How Scottish Football Journalism Failed Its Journalists

by | Feb 3, 2016

Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal has possibly spent more time recently lambasting the media than dealing with the issues that have made his Old Trafford future a media story. Imagine, though, if United decided not only to ban “offending” journalists from their press conferences, as predecessor Alex Ferguson was wont to do in his more ‘emotional’ phases, but also to apply legal and commercial pressure to said journalists’ employers to force them out of their jobs.

The outcry would expose United as bullies and opponents of free speech and discourage them from pursuing such an ugly strategy. That, however, is not how Scottish football, or its journalism, works. Last week, two Herald newspaper group columnists, Graham Spiers and Angela Haggerty, left their roles at the paper, Spiers semi-voluntarily, Haggerty entirely involuntarily. The current Rangers FC kickstarted both processes by complaining about two aspects of the December 30th Spiers on Sport column entitled Rangers must uphold progress by resisting return of ‘the old songs.’

Spiers acknowledged Rangers’ “considerable strides to eradicate bigotry around the club” but added that the Rangers v Hibernian Scottish Championship match on December 28th was accompanied by “a further eruption of what might euphemistically be called the “old songs”…another example, amid all the progress that Rangers have made, of some Rangers fans getting back into the party mood in the way they like best.” This referred to a lusty rendition of “The Billy Boys,” a banned song glorifying 1920s Glasgow fascist Billy Fullerton. Spiers was “not convinced by (the) mettle on this issue” of “this Rangers FC board” and claimed “that at least one member of the current Rangers board thinks The Billy Boys is a tremendous song.”

The first indication of a Rangers response came on January 11th, from the website of Rangers fan group the Vanguard Bears, whose “understanding” was “that Park’s Motor Group has withdrawn £40,000 worth of advertising revenue from The Herald due to persistent and unwarranted attacks on the Club by its article writers.” The group is owned by Rangers director Douglas Park. They said “a Rangers Director” had “voiced club concerns…with Herald Editor Magnus Llewellin, which “were totally ignored.” And that the Herald had published “a deliberately inflammatory article with the headline “Crooks at Rangers.”

The “inflammatory article” concerned Rangers’ signing of Matt Crooks from English third-tier club Accrington Stanley. Diarist Ken Smith quoted “Aberdeen supporter Grant Wilson (who) was ‘looking forward to seeing ‘Crooks’ on the back of a Rangers top.’” This merely “inflamed” the same mildly-childish pleasure I get from adapting a Metropolitan Police FC match report headline in the Non-League Paper to insert the name of Met midfielder Billy…Crook (no, really). And the Bears’ outrage that the Herald had “totally ignored” Rangers’ “concerns” was equally misplaced. On January 27th, the Herald published an “Apology” concerning Spiers’ column, stating that “Spiers said an un-named Rangers director had praised the song The Billy Boys. He also questioned the willingness of Rangers directors to tackle offensive behaviour, & The Herald & Graham Spiers accept this was inaccurate.”

The tediously-spiteful Rangers Supporters Trust (RST) were “delighted” that Rangers had “secured a humiliating public climbdown from Mr Spiers following his latest false accusations.” They said Spiers “made a career out of fanning the flames of sectarianism.” They did not “believe (his) latest humiliation will necessarily curb his appetite for printing or broadcasting lies about our club” and hoped that “any editors or producers who still inexplicably employ him are more diligent in checking his work (as) he can’t be trusted to do so himself.”

As so often, the RST were wrong. Spiers responded to the “Apology”, insisting that his questioning of “’the mettle’ of the current club board” was “based on the fact that at Ibrox Stadium on August 31 2015, a Rangers director told me that he thought The Billy Boys was ‘a great song.’” And that “The Herald has never told me that they disbelieved my version of events.  My opinion…was based on a truthful account of my meeting with a Rangers director.” The apology failed to clarify how a “questioning” can, in itself, be inaccurate. But Spiers was clearly disassociating himself from it and, therefore, the paper itself, which “denied (his) request to withhold any clarification/apology until my own position was clearer.”

To make their position “clearer”, the Herald issued another statement on January 29th.  It explained that Spiers’ claim “presented a legal issue…whether we could defend in court a contentious statement.” They claimed “the advice given was that we could not,” that “we were left with no option other than to apologise” and that they had to “abide by the spirit” of the apology. But “unfortunately that apology was then undermined and we had to take appropriate action.” This “action” was to discontinue Angela Haggerty’s Sunday Herald column, because of her publicly-recorded “Solidarity” with Spiers, on Twitter. She opined that Spiers was “again being targeted by the mob for telling some harsh truths.”

This discontinuation of her column arguably “undermined” the paper’s claim that they would “continue to report and comment on the pressing issues of the day without fear or favour.” Despite this, they further claimed their “long history of supporting quality journalism and defending free speech and robust comment made all the more difficult the action we had to take,” while revealingly, if unconvincingly adding that “one of our advertisers” being “on the board at Rangers” was “never an issue.” Haggerty tweeted her support for Spiers as he “was under a deluge of online hate by that point.” And the disproportionate response, real sledgehammer-on-nut stuff, was, Herald editor-in-chief Llewellin told her, because “representatives of Rangers Football Club” had put the paper “under so much legal pressure that he felt he had to let me go.”

These legal threats from the club, and the Herald’s succumbing to them, are particularly sinister, given that she “hadn’t commented on the stooshie between Rangers and the Herald” and clearly linked her comments to the afore-mentioned RST statement.  The Herald certainly need to make their position on this clearer. Haggerty noted the “bucketful of irony surrounding” her dismissal “less than a week after penning a column about the abuse I’ve experienced as a journalist, much of which has come from fans of Rangers.” In a well-reasoned, well-written if disturbing piece entitled The abuse levelled on social media reveals the ugly truth about the level of misogyny in our society, she detailed “how groups connected to Rangers had tried to get me sacked from jobs, and how important it was for employers to back staff who come under attack online.”

The gormless RST added 600 words containing enough irony to trigger global bucket shortages. The ‘highlight’ was their claim that “Spiers could not provide a single shred of proof” of his allegations. However, they neglected to explain how anyone could offer any “shreds of proof” of what was said in a private, unrecorded conversation. Indeed, only those who heard or were in the conversation can confirm its content. No-one from the RST is claiming a presence (Graham was a director for 48 hours in August 2015…but not these hours). Nor is the Herald’s Neil Cameron, who recently labelled all Spiers supporters “gullible idiots.”

In fact, only one person can confirm what was said. But the “un-named board member” is currently saying nothing. Amid all the reported legal back-and-forth, Rangers have offered no public comment on or denial of the claims. One has to wonder why not and, perhaps as importantly, why Rangers are under no demonstrable pressure to do so. And the paper may have felt that Haggerty “undermined” their apology but their action still seems disproportionate and doesn’t address the specific Rangers “legal pressure” to which they succumbed.

The RST has consistently complained at Rangers’ media treatment (another irony-packed bucket for some). Here they claimed that Spiers and Haggerty “rose to some degree of prominence” on the back of “dishonest commentary” about Rangers. They referenced Spiers’ “history of telling lies about Rangers and its fans” and Haggerty’s description of “Rangers fans, ordinary men, women and children, as ‘the klan’.” And they countered “allegations of ‘mob rule’” with allegations of a “mob” that “has crowdfunded websites and donations to fund their obsession” and has “friendly journalists, happy to write falsehoods about the target of their hatred.”

The principle of countering improper media coverage is, in itself, fair. However, many RST claims struggle with scrutiny. Even if Spiers has a “history of telling lies…,” he also has a history of telling very uncomfortable truths. Haggerty has called a Rangers fan “sub-culture” the “klan.” However, the claims against her (wilfully?) misunderstand the term “sub-culture.” Meanwhile, the crowdfunding “mob” has funded freelance court reporter James Doleman’s concise and informative reports of recent Rangers legal proceedings, something often beyond the will and/or budget of Scotland’s Mainstream Media (SMSM).

The criticism Doleman receives from the many Rangers fans who follow his reports entirely non-obsessively seems based solely on him supporting Celtic. Given the SMSM’s comprehensive failure to cover the old Rangers’ financial collapse, you would think fans might be grateful for Doleman’s efforts. Rangers fans have form for hounding journalists with whom they disagree. For example, in September 2013 the BBC’s Jim Spence referred to Rangers as “the old club, some people will tell you, well, the club that died.” Hundreds of Rangers fans complained, even though Spence was merely reporting speech. These fans mindlessly equate “comment” and “criticism” with “falsehoods,” egged on by irresponsible supporter-representatives. But while the RST trumpeted the “success” of last week’s actions, they were the club’s work.

Llewellin, possibly fresh from updating his Facebook profile, tweeted “it’s complicated.” Such complications reportedly include the potentially prohibitive cost of backing the columnists, as called for by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Affordability is also an issue for Rangers. However, Rangers are not after costly court cases. They simply want to have a “chilling effect” on journalists, by threatening legal or commercial action in order to discourage criticism and adverse coverage. Indeed, the NUJ may have caught a chill, after condemning the Herald’s willingness “to sacrifice journalists when commercial interests are involved” as “totally unacceptable” and calling for the columnists’ reinstatement. Their statement appeared last Friday and disappeared on Saturday, reportedly after they realised “it could have contained errors.” Thankfully, it re-appeared, content unchanged, yesterday.

Rangers (old, new, borrowed or blue) has received and deserved huge media criticism in recent times. And the present financially-struggling club, chaired by a convicted criminal continues to deserve it. Manchester United would not be allowed to “deal” with such criticism in such a manner. Nor should Rangers. It should be every media group’s duty to oppose legal and/or commercial retribution against valid journalistic comment and criticism. The Herald newspaper group last week appeared to fail in this duty.

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