Scottish Football Journalism’s Sound of Silence

by | May 12, 2016

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt,” (Keith Jackson, Daily Record. Or possibly Abraham Lincoln). It has been a curious week for Scotland’s football fourth estate, which appears to have taken the wrong message from that famous quote. On May 5th, the Offshore Game website published the self-explanatorily entitled Doing SFA for fair play. A report into the Rangers tax affair and the role of the Scottish Football Association. The Offshore Game was “set up by the Tax Justice Network to look at the role of offshore finance in sports.” The Tax Justice Network is “a coalition of researchers and activists focused on the harmful aspects of tax avoidance, tax competition and tax havens” and “not aligned to any political party.”

Their report dealt with two issues. The Scottish Premier League (SPL) investigation into offshore benefit trust payments which Rangers made to many of its players but hid from Scottish football authorities. And the SFA role in granting Rangers a licence to play in European club competition in 2011, despite a Rangers tax debt which, the report claims, should have precluded the grant. These governance concerns are not new. Nor is the report’s primary target which, as its title suggests, is the SFA’s fulfilment, or otherwise, of its governance responsibilities. But it was the first time the issue had been raised by a reputable, independent non-football organisation.

Most Scottish football fans, weary of Scottish football press ineptitude, expected the report to be misunderstood by financially semi-literate sports desks, submerged under a welter of PR minutae about Rangers (or negative stories about Celtic, see below), discredited as “bampottery”…or all of the above. Nonetheless, with the ”Panama Papers” still topical, a report into the governance of a high-profile football club’s offshore activities seemed demonstrably newsworthy. However, the actual response from Scotland’s football press was…silence. In print, on social media, on sports, news and business pages. Nothing (even Trappist monks must have thought: “Say SOMEthing, for God’s sake”). And when asked to explain/justify their silence, their initial response was…more silence.

This attracted standard criticisms of the kid-gloves media treatment afforded to Rangers, interspersed with genuine incomprehension that the report was less newsworthy than stories which actually ran on the day, e.g. Celtic’s Erik Sviatchenko “snubbing” his summer holidays so he could be really, really good at football. This unified silence looked co-ordinated. Were editors and journalists really thinking, individually but simultaneously: “No story here”? Was this a massive co-incidence? Great minds thinking alike (ho-ho)? Or were they all obeying the same orders? And, if so, whose? The SFA weren’t saying. As the report’s co-author Alex Cobham tweeted: “I don’t remember ever publishing a report damning an organisation like (TOG) just called out the SFA…and getting ‘no comment.’” And the ‘usual’ lame, predictable excuses only began to emerge over the weekend. “A legal minefield,” they bleated. “Too complex.” “Nothing new.”

Pleas were sent to non-Scottish journalists, notably Channel 4 News chief correspondent Alex Thomson, who exposed Scottish football media incompetence before Rangers’ financial collapse in 2012. Thomson was/is busy on a demonstrably more important “cover-up” (the South Yorkshire Police, in relation to Hillsborough) and probably didn’t need the pressure (sorry, Alex, for my part in that). But he said the issue had been passed to a Channel 4 News colleague and told me that Scotland’s media silence “does seem odd.”

Far odder was BBC Radio Scotland’s Kenny MacIntyre and his Sportssound phone-in programme’s bargepole refusal-based attitude. Pompously, “we” were “not convinced there’s enough in it to be worthy of discussion.” Then “we are aware of the report and the interest in the subject. It’s a very complicated story.” And “there were legalities around it.” That sounded like a story being suppressed, although in MacIntyre’s defence, these were 140-character paraphrases of his employer’s official line. Answering one complaint, the Beeb said its “sports news team is well aware of this…story” (and) “acutely aware of (its) gravity…and of its importance to some in our audience. It’s highly complex…with various editorial and legal issues. It is right and proper that the BBC takes the necessary journalistic steps, and time, before deciding on whether it warrants independent reportage by us.”

Yet the basic story is…well…basic. The report’s 1,000-word summary of recommendations ought not to be beyond the wit and wisdom of journalists earning their money honestly. The legal issues do not preclude straight reporting of the Offshore Game’s findings and their questions for the report’s leading protagonists. And if it takes them seven days (and counting) to judge whether a story warrants “reportage by us,” then BBC “News” is Trade Descriptions Act territory. On 1st March 2013, the Daily Record’s Keith Jackson had no qualms about echoing the Offshore Game’s calls for “major changes in personnel…if the SFA is to show itself fit for purpose.” His story Neil Doncaster and Stuart Regan should lose their jobs over their inept handling of the Rangers crisis said: “Those who run the game in (Scotland)…are no longer fit for office.” No complexities or legalities there. This week, though, he had no opinion on the report bar a contemptuous, sarcastic “what?” I’ll leave you to ponder the reason for his double standard.

Eventually, some Scottish journalists offered a thought. Jackson’s boss, Record sports editor Darren Cooney, tweeted on May 7th that he “found it an interesting read,” and added, pertinently: “it’s not Rangers that interest me but allegations against our governing body.” And the London Times’ experienced newspaper columnist Graham Spiers tweeted, four days later: “Finally getting round to reading the Tax Justice Network report on Rangers. Some awkward questions in there for Campbell Ogilvie/the SFA.” Between them, Cooney and Spiers found the right perspective. The story may herald a gargantuan sporting scandal if the SFA’s dealings with Rangers’ tax affairs are as murky as the most cynical observers suspect. But the report in itself is not that scandal.

That said, Spiers said he “might” covering it in his next column. And any Scottish journalists could take their line, free from worries about legalities, complexities and worthiness. But if England’s Times beats them to it, nine days after the story broke, they too will have some awkward questions to address. Meanwhile, the Record website was shouting from the rooftops over a curious story by Ben Rumsby in last Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph. Although, for once, the Record was not primarily to blame for the shoddy journalism displayed.

Rumsby’s story, Celtic’s confirmation over standing areas ‘very insensitive’, says Hillsborough campaigner, claimed Celtic “confirmed on Wednesday they would become the first British club with an all-seater stadium to modify it to include so-called rail seats, which give spectators the option…to sit or stand,” as “revealed in Celtic’s season-ticket renewal information.” It added: “Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, told Telegraph Sport: ‘It’s insensitive to announce that right at this time, just a week after the verdicts. It’s very insensitive. We will always oppose any form of standing.’” And Rumsby noted that “the Hillsborough families are staunch opponents of a return to standing in British football.”

He added considerable context on the safe standing issue and said “Celtic were granted permission…in June last year (and) indicated at the time (that) plans…could be finalised in time for next season.” But the “announcement” Aspinall had referenced was conspicuously absent. “Record Reporter’s” version, Celtic safe standing announcement branded “insensitive”, focused on Aspinall’s comments and replaced Rumsby’s context on safe standing by quoting Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell “(announcing) the proposals yesterday.” However, there was no such announcement. Lawwell’s words were from…9th June 2015. So the “story”, Celtic’s insensitive timing, was rubbish.  It looked like a Record staffer (with apologies to the Reporter family if not) trawled through other papers for a website space-filler (the article was firmly rebutted before it could go to print).

The hunt for the quotes such stories usually require probably brought up Lawwell’s comments. Assuming they were the basis of the Telegraph story, “Record Reporter” added them to the Record article. And being a mere space-filler, the story probably didn’t go through the usual sub-editorial/fact-checking process, if any at all. This was attributed to an eagerness by the Record to run stories negatively slanting against Celtic, which manifested itself in Celtic fans’ eyes in the run-up to the recent Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers. And the story and its timing was particularly harmful to Celtic.

Last Sunday, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) (a separate organisation from Aspinall’s) were Celtic’s guests, with Celtic having long championed their cause (Celtic were Liverpool’s first post-Hillsborough opponents in the Hillsborough Memorial match on 30th April 1989). The accusations of insensitivity made Celtic look hypocritical and provided an embarrassing diversion from the HJC visit. Fortunately, Record editor Murray Foote creditably apologised “to all” for the error. The HJC tweeted that it “has no opinion on the safe standing issue and no desire to inflict one.” And they paraded around Celtic Park to the rapturous reception they deserved.

However, questions remain. Why did Rumsby, who is no hack, make this schoolboy error? Who told Margaret Aspinall Celtic made the announcement last week? And why is the story still on the Telegraph website, despite Rumsby being told of his error (I was polite…honest)? Such errors fuel Celtic fans’ cynicism over their media treatment. For once, the rush to revile the Record was misguided. However, it is little wonder that such conclusions are drawn. The Scottish Football press silence on the Offshore Game report, a(nother) scandalous dereliction of their duties to inform and hold authority to account, was the starkest contrast to the rush to condemn Celtic’s non-existent insensitivity.

Sometimes I wonder if only a vocal minority of fans care about such matters. In my Trade Union conference years, I saw plenty of activist anger bordering on caricature at issues about which ordinary members cared not a jot. I didn’t need to see stand-up comedian Simon Munnery’s terrific character “Alan Parker: Urban Warrior” in the 1990s. I met the real thing. However, the Offshore Game report’s media treatment merits that anger. Mainly because if the silence is designed to kill the story, it is working. One Rangers fan told me it was “not the hot topic around the watercooler.” I was tempted to introduce the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies but I sensed I wouldn’t get very far, so I just said “I noticed that” and moved on.

Pre-liquidation Rangers’ financial activities may be the report’s venue but its prime subject is the governance of the whole game, a point comically missed by those using diversionary tactics to discredit its findings. SFA president Stewart Regan has dismissed the issues as a “West of Scotland thing.” The Rangers Supporters Trust cared more about The Offshore Game’s funding than Scottish football’s governance. And its attempts to portray them as biased were given gratifyingly short shrift. Co-authors Cobham and George Turner were also individually targeted. A non-plussed Turner summarised “criticisms of our report” as “you follow people we don’t like on twitter.” While Rangers fan website Follow said Cobham’s “interest is pretty clear, thank you.” Cobham simply posted a link to the 2010 “Christian Aid Football Secrecy League” he co-authored (which Twohundredpercent covered at the time) and went about his business.

It bears repeating that the reasons given for the media silence do not prevent “reportage” of the fact of the report. It is not yet the big story it could become, but it is more newsworthy than the PR-puff currently pock-marking Scottish football’s features pages. This is amply demonstrated by the extensive, well-populated debate on the issues on the Scottish Football Monitor website and the Offshore Game’s detailed response to constructive disagreement from the Rangers Media fan website, among many other examples of genuine interest. All generated without “mainstream” media coverage. In such circumstances, it is perfectly reasonable to ask why the Scottish media is pursuing their silence strategy, how this strategy has unified such vigorously-competitive media outlets…and whose interests that strategy serves.