Published on 4 October 2014
A free press can’t have exceptions, not even for Scottish sportswriters like Hugh Keevins and Keith Jackson. Their names may not spring to mind when discussing the fundamental elements of a democratic society, but bear with me.
Following a Keith Jackson article in the Daily Record this week, the @celticresearch Twitter account claimed that Jackson had been given an ‘indeterminate’ media ban from Celtic Park. That means – if it’s true, and we don’t yet know that it is – that his media privileges would be withdrawn because he said something to upset the boss (you know, that guy that controls all the money).
On Twitter, many Celtic fans whooped with glee. The hated Keith Jackson finally gets his comeuppance. That’ll teach him to write what we don’t like. That’ll show him and his lies.
But it would be a hollow victory and those fans have it dangerously wrong. While we don’t even know if the rumour is true, it’s been worthy of debate regardless because it isn’t the first time it has happened. Another Daily Record writer, Hugh Keevins, also found himself slapped with a ban in 2012.
Again, Celtic fans were delighted. Not for a minute did those celebrating stop to consider that allowing the guy who controls all the money – the same guy more and more claim to no longer trust to run the club – the blank permission to ban members of the media from the club’s press facilities might just be a bad idea.
There are no exceptions to a free press. It’s all or nothing. You cannot selectively ban journalists. To do so means you are cherrypicking members of the media to write things you approve of. At that point it is no longer journalism, it is PR.
I understand fans’ frustrations. The gutter poor quality of much of Scotland’s sports journalism assisted the collapse of one of the country’s biggest football clubs, Rangers. Celtic fans have been more vocal than most in rightful criticism of the Scottish sports media for doing Sir David Murray’s PR work, thus preventing the truth from emerging before it was too late.
Yet, David Murray had a similar policy of freezing out members of the media who were troublesome for him. The result was that in order to gain access to the club, including interviews with managers, players, access to press conferences, journalists had to be careful they didn’t overstep Murray’s mark.
Banning a member of the media was not simply a punishment for the individual, it was a message to senior editorial – ask too many questions or write unflattering things and you won’t be getting access, but your rivals will. At the end of the day it’s about newspaper sales, and as the Rangers story shows in abundance journalism was blatantly manipulated to protect the guy with the dodgy tax practices.
Banning members of the media has never benefited anyone but those in power. The Rangers story should be the shining example of how it can have no good outcome. It serves nothing for fans in particular other than to satisfy the frustrations we all feel when we read something we don’t like.
What the Rangers story did give us, however, was the solution, and in light of the independence referendum, the formula is multiplying.
Banning every member of the media would have brought us no closer to the truth about Rangers. It would not have given bad journalists sudden powers of investigative journalism and a new found will to use them.
The truth about Rangers came out through the emergence of an alternative media, an opposition to the mainstream, and it had a profound effect. We have a knowledge of the depth of the scandal that we would not have had it not been for the intervention of Phil Mac Giolla Bháin, Orwell Prize-winning Rangers Tax Case (which paved the way for the excellent Scottish Football Monitor), the late and great Paul McConville and a host of others, far too many to name.
Their journalism, relentless digging and internet platforms allowed them to get the truth out. And that had an effect on the mainstream. Had it not been for these journalists uncovering the truth, would Alex Thomson and Channel 4 News have become as involved? Would the national press have realised there was a story much bigger than Craig Whyte going on?
To counter bad media, you don’t ban it, you expose it. You scrutinise it.
Wings Over Scotland, Newsnet Scotland and Bella Caledonia are among the latest stonkingly good examples of putting up a fight to a media than no longer gives a balanced representation. When 45 per cent of a population vote for independence and only one mainstream paper – a weekly at that – backs it, it becomes very difficult for the media to argue that balance exists in the trade.
While the recent protests outside BBC Scotland shed a light on an almost unprecedented in recent times dissatisfaction with the media, I thought it was a bad move. All too easily it becomes less about looking for change and more about wanting a media outlet shut down or frozen out altogether. It risks making members of the public look like sensitive souls who can’t handle a media that doesn’t report only what they want it to.
What was far more effective was the existence of the new media, websites providing content for the debate that you wouldn’t see in the mainstream press, and outlets that took on the media and relentlessly pursued inaccurate reporting and continuously questioned where the balance was.
Information was the key. Providing information to people was so much more powerful than any ban or restriction on ‘bad media’ could ever be. And hungry for it people became, so much so that these websites were funded directly to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds by members of the public to keep doing what they were doing (you can watch a documentary about it here).
That enabled Wings Over Scotland and Bella Caledonia to move into print products in an effort to reach people who are not online. The new media has become established in its own right and for many has replaced the mainstream as a source for valuable and trustworthy news. In accordance with that, their resources are building.
Protests and supporting or calling for media bans or restrictions on the journalists or news outlets that wind us all up the most is completely counterproductive. If you have bad media, the solution can never be to restrict it. It goes against common sense. If you have the foundation of a free press, use it. More than ever the tools exist to do it – the internet has given people a platform to challenge and scrutinise the media in a way previously unthinkable.
To come back to the likes of Keith Jackson and Hugh Keevins, as I said, they’re probably not names that spring to mind when we’re discussing free press and democracy. However, whether or not he is liked or disliked, Keith Jackson is employed by a national newspaper and he is a part of the journalism trade. A ban on Keith Jackson would be a ban on a member of the media, and that can only ever assist people in power, not the little people like you and I.
If Jackson has been banned – and again, we don’t know he has (though I doubt there will be calls to ‘ban’ @celticresearch if he hasn’t or screams about the account’s ‘blatant lies’ for getting something from a bad source) – and if fans accept it, what next? If that’s journalist number two, how long before we get to three and four? How long before it’s a journalist asking Peter Lawwell about the Living Wage that gets thrown out? How long before it’s a journalist asking about the club’s relationship with the police that finds his or herself told they are no longer welcome?
To oppose a ban on Keith Jackson or Hugh Keevins does not mean you are ‘supporting’ their journalism. It’s about understanding there is a much bigger picture, and that a free press cannot be selective, even in Scottish fitba. There are ways to deal with it, there are avenues to go down. Celtic has its own media channels through which to issue corrections on inaccurate reporting, and the Celtic fan media on its own has become vast and fierce in its scrutiny of mainstream reporting of club matters.
Bans are not necessary, and should always send alarm bells ringing.
There is another UK football club in recent times to have employed a similar policy of issuing media bans and freezing out journalists who write articles not to the liking of the man in charge. Who is it? Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United.
Let that thought keep you warm if you ever applaud Celtic banning a journalist. What lovely company to be in.