LONDON: Yoan Gouffran and Loic Remy are making headlines in the local newspapers in Newcastle after scoring the Premier League goals which beat Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea on Saturday afternoon.
But those are headlines which Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley, his directors and officials do not want to read.
Not that Ashley wanted Newcastle to lose. He has sunk too much money – an estimated £135m – into the club since taking over in 2007. But Ashley has banned the local Newcastle Chronicle, Journal and the Sunday Sun in this football-mad city from the St James’ Park press box.
Their journalists pay to enter the ground and continue their work. They can now be even more objective. They no longer tread the diplomatic worldwide tightrope of the local club reporter, balancing the demands of objective reporting and professional access.
Media bans are not new and not restricted to Newcastle. Another such ban is currently enacted by lower-division, financially-frail Port Vale, not far from Premier League Stoke and in need of all the positive publicity they can generate.
For regular Manchester United reporters a ban by Sir Alex Ferguson was almost an essential ‘badge of honour’. The manager famous for administering the ‘hair dryer’ treatment to his players did not find it so easy to withstand a few words in cold print.
He refused to undertake BBC interviews for seven years after a row over a programme about his son Jason’s work as an agent. That ban meant that the shadow of the programme and its content remained a subject of public discussion for all of those seven years, rather than being lost in the mists of TV time.
Newcastle, over the last 20 years, have turned the scoring of PR own goals into an art form.
Ashley tried in vain to change the historic stadium name into that of his own sportswear retailer; he signed a shirt-advert deal with an infamous short-term loans company; and he brought back a sports director (in Joe Kinnear) whose previous tenure had ended in relegation.
The last straw was the newspapers’ coverage of a fans’ protest march against Ashley outside the ground. His reaction has gifted the protest a swathe of extended, expanded publicity from the fall-out of the media ban.
Reporters from those papers can attend away games but manager Alan Pardew is prevented from answering press conference questions from them by the club’s press officer (or, non-press officer).
Heavy condemnation has come from other media outlets as well as the National Union of Journalists.
The union said: “This attack on media freedom and the ability of journalists to carry out their work on behalf of their readers and the local community is shameful and must be condemned . . . However our members will not be beaten by this and they are determined to do their professional best.”
Chris Morley, the union’s senior local official, described the club’s behaviour as “outrageous.”
He said: “This is a denial of freedom of the media and expression and an attempt by powerful people at the club to take retribution for coverage they did not like. This is totally undemocratic, arrogant and an abuse of position – but worst of all it is an attack on the club’s own supporters who look to their local paper to report on their favourite football club.”