Okay, before we start, I know Sky Sports News (SSN) is not “Scottish” journalism. SSN is based in Osterley, a West London suburb famous otherwise for Osterley Park mansion… and also home to the Hurlingham Oddfellows cricket club when I played for their second XI, occasionally with distinction it must be said, in the late 1980s. However, Glaswegian SSN presenter Jim White last week went to South Africa to interview fellow-Glaswegian Dave King about the Glaswegian Rangers Football Club King now chairs. And you can’t get much more Scottish than that. Especially as Scottish money may well have paid for it.
Sky Sports subscribers should certainly be hoping that the broadcaster didn’t cover the cost of flying White to Johannesburg for what was edited down to six-minutes of insight-free tosh…an interview which could just as informatively have taken place by phone at a fraction of a fraction of the cost. To cut a very long story very short, Rangers remain heavily cash-strapped, despite the supposedly mega-rich King having been in power at Ibrox since March.
Over recent years, King has made countless promises of what he once termed “over-investment” in order to “return” Rangers to their “rightful place” at the top of Scottish club football. This promised “over-investment” was couched in ever-decreasing terms and has yet to materialise. So, after Rangers spectacularly lost Scottish club football’s second-tier promotion play-off in May, their new management team of Paul Warburton and Rangers “legend” David Weir have had to rebuild the squad with out-of-contract signings from, mostly, lower-division English club football. This multi-million pound difference between King’s rhetoric and reality was certainly a juicy subject for any objective journalist to pursue… maybe even to the point of flying five-and-a-half thousand miles so to do. Sadly, the difference between White’s “rhetoric” and reality was just as wide.
The interview’s depths of banality and obsequiousness are difficult to convey in mere words. It ranged from the sycophantic to the demonstrably untrue and was utterly devoid of any journalistic standards, to the point of being an embarrassment to the profession. White has “previous” in this regard, most notably his 2014 interview with former Rangers CEO Charles Green from Green’s hospital bed. But that was relatively harmless and unintentionally hilarious. As an ex-CEO, Green’s dishonesty could do no further damage. King is current Rangers chairman and his dishonesty matters.
White’s piece began with his drive into a gated mansion in an “affluent North Johannesburg suburb” where “real estate is the most expensive in the country.” In voiceover, he claimed that King has lived in “the city’s most spectacular property…for the last 40 years” and “was recently quoted in South Africa’s top-ten rich list,” even after his “£80m settlement” with South Africa’s Revenue Service (SARS). This established King as the rich, successful businessman of which his public relations people have long spoken. Unfortunately, it was bollocks. Being “quoted in” a rich list is not the same as appearing on it. And the difference here runs into billions of pounds. The first “recent” rich list in which I saw King appear placed him a little outside the top ten at…216. And that was in 2012, a year before he sent £80m SARS’ way.
As we were given a tour of his 35,000-bottle wine cellar (“everything here is to drink, it’s not an asset,” King said at one point) we were given two thoughts by King, neither of which, for their own reasons, qualified as “news” or “information.” Firstly, King said that Rangers’ merchandising deal with huge sportswear retailer Sports Direct (SD) is “not working for the club and in my view it certainly can’t be working for Sports Direct either.” He’s said this before at press conferences and wasn’t questioned on how he thought the deal wasn’t working for Sports Direct. White also failed to press him for details. Momentarily, White did appear strategically clever, asking King if he had any respect for SD owner Mike Ashley. King said Ashley “couldn’t be in the position he is in without being a smart retailer,” which begged the follow-up question: “If Ashley was so smart, why did he, or let his company, negotiate a deal which “wasn’t working?” Instead, he meekly parroted King’s “hopes” of “(delivering) a better deal…when he meets Sports Direct for talks,” despite a glaring opportunity to press King on the factual basis for these hopes.
In June SD said they believed “there was no basis whatsoever” for the Rangers’ board’s claim of “a continued and dramatic reduction in income generated by retail operations.” Their discontent, such as it was, came from past mistakes in “budgeting and ordering of products” and not the financial deal itself. It was an opportunity which you would imagine a journalist of White’s undoubted ability could only have passed up under orders. Secondly, King stated that “Rangers supporters have consistently for over a century spent more money in supporting their club than any other team in Scotland” adding: “If we can get Rangers supporters back to outspending Celtic supporters…Rangers will be the second-biggest club in Scotland.”
The first part of that sentence was demonstrably untrue and other, better, bloggers have already revealed Celtic supporters’ greater spending during the vast majority of this century. The second part was the latest of many King attempts to shift the financial responsibility for Rangers “return” to their “rightful place” directly onto supporters. The “the second-biggest club in Scotland” quote was curious; a Freudian slip, perhaps, and/or a tacit admission that “second-biggest” is the limit of King’s ambition and/or funding ability. Later, however, he was back “on-message.” “Rangers can only be number one in Scotland again when the Rangers fans start outspending the Celtic fans,” he declared, emphasising that “If Rangers fans continue to withhold the funds, Rangers will never be as big as Celtic.”
Again, this was a clear opportunity for a journalist of White’s capability to press King on his financial responsibilities, as a chairman who came to power on a rather different financial manifesto. However, it was by now clear that White was not in Johannesburg as an objective journalist. He let King say that “(if) one is in a privileged position, it’s important to be able to give back” and stated in voiceover, utterly without evidence, that “he is giving back” and that “he’s playing a chairman’s part in transfer deals.” “He’s constantly asked by Rangers fans if he’ll give more money to the football club,” White added. Cut to King claiming: “myself and my co-investors have agreed to invest any shortfall that the club has while it’s rebuilding itself… and we’ve done that.”
The watching world, beyond King’s acolytes and the more slavish followers among Rangers’ fanbase, responded “Really? When was that?” White, however, said nothing. At all. Instead, he let King state that “no matter whether investors put in money or not it’s not sustainable without the supporters.” And that was the party political broadcast on behalf of the Dave King Party. Or, more pertinently, the Dave King “won’t be putting his own money into Rangers despite his public statements to the contrary” Party.
Ordinarily, White would surely be facing some sort of reprimand from his employers for returning with such unbroadcastable rubbish at such expense. And the decision TO broadcast it would surely also attract sanction. It failed to serve SSN’s purpose as a credible sports news organisation. And it belonged on “Rangers TV,” if that isn’t being too harsh on the in-house channel at Ibrox. In fact, even after summoning all my cynicism, which regular readers will know is plenty, I find it impossible to believe that SSN would allow themselves to be that blatantly used for purely PR purposes, unless they had exclusive rights to the next part of Rangers’ fabled “journey” back to that “rightful place” about which we keep hearing and were thus “puffing” their own product… or someone else was paying.
Much of the Rangers recent coverage in Scotland’s sports press has been placed there by Level 5, a public relations company set up by James Traynor – Rangers’ communication’s officer under a previous regime and a former Daily Record newspaper sports editor. And this “product placement” is no secret – a subject to which I will return in more detail in a forthcoming article (“whoopee, can’t wait” – ed). The coverage has been obsequious and has avoided important truths about Rangers’ finances, with every signing, however minor, trumpeted to the hilt. And White’s attempts to portray King as a rich benefactor who will rid the club of their turbulent merchandise deal and take them to Scottish football’s summit are an entirely natural extension of that coverage.
So, did Level 5 “place” this material with SSN, in the same way as they’ve placed material with compliant journalists at compliant newspapers? Initially, it seems an outlandish theory. Level 5’s only significant client is Rangers, who are in no position to pay Traynor’s company the sort of fees which would cover White’s costs. King, the beneficiary of this puffery, is scarcely better able (or willing) to do so, despite the trappings of wealth alluded to in the interview. And like all outlandish theories, they need rigorous testing against potential realities. However, the only potential reality here is that SSN paid a lot of money for six minutes of low quality PR-puffery, none of which was news in the true sense of the word, as conveyed by its first three letters. Neither theory offers Scottish football journalism in general any credibility, whether “Level 5” is the level to which White and SSN stooped in Johannesburg, or whether genuine Scottish football journalism is genuinely that bad.
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