Though football clubs making an effort to control which stories reach the public domain is nothing new, a clear trend in recent years has been an increasingly adversarial relationship between clubs and their local press. Rotherham United, Port Vale, Blackpool, Newcastle United, Southampton and Nottingham Forest have all introduced measures to restrict the access granted to local journalists ranging from refusal to grant interviews to outright bans.
Two weeks ago, Swindon Town took this attitude to its logical conclusion and announced that all mid-week, which in essence means pre match, press conferences will be scrapped next season. The club shall have no formal obligation to ensure there is pre-match access to a player or players. Instead the flow of news shall be restricted to Fanzai, a football app, the content of which shall be controlled by the club’s PR department.
Why does any of this matter? After all, the way in which fans ingest news about their football team has become ever more complex, usually composed of a mixture of newspapers, online outlets and social media accounts. Local newspapers we are told, like all newspapers, are an ever increasing irrelevance. Moreover, in the post-Leveson era the reputation of the Fourth Estate is at a fairly low ebb and it can be difficult to elicit support towards journalists of any description.
The relationship between the local press and a football club is nevertheless an important one. This is especially acute the further down the football pyramid you go, at clubs such as Swindon Town, where the nationals are only likely to appear should they draw a big name in a cup competition. Sir Alex Ferguson could ban whoever he wished without seriously affecting the news available to Manchester United fans due to the sheer scale of media interest in a club of that size.
The local press ought to fulfil two important roles, though they can often conflict with one and other. The first is help straddle the rut that has increasingly widened between clubs and their local communities. Recommended reading on this subject is David Goldblatt’s 2014 work The Game of Our Lives. Firstly this can be achieved by keeping the fans reliably informed on the bread and butter subjects that interest a fan about their team; transfers, team news, injuries etc. Where tension can exist though is the fact that local media ought to be a source of support for the club, helping to build up fervour before a big game for example, but also has a duty to hold the club and powerful figures within it to account.
This is generally the source of difficulty between clubs and their local press. A good example would be the Oyston family who own Blackpool. The local rag, The Blackpool Gazette, grew increasingly sympathetic to the array of fan groups who protested against Karl Oyston’s ‘stewardship’ of the club. Legitimate grievances ranged from his abusive and frequently prejudiced messages to certain fans as well as the way in which he and his family pocketed the proceeds of Blackpool lone Premier League season in 2010/11, after which the club has experienced serious financial difficulty. It had to start last season with a skeletal squad of players. As things stand nobody at the Gazette is allowed to speak to anybody at the club, that privilege is reserved to ‘local media partners’.
Sometimes, the way in which clubs use the media to mould the opinion of their fan base can be far more subtle. There are surely many people who are suspicious of the way in which Aston Villa, back in the Spring, promised fans that Christian Benteke would stay and signed Fabian Delph up on a new contract; just as season ticket renewals were up for sale. Villa fans won’t see either in claret and blue next season.
The desire to restrict news to press released by a club’s PR department is just another way in which modern day football can look increasingly ‘staged’ and ‘managed’. Club produced media can be a bit like hearing Katy Perry at ear splitting volume on a stadium PA system pre match. You have no option but to consume it, you’re a captive audience, but everybody knows it’s poor. True, club websites can be useful for things such as purchasing tickets or reading the full transcript of press conferences but most of the content is soft and favourable towards the club. You wouldn’t expect anything else. As players take it in turn to say what they and the team has ‘learnt’ after another avoidable defeat however, the platitudes and lip service can get a little frustrating.
As with many issues, social media is set to play an important role. There are those who would argue that social media has rendered traditional media forms redundant and that the range of information available on Twitter means that clubs will never be able to fully control the news. On the other hand there are those, myself among them, who argue that the echo chamber of Twitter with its assortment of ITK “in the know”s, ranters, and unashamed guessers, makes accurate reporting and insightful, well informed analysis all the more important.
What platforms such as Twitter create is a widespread democratisation of opinion, where everybody’s view is the equal of everybody else’s view. Initially this sounds like an attractive state of affairs, where individuals can publish content independent of the traditional network systems and hierarchies that constitute the ‘established’ media. However, it can also lead to a scenario where it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees, difficult to find the voices that carry the most weight and difficult to understand the matter at hand due to the ocean of content it provides.
This means that there is still a role for the football reporter or journalist in the traditional mould. The platforms may be changing, but the tenets of the job remain the same; to inform, investigate and hold the powerful to account when they are found to be acting in bad faith. Clubs who seek to cut out an essential part of the football fabric should be vehemently opposed by media types and fans alike. The welfare of both groups is at stake, and both would be greatly emasculated should clubs be allowed to control news content to the extent proposed by Swindon.
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