When David McNally gave the go-ahead to publish that statement on the club website yesterday afternoon, you would have hoped he understood the PR disaster awaiting him. The statement, attempting to explain the clubs ongoing beef with BBC East, was no more than a petty, childish whinge over Late Kick Offs role in the non-transfer of Craig Mackail Smith. The request for BBC East to just ‘pick up the phone’ and explain themselves might seem fair to some, but stinks of something more worse that has been creeping into the top clubs for years. And unfortunately, it’s crept into ours.
McNally will know full well that the producers at LKO, or Dion Dublin, will not reveal their source for the CMS information, whether its from Posh or Norwich. In demanding to find out where this information came from, McNally is making an unreasonable demand and punishing local fans with a drop in coverage until he’s been satisfied. But more than just a petty attempt to settle scores, this underlines the club attitude to the press in recent times; one of deep hostility and suspicion towards a profession that only attempts to find the truth and inform its readers.
Ultimately, the club, and many others up and down the Premier League, wants to control the information that fans have about day to day goings on. It’s been going on for years. Whether it’s Sir Alex Ferguson saying a player is weeks away from a return before including him in a squad, or Arsene Wenger saying a player won’t be leaving the day before they do. The clubs of the Premier League, backed up by the nauseating organisation DataCo, have attempted to minimise the impact of good journalists and provide only sanitised, safe, club-approved information to the masses.
In this way, press releases become news, the club is secure from embarrassing revelations or dangerous exposures and to assume Norwich would be clean from all this is naïve. There is undoubtedly a wealth of information at the club that would cause problems if it was leaked, the same as any club, and any restrictions they can place on journalists for the pettiest of grievances they will do. It has happened before, to the unlucky Michael Bailey at the Evening News, and I’m led to believe it was threatened again to the EDP (though I’m not going to say when and why).
This is merely the local manifestation of a long running, national trend on the part of powerful Premier League clubs to control content. It is, ultimately, what was behind the recent problems between the Newspaper Publishers Association and DataCo, where the press was threatened with a lockout up and down the country if they didn’t subscribe to the archaic end user agreements being thrust upon them. DataCo, with its Football League and Premier League backing, attempted to intimidate clubs and publishers across the country into accepting their terms which tried to, amongst other things, heavily restrict the way in which live text updates were sent from matches.
But this isn’t the first time that journalists and DataCo have collided. They had disagreements in 2008 over the charges DataCo impose just to print the fixture list; £9,000 for a national newspaper and £22,500 for a website. This is the experience of modern football reporting, where a newspaper cant print fixtures without paying a fee and I certainly couldn’t put them on this blog without being threatened with legal action. It happened even earlier, in 2004, in a row over the release of digital images.
In every instance the conflict comes from one side wanting to restrict the information that is passed to the public, and one side wanting to open it up. Journalists fight fire with fire, blanking out sponsors and closing down coverage until a compromise is met, but the unhealthy balance is just waiting until the next round of contract talks.
And so it comes back to David McNally’s beef with BBC East. The contempt with which journalism is held by the footballing authorities, be it FIFA, the FA or the Premier League, or by individual clubs is a stain on a profession which has helped clean up, modernise and revolutionise the game. Not all sports journalism is perfect but whether its investigations into club ownership, bungs, criminals in football, illegal dealings, transfers, power, finances, racism, homophobia and so much more paint a profession that has done more to try and make football transparent than any of the inept institutions that try and run it. Attempting to make BBC East explain themselves, through their source of information or methods of obtaining it, are not only petty but symptomatic of our club joining the ranks of the bullying big boys.
Which is a shame, because McNally has been one of the best things to happen to this club in a long, long time.