Sam Wallace: Without newspapers fans would have to rely on clubs' media for 'inside' information

The Last Word

Sam Wallace
Saturday 06 August 2011 00:00 BST
A free press helps to hold both players and clubs to account
A free press helps to hold both players and clubs to account

You may have noticed an anomaly in today's football pages: no Independent reporter covered last night's Hull v Blackpool game.

It was not that we did not think the game was important, it was just that, as part of a news media coalition that includes all the national newspapers, we are in dispute with the Football League and the Premier League.

The coalition – including news agencies – has been negotiating on our behalf with the leagues over what we are allowed to report and when we are allowed to report it. These are detailed and complex agreements based on how quickly photographs can be published and whether newspaper websites can run live, minute-by-minute reports.

Talks broke down this week and, in an act of solidarity that is relatively rare in the competitive world of newspapers, a significant number of national titles have so far agreed they will not cover games on this weekend, the first of the new Football League season. Tomorrow's Community Shield, a Football Association game, is exempt. As with all disputes of its nature, it is fast-moving and by this morning an agreement could be on its way.

What is at stake? Details that may seem relatively insignificant to traditional newspaper readers such as a block on reporters interacting online with readers during the "live" reporting of matches. The leagues are advancing spurious intellectual property agreements on where agencies can sell photographs taken at clubs. For the newspapers there is also a wider point: if we lose this battle, then where do we go?

No one could doubt that newspapers face challenging times but in reporting football, as in the reporting of politics or foreign news, the time comes when you have no option but to stand up for yourselves or face restrictions that make proper reporting an impossible job. The key asset the leagues hold is press access to stadiums, and that is significant.

Do I detect a lack of sympathy? Yes, reporting on English football is a wonderful, privileged job. Our top four divisions are vibrant and exciting, even if the finances and some of the owners can cause anxiety. The national team may lack success but they are never dull. And there is a large audience out there – on paper and online – with a deep knowledge of football and a daunting appetite for debate.

As press, we all like a moan about the lack of access to players and managers but to generalise would be unfair. Some clubs are, yes, bloody awful. Others go out of their way to help. Yet, even in the relatively short time I have been a newspaper reporter – 12 years – the changes have been noticeable. What concerns me is what happens if, one day, newspapers are edged out of the press boxes and the training grounds altogether?

I know, I know. This newspaper is biased against Manchester United/Liverpool/Manchester City/Chelsea/Arsenal. We have it in for Cesc Fabregas/John Terry/Rafael Benitez/David Beckham. We give a far too easy ride to Arsène Wenger/Harry Redknapp/Sir Alex Ferguson/David Beckham. James Lawton is a genius. James Lawton should be sacked (for the record, it's definitely the former in my opinion). I have heard it all before. But without us, and the other members of our dysfunctional press family, who is left?

The answer is, the clubs' own media. I have nothing against the website and TV personnel of our clubs, many of whom started life on our side of the fence and are very capable journalists. But are we sure the clubs are going to strive to give us the real, inside, uncomfortable story on their organisations?

As it stands, the greatest scoop ever landed by a football club's media was MUTV's jaw-dropping interview with Roy Keane in which he lambasted his team-mates and convinced Ferguson to chuck him out. It was a property that any journalist would be delighted with. To my knowledge, almost six years on, MUTV has still to broadcast it.

When people tell me that they do not read a newspaper because they "get their news" from their club's website, the only reply I can give them is this. I have always voted Labour but if I want to know what is going on in my party I do not check the Labour website for a happy "Everything's fine!" bulletin. I read Steve Richards and Andrew Grice in The Independent.

We do not always get it right, although we always try our best to do so. The basic aim is: deliver well-sourced stories. Some fans will never be happy and some think that there is an agenda against their club or one individual but I am yet to meet the reporter who would put his or her club loyalty ahead of a cracking news story.

I receive many emails from bright, aspiring football journalists and I fear that my industry is getting elbowed out of the way by certain wealthy clubs who dislike not being in total control. I fear that some of these young men and women may end up in a ghastly PR-version of journalism where their questions are restricted.

When I spoke to "the football authorities" about this dispute yesterday I was given a stern warning by someone whose opinion I respect. He said that English football's view on English newspapers is "you need us more than we need you". They may well think that, but I do not believe any football fan thinks that the clubs' curtailing of press freedom is something to be celebrated.

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