As football fans, we’re familiar enough with the scenario.
A seemingly soft foul is followed by much weeping and gnashing of teeth; a picture resembling Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night ensues as foreheads are thrust but braked a whisker short of a full Glasgow kiss. The fans chant ‘off, off, off’, red cards get shown and the miscreants trudge back to the dressing room to a raucous chorus of cheers and jeers.
That’s more or less where we are isn’t it?
Maybe (or maybe not) the media came in with a bit of a late tackle and got sent off for it. Not particularly dangerous, perhaps a few stud marks but no bones broken (mind you, a few earlier misdemeanours may have been totted up).
But there, dear football fan reader, my analogy falls to pieces. It fails because the supposedly sinned-against party in what has become a media versus Norwich City Football Club standoff cannot also be the referee.
Instead, feeling an injustice had been done the club took unilateral action by withdrawing certain media privileges – like its usual invitation for reporters to attend the annual general meeting.
In effect, NCFC picked up its ball and went home leaving erstwhile mates no one to play with.
There may be more that we don’t know about but from past experience, I suspect not. It’s just a falling out and sooner or later shoulders will be shrugged, there will be handshakes all round and who did what to whom and why will be lost in the mists of time.
Except – and here’s the point – I hope not. I really hope not.
Let me tell you why.
Coming from the anonymity of London some 40 years ago to the intimacy of a local newsroom and close proximity to sports reporters for the first time I was (err… how can I put this?) shocked by their journalistic partiality.
The news desk would remorselessly hunt down wrongdoers, the business hacks would metaphorically beat up dodgy businessmen; even a famously forgiving arts editor would occasionally have a go at a puerile Theatre Royal panto.
But the boys fronting the footie coverage at the EDP and the Evening News were Norwich City fans to a fault – following the fortunes of their beloved Canaries came first and was their true vocation, seemingly well ahead of pursuing a career in objective journalism.
With a few exceptions (the later Robert Chase years come to mind) it was all very cosy; the club liked favourable coverage; the papers valued the boost in circulation afforded by the football season. Club managers would pen guest columns and sports journalists would mastermind players’ benefit matches.
I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now.
A colleague once told me, “It’s because you’re not local.” Your dad didn’t take you to the Carra when you were knee-high to a crowd barrier, he said.
I argued back that the Newcastle Journal was never as soft on the Magpies and even the Mitcham News and Mercury had a pop at Tooting and Mitcham United from time to time. But that didn’t go down too well either. There’s no patriot like a Norfolk patriot, so he may have had a point.
But this I do know.
I’ve worked on both sides of the communications fence, spinmeistering for a giant corporate and digging the dirt for a local paper.
In PR, my (sometimes successful) counsel was to be as transparent as possible and to always tell the truth; especially when it was uncomfortable.
To Norwich City Football Club I’d say pulling down the comms shutters because you got a bit of stick from reporters shouldn’t be such an easily exercisable option; especially at a club where the main criticism seems to be a lack of chemistry and empathy between pitch-side and the terraces.
Don’t invent your own pretend media outlets; just take it on the chin.
Yes, on the one hand, you are a private company and entitled to hold private shareholder meetings. But you know that football clubs aren’t like ordinary private companies.
They have significant stakeholders to whom they need to be publicly accountable. They’re the fans. Their gate money, their Sky subscriptions, their loyalty and their place in the community give them the right to criticise and to scrutinise the football, the facilities, the finances. And, if they feel like it, to be fickle.
The media’s job is to hold your feet to the fire when that responsibility slips your mind. They’re not your comfort blanket; not a layer of insulation from fans’ frustration, not a conduit for such sanitised statements or selected titbits you care to share, and not just there to report who passed the ball to whom and who scored.
Yes, because it’s normal for Norfolk, members of our fourth estate may be fans too. First and foremost though they’re our agents, our PIs, our eyes, our ears and our platform for praise or dissent.
They shouldn’t settle for cushy interviews, mutual back-scratching or, as one former EDP editor put it, a resolution cooked up “behind closed doors”. Client journalism isn’t a good look, especially in the current climate.
Rigour sometimes means a rocky road, but that’s the way it should be.
Both parties need to agree to disagree and enjoy some robust cut and thrust oxygenated by truth and openness.
Otherwise, the businesses of Norwich football and Norwich media will be left to fester in the foetid cesspit of fake news that is already an only too influential internet.