From Washington DC comes a picture of what the future looks like when a big sports team buys off a critical newspaper by offering all the benefits it craves the most – exclusive access, exclusive quotes and plenty of seats in the press box.
The Washington Times used to report the Washington Redskins NFL team critically and objectively, ridiculing relentless attempts by Dan Snyder – the franchise’s owner, who steadfastly sticks to the name which many Native Americans consider an insult – to control the flow of information. “Chickenshit tactics” was how the Times’ editor Wesley Pruden described Snyder’s propaganda efforts in 2000, the year Snyder cut the paper’s ration of press-box seats from six to two. “Go to hell” is the printable summation of the paper’s response.
That paper’s spirit of inquiry and endeavour belongs in the past. The Times has agreed to give Snyder the very control it once railed against, by becoming the medium for his propaganda, in “a unique partnership that will make the newspaper a content and marketing partner of the team,” as the dismal joint press release puts it. The Times will distribute a weekly magazine produced by the Skins and publish “commentaries” about NFL issues penned by the club’s people. In return, columnists and reporters from the Times will appear in the team’s videos.
It’s all part of a pattern. Snyder made the local NBC station “The Official Station of the Washington Redskins” and embedded it so deeply in his culture that the broadcaster’s employees have worn licensed Skins merchandise on air while reporting on the team. He’s bought up many of the independent Skins fanzines and newsletters, too.
Such are the kind of dubious delights that await the Daily Mirror if it continues on its own journey into the cosy embrace of Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United. An embrace which created the extraordinary situation 12 days ago of the paper being granted exclusive press access to Steve McClaren’s introductory press conference while reporters from every other paper were left kicking their heels outside.
In typically forthright terms, The Sun proclaimed that the Mirror had become Newcastle’s “preferred media partner” and it certainly ought to know a bit about such things. Its own North-east football correspondent, David Coverdale, described to the Press Gazette last week how The Sun turned down the chance to become an official media partner of Newcastle United a year ago. The club seemed very confident of a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s title at the time and the fact it fell through “felt like a victory for journalism”, according to one of those marooned on the outside.
Trinity Mirror tell me that the club’s new-found friendliness with their paper stems from efforts to “rebuild relationships and bridges” at senior executive level, though when I asked them if they ruled out any commercial arrangement with exclusive journalistic access attached, they said they “won’t be drawn into speculation on what will or won’t happen in the future”.
The mere possibility of such an arrangement tarnishes the independent-spirited reputation of a newspaper which has always fought the good fight – waging war just a year ago on Newcastle’s decision to take sponsorship from a pay-day loans firm which preys on the poor.
“There are increasing commercial overlaps as we are being more creative but we work with a lot of companies we write about and editorial integrity remains separate,” Trinity Mirror’s spokeswoman tells me. “I won’t comment on the details of any particular arrangement.”
You hope, for new manager McClaren’s sake, that the many intelligent people at operational level for Newcastle will persuade Ashley that exclusive content deals with the Mirror will make a very dangerous enemy in The Sun. The rival paper’s response to the McClaren press conference blacklisting was a special North-east edition with a banner message to Ashley on its back page saying: “We won’t dance to your Toon!”
McClaren will require understanding and empathy when he sets about his formidable task next month. If Ashley has taken a partner, those qualities will be in short supply. Wally, brolly and all that will never be far away.
You hope, for the sake of the Mirror’s integrity, that its senior executives will see the importance of solidarity – one out, all out – in the fight against owners like Ashley and Snyder. What, you might ask in a post-Leveson environment, is the difference between paying police officers for information and paying a football club – perhaps in cash or free adverts for its owner’s sports shop – for information? Not much.
“Be careful what you wish for” might be the best advice for any who seek to be a club’s preferred partner. The endgame is memorably captured in a piece for the Deadspin sports website by Dave McKenna, who describes an interview with Snyder on an afternoon drive-time show by a journalist who works both for Snyder’s radio station and the group campaigning to save the Redskins name.
“It was Snyder’s first interview of the pre-season training camp and after an off-season full of drama, some kind of reckoning was in order,” McKenna writes.
“Cooley’s first question for the boss: ‘What’s your favourite beer?’
“ ‘Bud Light,’ Snyder answered, getting exactly what he’d paid for.”
To question Farah’s missed tests is hardly witch-hunting
Steve Cram is the latest to describe as a “witch-hunt” the revelation that Mo Farah was one of the very few athletes to miss two drugs tests ahead of the 2012 Olympics – a story which is huge in its own right, regardless of the BBC/ProPublica allegations about Farah’s coach Alberto Salazar which have brought it to light.
Witch-hunting was the 17th-century pursuit of individuals who had little power to defend themselves, not the reporting of a £2m-a-year athlete’s dereliction of duty. It will be a witch-hunt if important whistleblowers like the University of Houston’s Steve Magness, a key contributor to the BBC’s investigations, finds himself under attack in the course of Salazar’s defence. This would be the kind of damage that Cram would be better served speaking out against. Cram is promoted by his own website as the chief athletics correspondent of the BBC – the same broadcasting corporation which has brought the Salazar story into the light.
How about an Olympic base for a women’s cricket team?
The really imaginative part of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s excellent announcement of £3m for the first professional Women’s Cricket League from next summer is that you don’t have to be a county cricket team to apply.
“I would be so excited if we got a bid from, say, Arsenal,” said Clare Connor, the ECB director of England women’s cricket.
Even more exciting would be a bid from east London, where street, cage and indoor cricket are the only way for many would-be stars to play. West Ham’s involvement, allowing the Olympic Stadium to be used, would be a very small payback for being handed that facility.
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