Media: The sting that hurt Newcastle FC

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The Independent Online
Was last week's media circus surrounding Newcastle United all about betrayal of trust, or was it about hypocrisy? Barry Wood asks why the directors were given the red card

With his voice quivering with rage and the strain on his face clearly visible under the halogen lights, Sir John Hall let rip at his son's media tormentors last week.

"The vilification that Douglas and Freddie have endured is beyond belief and yes, they may have brought some of this on their own heads, but the question has to be asked: why were they targeted?"

The story, should anyone need reminding, involved Sir John's 39-year- old son Douglas and the Tyneside scrap tycoon Freddie Shepherd. The two directors of Newcastle United Football Club had been secretly recorded boasting about their sexual conquests, insulting the local womenfolk and their own players and mocking their own fans.

As Sir John sought to find a hidden hand, or a secret agenda that would help him make sense of the whirlwind that has ripped through his life for the past two weeks, it is easy to sympathise with him. But sadly for him, all the signs are that it was much more prosaic. A straightforward tip-off led to a classic News of the World sting with the usual hallmarks: the secret cameras, the carefully planned set-up, the reporters posing as businessmen.

By all accounts it was one of the easiest investigations that the reporters involved have ever taken part in - all the damning material being gathered in two or three brief sittings, with little or no prompting needed. But what none of the journalists involved could have anticipated was the astonishing way it took off. It wasn't just a normal football scandal, it was about abuse of power, hubris, about attitudes to women.

All of which raises some questions about the way the story was gathered. With two scalps under his belt and his methods endorsed by a judge who refused to grant an injunction, News of the World editor Phil Hall is understandably relaxed. He stoutly rejects accusations of entrapment. "There have been suggestions that we got them drunk - that is why we released the video - you can see from it that they were stone cold sober and knew exactly what they were saying and took little prompting. Local polls say that 97 per cent of fans wanted them out."

With hindsight the resignation of the two directors seems inevitable, and unnecessarily drawn out. But was it? Some observers think it was a much closer run thing. Even Phil Hall admits there could have been a completely different outcome.

"If they had come out and apologised immediately to the fans and said `we are sorry, we made a terrible mistake', then I think the people of Newcastle would have forgiven them." Newcastle-based public relations consultant Robin Ashby agrees. He says that even after the tapes were published, the director's position could have been saved. In the end, he says, it was the club's silence that did for the two directors. "The seeds of this PR disaster were sown a long time ago; the fact is that they had not made enough payments into the goodwill bank with either the fans or the media. They were seen as aloof and arrogant and when the crisis broke they ran for cover. It was the worst thing they could possibly have done."

The two men's grudging apologies after three days of silence seemed only to fan the anger. "If you are going to apologise you have to do so immediately, so that people think you mean it. It also would have helped if they had carried out some public act of contrition, say with a charity benefit match and Douglas and Freddie giving pounds 5 for every Newcastle shirt worn. As it was, there was a complete information vacuum and the press and the fans filled that with their outrage."

Mr Ashby compares the outcome of last week's events to a previous crisis that had the Toon Army up in arms: when manager Kevin Keegan decided to sell the star striker Andy Cole. "The fans were baying for blood but Keegan, a deft media operator, defused it immediately by coming out on to the steps to meet them and explain why." The attitude of the local press was a key factor. "If the local papers had rallied round the club and said it's just the London press having another go at the North-east, then the management could have played the Geordie ticket and that could have helped them ride it out," says one national football reporter.

As the editor of the local paper in such a football-mad city, Alison Hastings was in an unenviable position. She knew that any criticism of the club directors involved a risk. If she had gauged the city's mood wrongly, it could have backfired terribly.

As it was, the Chronicle's blistering attitude totally chimed in with that of the fans. "We had to take a strong line and called for resignations from the outset. Really the things that were said were so offensive, there was no other option. Thankfully our line was appreciated by the fans and from day one we were getting phone calls of encouragement. Yet all the time we were having intense discussions, were we reflecting the mood of the city and the people correctly?"

One man who knows all about the tactics involved is the veteran Fleet Street staffer Gerry Brown. Today, with his briefcases of state-of-the- art concealed mini-cameras and surveillance microphones Gerry earns a lucrative living providing a speciality covert filming service to television and newspapers. But despite the high-tech apparatus, he insists that the essentials of a good sting remain the same. "It's not about setting people up or entrapment; it's about getting a proper record of what they are saying so there can be no doubt."

But no matter how good the tape recording, it is a risky technique, as Gerry discovered when he recorded Bruce Grobbelaar in the middle of some curious negotiations that were splashed in The Sun. A police investigation tried to prove match-fixing. A jury disagreed.

The irony of all this is not lost on a leading Newcastle United supporter, Steve Wraith, who runs Number Nine fanzine and who takes a rather more thoughtful attitude to last week's events. "It was a bit like Diana-mania after her funeral," he says.

"An awful lot of strong feelings were being expressed but I'm not sure how deep or genuine it all was. Or even what it was all about."

And really, what was it all about? What were the two men at the centre of the storm guilty of, other than being sleazy? Despite a welter of accusations, there is no proof that they broke the law and there is no suggestion that they abused shareholders' money; indeed, as last week's profit rise showed, Newcastle United is being rather well run.

As toe-curling and offensive as their recorded comments were, who amongst us could bear having our most private conversations, our most casual and outlandish remarks on sex, race or religion replayed for mass consumption? And how shocking was their behaviour to the average Newcastle United fan? Take a look at the seething mass of youngsters who throng around the centre of Newcastle's night-life, the Bigg market. It's a pretty exciting place any weekend night, but a strict observation of decorum and delicacy in relations between the sexes is not a noticeable characteristic.

Indeed, it is hard not to agree with some observers who conclude that the theme of the whole episode was not betrayal of trust or abuse of power, but that other great British speciality - hypocrisy.