The Ferguson Effect: Do Fans Really Care About 'Censorship' from Their Clubs?
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It's been an interesting year or so at Nottingham Forest. In July 2013 the club was bought by the Kuwaiti Al-Hasawi family, and after getting through two managers—Sean O'Driscoll and Alex McLeish—in quick succession, they made a populist decision to bring back Billy Davies.
Davies quickly set about shaping the club to his own specifications, including the appointment of his agent and cousin Jim Price as "general manager" (in reality the defacto chief executive), then attentions turned to external matters. Davies elected not to speak to the local BBC radio station from the day of his return, ostensibly because they had been critical during his first spell, and a deal for them to carry match commentary was left until days before the start of the current season.
Then in August, Davies banned all players and club officials from talking to the press, in particular the Nottingham Post, for reasons which are still unclear. And just this weekend, it emerged that the club had banned the Guardian and the Observer because their chief football writer, Forest fan Daniel Taylor, had apparently broken some quite spurious rules about attendance in the press box. Note that the club banned the papers, rather than just the offending journalist.
This is of course, nothing new. Sir Alex Ferguson was the most famous and prolific scourge of the journalist, banning for transgressions major and minor, often for simply reporting the facts. Both Celtic and Rangers banned assorted local journalists last year for some perceived injustices; the Daily Telegraph's Luke Edwards wasn't welcome at Newcastle for writing a story claiming there were divisions in the St James's Park dressing room; even League One Crawley cast local reporter Kaylee Seckington out because they were displeased with a headline above one of her match reports. That Seckington didn't write the headlines was apparently unimportant.
Journalists were outraged at Taylor's expulsion. It seemed to those in the football media that this was censorship, an attempt by the club to control everything that was said about it and basically eliminate criticism.
However, there seemed to be a sense among some fans that this wasn't a big deal. It wasn't important that journalists were allowed access to clubs, because if all a supporter is concerned with is their team winning, then why should they be bothered? The rationale was that with the myriad ways a supporter can see their team in action these days. Also, with Twitter, increasingly slick official club websites and in-house TV stations, the general public relies less and less on the traditional forms of media to find out what's happening.
Of course, in all of those cases mentioned above, the world continued to turn, and the fortunes of the respective clubs were not negatively impacted by the absence of the fourth estate. Indeed, in the case of Ferguson, many believe such a "siege mentality" contributed to their success over the years. Ferguson's behaviour was often undignified, but few felt they could criticise him because he was so successful.
And that, of course is the crux of the issue. If a club is winning games, fans will put up with, or indeed ignore, more or less anything—it's difficult to think of a group more likely to insist that the ends justify the means than a football fan. Success both insulates and empowers managers to do things like ban whichever journalist they want. Ferguson won titles at Manchester United, and Davies is currently doing very well at Forest, which is all many fans care about.
However, fans should care. By excluding journalists who do not toe the party line, they are eliminating criticism, or at least doing their best to limit it. They are preventing journalists from reporting on what they might be doing wrong, from reporting what is in the public interest, indeed from reporting, in many cases, the truth. And perhaps at the most basic level, limiting access to clubs might reduce the amount of those transfer rumours we all love so much.
It might not immediately seem like it to some, but allowing journalists to do their jobs benefits us all.
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