern has been so closely followed for so long isn’t difficult to understand. On the one hand, the audience has been conditioned to expect this and the post match press conference has become an event in its own right off the back of a general expectation of hearing the apparently great and good pass comment upon what has immediately preceded. On the other hand, from a newspaper’s perspective, it’s easy. String a handful of quotes together into something approaching a narrative, add a small comment of your own, and hey presto, tomorrow morning’s copy appears before your very eyes.
Restricting this easy option for the press, then, might even carry some benefits for the audience. Instead of relying on other people’s words, talented journalists – and, though we frequently criticise them, you don’t get to the effective Premier League of football journalism without considerable talent – might be persuaded to view their work through a different prism, to analyse in a different manner, to write about football rather than write about people talking about football. If this were to come to pass, supporters might be offered a fresh insight into the machinations of professional football that we often seem to be denied. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the football press, necessarily – the pressure to deliver what people expect quickly is obvious, after all – but might yet be a golden opportunity to remove the shackles of the expected and apply a fresh approach instead.
None of this is to say that those running Newcastle United aren’t a pack of wretches, of course. The club’s handling of whatever its dispute with the Chronicle is has been a series of one PR disaster after another, and today’s announcement is really the cherry on a particularly revolting looking cake in that respect. Perhaps other clubs will follow them down this route. It is entirely possible that the possibility of a few more pounds in the bank and the seld-importance of modern football enough persuade them to pay up and shut up. Perhaps, though, other clubs will look at this petulant, childish behaviour and will seek to distance themselves from it all in a belief that, quite frankly, this is no way for grown adults, never mind a business, to carry on. We shall see.
The biggest media outlets can doubtlessly afford the ransom that Newcastle United will be charging to hear their staff state the bleeding obvious or the wilfully disingenuous – as seems to be the case in most post-match interviews – and they may well do so. Local newspapers, however, do not necessarily have pockets this deep. Just this week, for example, the venerable Liverpool Post confirmed that it will be closing after 158 years because of a calamitous fall in demand with regard to advertising and circulation. Yet local newspapers, freed from the one size fits all approach which national newspapers need in order to pull in the casual readers, offer a valuable independent voice, and at football clubs at which genuine, existence-threatening crises have arisen in recent years – Chester City, Wrexham and Portsmouth all spring immediately to mind – the local press was critical in making stories public which needed to be told. At such clubs, it suits an obvious agenda for dissenting voices to be silenced. They shouldn’t be, though.
The Newcastle Chronicle should – and surely will – continue to report on its local football club and, with the fear of what the club might do to it removed, it may even take on a new lease of life without any concerns regarding official sanctions that can be levelled at it by Newcastle United’s senior management. It is, of course, for clubs to decide whether they wish to follow this path, and similarly it is for the press to subsequently decide whether they will pay this money in return for the continuation of a regular supply of hot air from the inside tracks of the clubs themselves. If the result is a different perspective on football writing, then we might all have cause to be glad. And in the meantime, Newcastle United probably need a small reminder that hell hath no fury like a journalist scorned. Mike Ashley may well be used to it by now – and he may well not even care – but it seems unlikely that he will receive too much flattery in the national press in the near future.
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