How Scotland’s Football Press Rewrites Scottish Football History

by | Mar 19, 2016

The recent emergence of twitter account @mintys_lamb has re-emphasised the inadequacies and/or dishonesties of many of Scotland’s mainstream football journalists. The account focuses on how Scotland football press (SFP) covered Rangers’ financial collapse, how they covered other clubs who avoided that fate and how they are re-writing Rangers’ history. This article is not about whether the current Rangers is four or 144 years’ old. Instead, it highlights how little the SFP can be trusted to inform that debate, given the diametrically opposed narratives they have produced, without explanation for, or evidence to substantiate, that change.

When Rangers Football Club plc went into administration on February 14th 2012, the SFP were unequivocal that the “club” was undergoing the process and that the “club” avoiding liquidation would be the “club’s” salvation. Between mid-February and mid-June, this line was largely unerring. Given the timescale, it was reasonable to assume that it had undergone full research and journalistic scrutiny. And the logic was commonly understood throughout the media.

In the Scottish Daily Mail on February 15th, Donald McGruther, the “director of insolvency at Glasgow firm Mazars,” with “a heartening first-hand knowledge of great escapes by financially-ruined Scottish clubs,” said: “If Rangers are to emerge from administration, and preserve 140 years of history, they must get 75% of unsecured creditors to accept a CVA (Company Voluntary Agreement).” And BBC Scotland’s Brian Ponsonby wrote:  “The days ahead are now about the very survival of Rangers.” On March 7th “BBC Scotland football pundit” Chick Young wrote of “a new club and the everlasting memory that, just like dear old Third Lanark, a once proud institution died of shame.”  The Daily Record’s Keith Jackson, who was “all over the Rangers story from day one,” reported on March 13th that Rangers ex-director Paul Murray’s “Blue Knights” consortium had “made it clear their first aim is to prevent the club from sliding into liquidation and breaking its 140-year history.”

Ten days later, Daily Herald and Glasgow Evening Times chief football writer Matthew Lindsay tweeted of “how great a battle the Ibrox club faces to preserve its 140-year history.” And in April, Jackson reported that Sale Sharks rugby club owner Brian Kennedy would “not… allow the club’s 140 years of history to be wiped out” as other bidders’ proposals “could put Rangers out of existence completely.” On April 13th, Jackson’s boss, rotund Record sports editor James Traynor, fumed in his weekly column that “the club’s history… would end with liquidation.” And news agency copy on April 30th said: “a new club would be banned from Europe for three years and the Scottish Premier League clubs are…to discuss points and financial penalties for such a club.”

Trappy Yorkshireman Charles Green was a… cough… game-changer. But he too insisted that rejecting the CVA meant “the history, the tradition and everything about this club is set aside.” And among all the questions fired at him in his early days in the Rangers spotlight, he wasn’t questioned on that. Supporters followed suit, informed both by the SFP coverage and higher-profile fan representatives, most notably the oft-televised Chris Graham, who tweeted on February 14th: “Liquidation and administration are different. HMRC liquidate, the club die… Admin, they don’t.”

Liquidation “would effectively mean a full stop in the club’s history,” wrote the Herald’s chief football writer Michael Grant in his report on fans’ “show the Red Card to Liquidation” protest when Rangers hosted St Mirren at Ibrox on April 7th. The Record’s Lynn McPherson wrote that 7,000 “Rangers fans marched to Hampden” on April 28th “in protest at the SFA sanctions they say could kill off the club.” “We are the People” tweeted on April 1st (I know… I know): “Liquidation must not be allowed to happen no matter what! WE ARE RANGERS FOOTBALL CLUB, NOW AND FOREVER!!!!!!WATP!!RTID!!!NO SURRENDER!!!” And with so many capital letters and exclamation marks, who could argue?

On June 14th, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs rejected the CVA. The Record front page duly noted: ““Rangers were plunged into liquidation yesterday by the taxman – bringing down the curtain on 140 years of history.” And other headlines were clear. Indeed, it is barely conceivable that news desks would have been so clear without fact-checking furiously. “RIP RFC – Taxman passes death sentence on 140 years of Rangers history” (Record). “Day the Taxman buried Rangers” (Scottish Sun). “RFC. Born 1872. Died 2012” (Herald). “140 years of Rangers ends in 8 minutes” (Evening Times). Like the old “Remember World War Two?” joke, Rangers’ death was in “all the papers,” with wreaths-a-plenty by way of illustration.

Yet the front pages were barely framed and mounted by Scottish football fans elsewhere (mostly but not exclusively Celtic) before the narrative began changing. And by the time of this season’s Scottish Cup semi-final draw, Rangers’ now-144-year history was restored. The SFP didn’t explain their rewriting of a history they’d recorded with such emphasis, detail and clarity. Instead, they began a long-term exercise in tautology, referencing the liquidation of Rangers “operating company,” “holding company,” “the company that owned Rangers,” “the corporate entity that formerly housed Rangers,” “the liquidated company which ran the club” etc…

This reached a nadir on the BBC Scotland TV commentary of last season’s League Cup semi-final between Celtic and Rangers, when commentator Liam MacLeod “informed” viewers that Rangers midfielder Lee Wallace “chose to sign up for the Charles Green company away back in the wake of the financial situation Rangers found themselves in.” The tautology, and more, continues, now that Rangers’ corporate structure includes Rangers International Football Club, which “holds” the “Rangers Football Club Limited” (TRFCL). The Herald’s Martin Williams showed vivid imagination, describing TRFCL as “the engine room Rangers subsidiary.” You’d credit him with a keen sense of satire, if you could guarantee he wasn’t deadly serious.

A May 24th 2015 news agency piece was headlined Fifa insist Rangers ARE the same club. It said: “Fifa have stepped into the Rangers argument by announcing the Ibrox side ARE the same club,” and that “following the operating company’s liquidation” Fifa had “rejected claims” to the contrary. This all-but-stated that Fifa had formally ruled on the matter. But it was only “the latest edition of their weekly magazine” saying: “After their enforced relegation in 2012, Glasgow Rangers are in the hunt for promotion back to Scotland’s top flight.” And the BBC facilitated this new reality by letting Scottish Premier Football League Chief Executive, the execrable Neil Doncaster, declare Rangers a new club, through selective quoting from a league-commissioned report by former senior judge Lord Nimmo-Smith, quotes clumsily edited into the interview without one question on the subject…as if Doncaster asked for their insertion, in isolation, and the BBC complied.

The “policy” of avoiding suggestions that the “club” was liquidated was defensible… if it was applied consistently. But not only was it inconsistent, it only appeared to apply to Rangers. Gretna went pop in June 2008, with the BBC dutifully reporting that administrators felt “Gretna has “ceased to exist as a football club.” And you would search in vain for any claim that the newly-formed Gretna FC 2008 were in the Scottish Premier League in 2007/08 or were Scottish Cup losing finalists in 2006. The administrator “let Gretna 2008 buy the rights to the old club badge,” the Scotsman reported on August 29th 2008. But the report also made it clear that “a new club, Gretna FC, has won each of three competitive games this season” while Gretna FC was “the extinct football club.”

Since whatever died at Ibrox died, Heart of Midlothian and Dunfermline Athletic were threatened by liquidation. And all connected events in Edinburgh and Fife were equally dutifully and consistently reported as happening to the club. In the Herald on March 14th 2013, Richard Wilson wrote of Dunfermline: “The club owes £134k to the tax man, and if that sum is not paid within eight days then HMRC will lodge a further petition to liquidate the club.” And on April 1st 2014, Wilson, then of the BBC, wrote that “liquidation was the worst-case scenario for Hearts,” with the article containing only one reference to a company, in the very next sentence: “A precedent was set when Rangers Football Club plc entered administration…” The sub-editors presumably thought Wilson was playing an April Fool’s joke and left this contradiction unamended.

The BBC’s Kenny Macintyre has wearied of the argument. “What big issues in Scottish football would you like us to discuss?” he tweeted in advance of a recent BBC Sportsound phone-in. “Surely this subject has had its day,” he replied when one of his followers suggested looking at the @mintys_lamb material. “Is that the most pressing topic you want to discuss,” he added, the following day. But, as another of the twitterati (me) suggested: “The “pressing” topic is: You say one thing in 2012 and the opposite now. How can we trust you?”

Jackson, Wilson, Williams and others deserve no understanding. Rather than report the news, they have shaped their narrative to suit that of the very bodies and authorities they should be holding to account. They either lied before Rangers’ liquidation, or they’ve been lying ever since. Either way, how can we trust them?
The boorish Traynor did at least claim a legal basis for his change of narrative… purely co-incidentally just before, formally, becoming Rangers’ director of communications. In a July 2013 interview with Rangers’ then-boss Ally McCoist, Traynor admitted that he had written of Rangers’ death. But: “When you start to examine it and speak to corporate lawyers and legal experts, you realise you’ve made a mistake.” Designed as out-of-character humility, this exposed the fundamental fault with the SFP.

On February 16th 2012, Traynor wrote that “it really could be Rangers FC, RIP” if the newly-appointed administrators at Ibrox could not “do a deal” with the tax authorities. In April, he wrote that Rangers’ history “would end with liquidation.” On June 13th, he declared: “Rangers FC as we know them are dead…the creditors’ meeting will still go ahead. But Rangers FC won’t…140 years of history, triumph and tears, will have ended… a newco equals a new club.” Exactly one month later, he said Scotland’s football authorities should let “the new Rangers into the First Division.” On September 17th he suggested it wasn’t “an EBT habit…which closed Rangers.” And on October 18th, “Rangers had to go (to the third division) because they were a new club starting over.”

So, only after eight months and two days did Traynor “start to examine” the situation “and speak to corporate lawyers and legal experts,” i.e. the research any competent journalist would have undertaken before writing one… single… word. And if a sports editor didn’t do that, can we trust the rest of them? That question applies whatever age you consider the current Rangers to be. It applies whether you believe the SFP dishonest or incompetent, or both. And the answer is “clearly not.”

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