Football clubs and the media covering them live together as slightly estranged bedfellows, desirous of one another’s company but at times cold or distant when the other’s been bad in the sack. Quite often it is the club in some capacity turning away, demanding the media pick up the blanket off the end of the bed and to go sleep on the couch for the night. In this respect the BBC are well accustomed to this uncomfortable part of the relationship after having spent seven years making a dent in the sofa cushions outside Sir Alex Ferguson’s bedroom, but the current falling out with Glasgow Rangers and their owner Craig Whyte finds the organisation in a rather different situation. Coupled with the recent decision by Heart of Midlothian to turn a cold shoulder to all media until after the Scottish FA’s compliance hearing with manager Paolo Sergio and questions arise as to whether these are isolated responses to the two clubs having individually bad news days or if there is something more going on than the headache excuse.
Much has been made of Whyte’s banning of official and even unofficial discourse with the BBC based on two specific incidents in addition to its ongoing coverage of the Old Firm side. The first sign of a frosty relationship between Rangers and the Beeb happened before a ball was even kicked at Ibrox, with manager Ally McCoist refusing the media outlet any pre- or post-match interviews on the opening matchday of the season. Concerned the edited video broadcast of his remarks on Old Firm violence the Friday before the opening game against Hearts gave the impression he made light of such a serious topic–the footage being here–McCoist denied any access to BBC until he received an apology. Now, while Sir Alex might not have received an official “I’m Sorry” card prior to lifting his ban against the BBC, the Rangers manager did, and had resumed his standard interview accessibility with the media group until this recent second incident.
Just this past week, a documentary aired in which BBC Scotland detailed Whyte’s business dealings previous to his ownership takeover of Rangers which included an outdated association with a convicted fraudster and former allegations of him having been disqualified as a company director. In the main, the information revealed in the documentary was neither alarming nor particularly damaging to Whyte’s current prospects with Rangers, as much of this had been known publicly already. Still, this rather unflattering image of him, along with the continued reporting on the dire predictions of the club’s future owing to their overhanging tax case have been put forward as the principal reasons for Whyte’s decision to thump the Beeb out of Ibrox again. To solidify the link, it has been reported Whyte is now instructing his attorneys to draw of legal proceedings against the BBC for this fresh bit of “muck raking.”
As for Hearts, the Gorgie side’s pull back from all media events coincides with how media outlets reported on the comments made by Paolo Sergio regarding referee Iain Brines at a press conference. In the September League Cup match against Ayr United–which Hearts lost on penalties–Brines had been the official that disallowed what might have been the winning goal after conferring with his assistant. Upon learning that Brines was to be the 4th official in their Scottish Premier League match away to Dunfermline, Sergio admitted in the pre-game presser, “I am not happy to have him at Hearts game, I’m sorry.” Some media emphasised a snippet of Sergio’s comments discussing a lie-detector test, with some headlines suggesting the manager wanted not only himself but Brines to take one as well to determine which man’s accounting of that controversial decision at Somerset Park was right. Now the SFA wish to speak with Sergio over those press comments at a hearing during the first week of November. Until the outcome of that meeting has been concluded, the club has issued a blanket ban on all media outings via its website, which has to be one of the more interesting official online club sites outside of whatever Mohamed Al Fayed wishes to say next about Mark Hughes on the Fulham FC club page.
The reasons behind each club’s disengagement from traditional media outlets, then, can be interpreted just as they have been presented. Rangers opted to ban the BBC over repeated instances of possibly biased coverage of their club while Heart of Midlothian has chosen to do so in the interest of protecting their manager. There is a notion, however, that a smart individual would keep his friends close and his enemies closer. Regardless of opinion on how they are managing their current affairs, it must be said that both Craig Whyte of Rangers and Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov are reasonably intelligent and shrewd businessmen. Both would be acutely aware the media coverage of their clubs over these concerns would persist–even perhaps accelerate as they reported about their abilities not to cover either football club–and the natural response for reporters would likely be to stay on their stories. If both Whyte and Romanov are pushing the journos away from their clubs for the time being, it could be assumed they consider media entities neither friends nor enemies of their respective clubs.
Might they be considered competitors instead?
Within the announcement from Hearts is a line which instructs an alternative argument on where the Edinburgh and Glasgow clubs might be going with these bans. After outlining the length and breadth of their media drawback, Hearts satisfy those still seeking news on the club by stating this information will “continue to be offered through the club website.” Instead of scanning the local papers for player interviews or turning to a television station for highlights of Sergio’s most recent press conference, Hearts supporters could simply plug into HeartsTV online and for a small fee find all the info they crave direct from the source, free of any filtered interpretations from those media types that have it out for the owner. There would be a concern here as to whether fans would feverishly enroll for the prospect of paying an additional charge on top of what they already pay for the rest of their day’s news, not to mention the club voluntarily restricting its audience to those with a computer and internet connection, so the situation could not remain permanent. Instead, present this as the only option for a limited time–say till November 3rd–gauge the online response, then proceed accordingly.
Should supporters become hooked on the club’s online features in opposition to what external media outlets produce, Hearts have just completed what some might consider a positive market survey.
This dovetails back nicely into the tiff between Rangers and the BBC. As the rumble over a club’s individual ability to command and control their television rights down south began once Liverpool’s Ian Ayres made public such notions, Rangers were already in negotiations with America’s Fox Soccer Channel to pursue something eerily similar in earnest with little fuss. Whyte seems keen on tapping additional potential sources of revenue, but specifically the kind of income only available if the club went their own way regarding their relationship with media. Despite Rangers having previously vetoed a proposal in 2002 that might have granted SPL clubs more autonomy through a league-controlled SPL TV deal, they have never been opposed to cashing in on their individual appeal in the game. Rather, they have bristled at initiatives intended to distribute that sort of wealth to other clubs or those that could conceivably curtail their revenue-generating capacity.
BBC Scotland exists as a primary player in the Scottish football market, as it has previously owned the rights to broadcast SPL matches before the league jumped at the Fool’s Gold offered by Setanta. Currently the Beeb controls first rights to televised highlights of league matches and owns the online highlights package, as well as holding dominion of the SPL on radio. Scanning the landscape, then, Whyte might view the BBC as an unnecessary stumbling block toward strengthening the club’s bottom line. Starving one of the biggest media outlets of Rangers content for its consumers while simultaneously shifting more of exclusive coverage to BBC’s smaller competitors or its own RangersTV sets up as a shrewd move by Whyte as he seeks to correct an imbalance of control between the media and SPL clubs created in the wake of the Setanta collapse. Throw in a possible overseas deal with Fox Soccer along with increased subscriptions to RangersTV and Whyte’s looking at a potentially good bit of business here.
He would have successfully discovered additional revenue while at the same time seeing off those pesky muck rakers.
Possibly, this is overthinking the matter and the simultaneous media bans by Rangers and Hearts might be just as they have been laid out. The timing though does suggest something else might be afoot behind closed doors. It is plausible to see clubs chafing under their league’s media deal, upset with the media that cover them, and somewhat smart enough to attempt and kill two birds with one stone. Football consumers have become much more directly accessible than ever before, and demand even more of that from their clubs. Club officials might tire of addressing difficult questions before an independent media, or take offense at how they are represented to the public at large by those they cannot completely control. Perhaps Scottish club owners like Whyte and Romanov have spotted this and have drawn up excuses to cut out the middle man–the media–to test and see if they can make more money off the idea.
That middle man will still be there most likely, sleeping on the couch and waiting to be called back to bed once Whyte and Romanov have had their fill. Sometimes jilted lovers do reconcile–just ask Sir Alex.