There was a time when the average football fan got all his news about his club from daily newspapers and some would even hang around the newsagents on a Saturday night to buy a ‘pink’ Times and read all about the game they had watched that afternoon. We generally believe the stories we read and had a fair degree of trust in the reporters to call things fairly. Looking back there were reporters who showed a little bias and others who bravely took on the tough questions of the day. Ian Archer was one I admired as he had the courage to call out Rangers on their sectarian signing policy while most of his colleagues kept their heads down and ignored the elephant in the room. He famously said in the Herald in 1976...
‘This has to be said about Rangers, as a Scottish Football club they are a permanent embarrassment and an occasional disgrace. This country would be a better place if Rangers did not exist.’
Such reporting was rare then as journalists tended to stick to writing about the football and often ignored the wider societal context.
The rise of the internet and the proliferation of football related websites has coincided with the decline in readership of the traditional printed media. For instance Scotland’s most popular tabloid, The Daily Record, has seen sales slump from around 450,000 copies per day in 2004 to around 100,000 today. This is reflected in the sales of other papers as technology offers readers much more choice.
A much more savvy reading public means that most of us no longer rely solely on the printed press to inform us of the goings on in Scottish football. The internet may have many flaws but it has led to a more democratic scrutiny of stories; no sooner is a story reported in the media than it is dissected by a variety of individuals and websites to check its accuracy. Some of these sites are woefully biased in their approach but others demonstrate some intelligence and will rip a story apart if it is full of holes. This was most noticeable recently when Alfredo Morelos’ now infamous interview with Sky TV raised the hackles of some online who noticed immediately that the subtitles were not entirely accurate. You don’t need a degree in Spanish to notice Morelos didn’t use the word ‘Celtic’ in a sentence which supposedly said ‘Celtic’ fans racially abused him. Once the alarm bells were ringing, folk who actually did speak Spanish got involved and Sky were made to look very foolish indeed. Of course anyone can make a mistake but a broadcaster the size of Sky should surely be able to afford a translator to check the accuracy of subtitles and it seems negligent that they didn’t.
All of this came on top of the ongoing and growing distrust of the sporting media by many in Scotland and has made for sorry state of affairs. There was a time when we were blessed by some fine writers who wrote about Scottish football with eloquence and authority. Those of us who recall greats like Hugh McIlvanney could be treated to writing which was almost poetic in its form and trustworthy in its content. Consider this excerpt from his report on Celtic’s triumph in Lisbon in 1967...
‘Gemmell has the same aggressive pride, the same contempt for any thought of defeat, that emanates from Auld. Before the game Auld cut short a discussion about the possible ill-effects of the heat and the firm ground with a blunt declaration that they would lick the Italians in any conditions. When he had been rescued from the delirious crowd and was walking back to the dressing rooms after Celtic had overcome all the bad breaks to vindicate his confidence Auld – naked to the waist except for an Inter shirt knotted round his neck like a scarf – suddenly stopped in his tracks and shouted to Ronnie Simpson, who was walking ahead: ‘Hey, Ronnie Simpson, what are we? What are we, son?" He stood there sweating, showing his white teeth between parched lips flecked with saliva. Then he answered his own question with a belligerent roar. "We're the greatest. That's what we are. The greatest." Simpson came running back and they embraced for a full minute.’
I don’t expect writing of that quality from the bulk of today’s Journalists, McIlvanney was after all the leading sports writer of his generation, but I do expect integrity and a standard of journalism that goes beyond regurgitating press releases and facilitating planted stories from clubs or other vested interests. They did this in return for access to players, stories and other crumbs off the table of the likes of David Murray. The so called ‘succulent lamb’ style of reporting that some of our journalists engaged in was in effect a negation of the core principles of their occupation. They can’t all be Woodward and Bernstein but Journalism is surely about seeking out facts and expressing an honestly held opinion about them untainted by fear or favour? Alas some were fed stories on the understanding that they weren’t too critical of certain individuals and a certain club. Thus the puff pieces about hover pitches, Superstars arriving, £800m deals and a Vegas like Casino in Govan found their way onto our national newspapers. It appeared that some thought ‘ethics’ was a county in south east England.
A lack of serious scrutiny of Rangers finances in the early years of the new century meant that when the collapse came few were prepared for it. A few voices in the wilderness warned them that a Scottish club carrying over £80m of debt was unsustainable but the majority accepted Sir David Murray’s assurances that all was well. After all he was a financial whiz kid wasn’t he? I recall one Journalist saying at the time that matters of high finance were ‘above my pay grade.’ Was it too much to seek out someone who did know about such things and actually inform the public about what was going on? Isn’t that what good journalists do? The financial crash of 2008 was enough of a financial earthquake to rock the foundations and in the end bring the big house crashing down.
By 2012 the ship had sunk and the metaphorical lifeboats had carried off the guilty and their loot leaving the 276 creditors to the sharks. They, above all, were the victims in all of this. Individuals, small businesses, the Ambulance service, the tax authorities and many others were left out of pocket as those who had sought to enrich themselves walked away. As the media initially lamented the staggering fact that Rangers had been liquidated and had gone out of business there was a brief period of huge uncertainty. Would a Phoenix club arise as had happened with Airdrie and Parma? What would it be like and which division would it play in? Alas the new club when it was brought to birth was guided by men who ignored the historical opportunity to start afresh free from the baggage of bigotry which weighed down the old club. They pandered to the old shibboleths and began the mythology that Rangers had somehow survived liquidation. Charles Green actually used the term ‘no surrender’ in a press interview and fed the myth that other clubs and their fans had ‘kicked Rangers when they were down.’ This led to a festering resentment among some Rangers fans as they followed the new club through the lower leagues. We then saw some pathetic revisionism in the press which not only defied logic and history but also credulity.
The role of the media in this shambles was an important one. Roy Greenslade writing in 2013 got it right when he said...
‘One single, simple fact emerges from all this - Rangers football club got into trouble a long time ago and the mainstream media, whether by commission or omission, failed to do its job. Rather than hold the people in charge to account, it acted as a spin-doctor.’
A prime example of this was Jim Traynor’s about turn in the period of Rangers demise. Writing in the Daily Record in the summer of 2012 he said...
‘They’ll slip into liquidation within the next couple of weeks with a new company emerging but 140 years of history, triumph and tears, will have ended. No matter how Charles Green attempts to dress it up, a newco equals a new club. When the CVA was thrown out Rangers as we know them died. They were closed and a newco must start from scratch.’
Jim Traynor, Daily Record 13th June 2012
Within a year he was employed by Rangers as their head of Public Relations and was writing that Rangers weren’t a new club and anyone who said they were must be mentally challenged or motivated by ‘sinister’ feelings. These about turns remind us that some so called Journalists are simply guns for hire, who will write whatever their paymasters desire. Traynor also demonstrated a propensity for censorship when he interrupted a press conference by Mark Warburton when a reporter asked about the position of Joey Barton. As a clearly embarrassed Warburton looked on Traynor bullied reporters into dropping that line of questioning-when they should should have got up en masse and walked out rather than be told what questions they can ask. In trying to control the message in this way Traynor demonstrates that he wants control over what the fans are fed. The Warburton press conference and the rewriting of history over the demise of Rangers shows contempt for ordinary football fans who are intelligent enough to discern propaganda when they see it.
His most recent statement on behalf of Rangers was an almost gleeful message about a 12 year old boy who has been spoken to by Police about alleged racist abuse of Alfredo Morelos. The whole message is so inappropriate given that it is an official club statement. Traynor’s fingerprints were spotted on the rambling diatribe by reporters who know his style. Graham Spiers commented acerbically...
‘How desperate must Jim Traynor be to produce this wafting resentment? On the fate of a 12 year old boy? And, believe me, it is Jim, from the tortured syntax and sheer ineptitude with punctuation.’
It remains sad that our sporting press has reached the point where they are just another voice amid the myriad swirling around our technological society. Once they spoke with some authority on our national game but now for many they have all the authority of a pub loudmouth spouting about his team. There are some honourable exceptions of course but once fans start doubting what you say it is difficult to convince them to take you at your word on important issues.
The decline in sales and influence of our printed press seems assured and while technological changes have played a role in this, the quality of some of the journalism has only hastened it.
Journalism remains a noble profession when it is done with integrity and honesty, sadly if often bears more resemblance to the profession some call the world’s oldest.