Take a look at any magazine, any newspaper. You’ll find criticism almost everywhere. Music? Look at the NME’s outspoken views on their subject. Steps are crap, the Strokes are mint. Politics? Pick up a national newspaper and you’ll be hard pressed not to come across a political journalist venting his literary spleen at Tony Blair’s latest policy. Films? No film reviewer worth their salt likes the majority of films they see. TV? Well, any writer that doesn’t criticise the reality TV culture we are surrounded by just isn’t worth talking about. The ability to report facts, both sides of the story and then to analyse the subject, after all, is what a large degree of journalism is based upon. How strange, then, that this critical and analytical approach seems to have been lost in the transition from front page to back. Far from demonstrating a readiness to criticise, many football journalists seem to be taking the easy route to acquiescence. Following a conversation with an ALS subscriber after the Charlton game, I have doubted what I see, read and hear for the first time.
The subscriber, who didn’t want to be named, has gradually grown tired of Peter Reid’s attitude to big name transfers – watching us struggle to an unconvincing 2-2 draw at home against poor opposition was simply the final straw. His way of showing his dissatisfaction with the management wasn’t to throw his season ticket away or discuss it with his mates down the pub. He phoned up BBC Radio 5 Live in order to voice his opinion on the 606 phone-in with Richard Littlejohn. This, he believed, would’ve been the perfect way to let other football fans know that not all is rosy at SAFC. It would’ve been perfect – if he had been allowed onto the programme. The Sunderland fan didn’t even get past the screening process for a phone-in show that prides itself on being a platform for fans and free speech. The reason? The researcher on 606 disagreed with his point that Peter Reid should go out and spend serious money, arguing that “It would be unfair to criticise Reid after all he’s done for you.” After making a complaint, he was told he would be allocated a slot on 606 at a later date. At the time of print, he’s still waiting. So, flying in the face of their aim to promote free speech and the fans view, 606 only succeeded in proving that censorship is alive and kicking in football journalism.
The apparent reluctance to criticise is not just limited to the airways. Pick up many local papers and you will be confronted with a similar air of coyness. Take a few stories in the locals in the week that many Sunderland fans felt at their lowest ebb for some time. With only one point gained from two home matches, stories of our star striker expressing his unhappiness at the SoL surfacing again and the signing of a right-sided midfielder still a million miles away, you would expect the local newspapers to reflect a degree of the fans’ frustration. Perhaps a story on how it really is time to sign a right-winger, or maybe a piece on how playing players out of position doesn’t win you football matches. Instead, in one regional sports paper we were treated to a story regarding the shortness of Kevin Phillips’ hair and an article on how well Darren Williams had played for twenty minutes in the home defeat to Spurs. Stories such as these confuse and annoy me. It would be understandable if they were published in the official programme or, say, the ‘Legion of Light’ – after all, these publications exist solely to promote the name of SAFC. But when they appear in an independent newspaper, which should promote the standards of good journalism already stated, we could be forgiven for wondering why.
There are several reasons for this worrying trend – and the media is not necessarily responsible for all of them. Dylan Younger, Sports Editor for the Sunday Sun, believes that some journalists steer clear of direct criticism just to protect their jobs: “A journalist might shy away from criticism either to preserve good contacts or for fear of reprisals. I believe that the latter explanation is more relevant. Sunderland, for example, have banned one sports reporter from the Stadium of Light for life. In this sort of climate it is easy for journalists – concerned about a ban which may affect their whole livelihood – to ignore controversial issues, and refrain from critical comment.” This heavy-handed approach is rife in football – if a reporter steps out of line, the offended club will deal with him. Yet, as Younger explains, Sunderland seem to be a little more susceptible to this approach than other Premiership clubs: “In my seven-and-a-half years with the Sunday Sun, we have never had a journalist refused entry to Newcastle or Middlesbrough’s grounds. We have been refused entry to Roker Park and the Stadium of Light many times – even at the last minute without warning, and including an indefinite ban during 1999/2000 season.”
Yet the banning of a publication doesn’t just stop at the regional papers. Just before the start of the season Simon Bird, a journalist at The Mirror, used quotes from an interview that Nicolas Medina had given a newspaper in Argentina to write an article giving the impression that he would be living in Newcastle rather than Sunderland when he eventually moved to England. Following the publication of the article, Bird was banned by the club for two weeks – a ban which meant no access to any matches, press conferences or the training ground.
Then, only a few weeks ago, the same journalist wrote a story highlighting the frustration of Kevin Phillips at the SoL – which was printed at a time when the mood was less than enthusiastic on Wearside. The result of The Mirror publishing that particular article was another ban for the same journalist that didn’t expire until after the Man United game. After speaking with many other reporters, both national and regional, the response to Sunderland’s strong arm tactics is the same – it seems that nearly every reporter covering Sunderland has spent a certain amount of time banned from the SoL during Peter Reid’s tenure.
Brian McNally, North East sports reporter for The Sunday Mirror, received a lifetime exclusion in 1997, which still shows no sign of being lifted. His particular ban was earned after he used his column in The Sunday Mirror to warn Peter Reid and Bob Murray that the squad in their first Premiership season wasn’t good enough to survive – in his words, “For having an opinion on the way the club was being run”. Despite the fact that he was proved right, or possibly because of this fact, McNally was handed a total SoL ban – a move that even extended to withdrawing his invitation for the post-production party of Premier Passions at the Stadium. Yet, as Sunderland have found to their cost, ostracising a journalist can backfire as, following his ban, McNally had to rely on stories obtained away from the club, such as the Lee Clark/David Stonehouse story – when they were both caught wearing Newcastle merchandise at Wembley – and the story which revealed Alex Rae’s personal problems. These stories could have been avoided if McNally hadn’t been banned. Even the North East football correspondent from the News of the World, Jim Ryan, is no longer allowed to speak to the players. Call me naive, but banning members from the North East’s three biggest selling Sunday newspapers – The Sunday Mirror, The Sunday Sun and The News of the World – doesn’t seem like the best press relations move in the world.
The experiences of The Sunday Sun’s employees reinforce the opinion of many journalists that SAFC are over-protective when it comes to the press. “I believe that Sunderland’s long term problem with our newspaper is twofold,” Younger comments. “Firstly, we have an outspoken column, written by a chief sportswriter who is not afraid to speak his mind. Secondly, we print sports and news stories which some might think reflect poorly upon a football club. A good example was the article about the Sunderland players’ wives fighting at the civic presentation to celebrate promotion – a cast iron story which led to our press box ban.”
Dealing with the press in such a paranoid way can have two effects. Firstly, it will decrease the likelihood of balanced reporting on Sunderland. If a journalist, who has already received a ban, comes across a potentially explosive storyline, his newspaper may not print it due to the possible repercussions. Secondly, censorship leads to one-dimensional journalism, which can lead to a newspaper giving just one side of the story – a trap that some think regional journalists are falling into.
As The Echo’s Graeme Anderson admits, objectivity is sometimes difficult when you work exclusively with one club. “Generally speaking, we get on well with SAFC, but it’s always a fluid situation and can change on an hour to hour, never mind day to day, basis. Personally, I’ve experienced criticism from supporters for not being critical enough and from the club for being overly critical, so if neither side’s happy, my reporting must be balanced. I know The Echo sometimes has a reputation for being ‘soft’ on the club, but that has not stopped us falling out with Peter Reid, Bob Murray, players and officials at the club from time to time. It’s almost an inevitable part of the job when one paper is producing so much copy on one club and you are required to be critical when you think the time calls for it.”
Although Anderson works closely with club and Peter Reid, he admits that Sunderland can be extremely touchy. “The upsets can be quite volcanic when they happen, but they tend to be few and far between. Sometimes I think the club is oversensitive to perceived slights – readers would be surprised sometimes at what can cause serious offence to the club.”
As the many national sports reporters that we have spoken to freely admit, a journalist like Graeme Anderson is in a perilous position. It is much easier to be critical when your livelihood doesn’t depend on it and, with The Echo obviously liasing with one main club, if a journalist upsets an individual and has their access refused or limited, it could be catastrophic for both their newspaper sales and their employment, as Anderson acknowledges. “Overall, I think there’s an unspoken, mutual understanding that we share many aims in common. The amount of stories The Echo breaks, from the biggest to the smallest, day after day, is something that comes about largely because we work at building a successful relationship with the club.”
Yet criticism is an instrumental part of the coverage SAFC receive, as he is the first to admit. “There is nothing wrong with criticism of the club as long as it is well informed and based on facts. Being able to laugh at, or criticise the club, is a supporter’s right and should be defended to the hilt. However, when criticism is written or broadcast, the media should accept a responsibility to ensure their criticisms are based on firm evidence or valid arguments.
I count myself as a reporter first and a supporter second and as far as our opposite numbers go on the Journal, Northern Echo, Chronicle and Sunday Sun, I think the match reports tend to be almost overwhelmingly balanced, objective and what’s equally important, written with a great local knowledge. I don’t think any clubs in the country get better or more in depth coverage locally than Newcastle and Sunderland. And that includes in the fanzine department too.
A Love Supreme and Sex & Chocolate have an enviable record for speaking their minds even though that has sometimes not been popular with the club. It still does a good job both for the fans and for the club. It also acknowledges the tales doing the rounds but doesn’t print them as fact unless they have been confirmed. And that’s important.
Conversely, national reporters often have two or even three clubs to focus on, so if they upset individuals from one club, they still have many other stories to rely on. Dylan Younger can sympathise with many reporters in this position: “It’s easy to criticise journalists who you might think are being too positive about the club they write about. Despite what many people think, being a sports reporter in the North East is not an easy job. If the experience of Sunday Sun reporters is anything to go by, journalists risk having to endure a hostile atmosphere at Sunderland in particular if they are involved in what the club see as critical or adverse publicity.”
Reading between the lines, it seems as though SAFC are consciously or sub-consciously employing a strategy whereby journalists that refrain from criticism are allowed privileged access to players and management, but if a journalist steps out of line, they will see their in-club connections evaporate. This is simply not right. Freedom of speech allows people, not necessarily journalists, to express their opinion – within reason. It seems bizarre that reporters are gagged for simply telling the truth or expressing an informed opinion. If you walk the streets of Sunderland and ask people about SAFC, most will put forward at least one negative comment regarding the management or the playing staff. If you pick up a local newspaper, the barely deserved words of praise and acclaim directed at everyone employed by the club will far outnumber the negative points. Players are only fair game for criticism once the club say so – where was the media scrutiny of the Hutchison saga as it was happening? It appeared quickly enough once Sunderland Football Club set the ball rolling.
Unfortunately, the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Ex-players have claimed that they have been told by the club not to speak to certain reporters, Kevin Phillips’ agent told the Sunday Sun that he wanted to accept their 1998/99 Player of the Year trophy, but was told not to by the club and even press releases have been withheld as a punishment to certain media organisations. Words such as petulant and narrow-minded spring to mind; yet it’s words such as alarming and ominous that should be used if Sunderland continue their stranglehold on the media.
Journalists, irrelevant of whatever subject they are covering, are there to report facts and provide an objective platform for an audience to use in formulating their own opinion. If they fulfil this criterion, they should be applauded by their audience – not punished by their subjects. According to almost every journalist who has commented, the lions share of the blame for what is, at the moment, a deteriorating situation lies with individuals at SAFC who have fostered an aggressive and controlling policy over the past few years towards the press. A situation that shows little sign of changing – at least until those we know as critics are freely allowed to criticise.
The final word goes to Graham Anderson: “You can never please everyone all the time – everyone sees a different game – but if you’re true to yourself and write what you believe, you won’t go far wrong. I think that is good advice.” So do I. Lets just hope that Sunderland Football Club give the media sufficient freedom to follow it.