Keeping it professional when loyalties are divided

The
fact that former head of ITV Sport, Brian Barwick, is a fervent
Liverpool FC fan is well known in sporting and media circles.

But
when he was appointed boss of the FA, media columnist Greg Dyke
anticipated this would cause some consternation at Manchester United,
where Alex Ferguson knew of Barwick’s traditional animosity towards his
team.

But surely it is possible for someone in a job running
sports channels or the FA to get on with it without being biased
towards their own team?

Regional editors and sports staff have
been doing it for years. Very few of the people who run papers in
places with Premiership sides have been born and bred. And even when
they have, what if they are working in a two-team city?

Relationships
between newspapers and football clubs can be fraught at the best of
times, but if the editor or sports editor supports a rival, this can be
thrown in their face at any time.

At the Evening Post in Leeds,
editor Neil Hodgkinson’s accent clearly marks him down as someone born
on the wrong side of the Pennines. As a Blackpool supporter through
birth, with an attachment to Preston North End through a spell working
there, and a fondness for Man United through family connections, he has
worked hard to steer the paper through Leeds United’s turbulent last
few years.

“Even if you weren’t brought up supporting the team, you can’t help but get sucked in and want them to do well.

But it’s probably no bad thing that I have some detatchment, as I am not too close to evaluate issues,” he says.

This is something that Paul Robertson, Geordie editor of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, recognises.

He thinks it is harder when, like him, you have supported the team man and boy.

“There
is an expectation from both the club and the supporters that you will
always be positive, but you have to be professional and objective, even
if you do have your own views on the performance of certain players or
the manager.”

The recent situation at Newcastle with manager
Souness and player Bellamy highlighted this, but Robertson is used to
tricky times.When he was editor at Teesside he came in for some stick
from Middlesboro’, who knew of his strong affiliation with the team up
the A19.

Derby Telegraph editor Mike Norton’s soft West Country
burr points towards his support for Bristol Rovers. As they are much
further down the pecking order than the Midlands team, he supports both
professionally -and with two season tickets, it rarely becomes an issue.

However,
Norton does sheepishly remember the time he filled his Derby box with
fellow Rovers fans a few years ago during a cup game, and was asked to
behave by stewards after his home town team pulled off an improbable
result.

Fortunately for him, even the Derby fans applauded
Rovers’ performance. Potentially more awkward for the paper is that one
of his senior sports staff is a Nottingham Forest fan – something not
yet revealed to their bitter enemies in Derby.

Covering clubs
gets even more complex when there are two teams in town – and nowhere
is this tougher than in Glasgow. Evening Times editor Charles McGhee
gets regular complaints from both sides’ fans about coverage – even
down to whose logo is on top of a page.

When Celtic got into a European cup final there was some disquiet amongst an element of Rangers fans over coverage.

“Hopefully
most fans recognise that you can’t ignore a story like that and it is
going to dominate the headlines for some time,” he says.

The same issues face the Liverpool papers.

After
many years of mediocrity and inferiority, Everton is finally having a
blinding season – much to the disgust of many Reds fans.

Echo
editor Mark Dickinson says he inherited a paper whose policy was to
give both teams equal prominence on the back page, whatever the
stories.While this may keep fans and clubs at bay, it is hard to
justify from a news or design perspective, and it was dumped.

At
the Daily Post, Liverpool fan Jane Wolstenholme has never had an issue
with Everton over her affiliation, but some fans from both teams fell
out with the paper when it reported on plans for a potential shared
stadium. It seems that even giving the oxygen of publicity to
controversial football plans can get you into trouble.

It’s no
wonder editors spend a disproportionate amount of their working day
worrying about football-but at least it’s still one of the few subjects
where stories guarantee extra sales.Under the “damned if you do, damned
if you don’t” heading is the BBC’s coverage of Charles and Camilla’s
royal nuptials.

According to The Independent on page 9 last week,
the BBC defended its coverage after receiving calls complaining that
too much airtime was devoted to it. Ironically, this reflected the
paper’s own view on the value of the story, as its front page had shown
so graphically the day before (listing all the important things going
on in the world other than this bit of royal trivia).

But the BBC
will be aware that other sections of the population – and the Daily
Mail – are most unhappy when it appears to underplay royal events such
as the Queen Mother’s death, funeral, and so on. Papers which concur
with that view of life are happy to give prominent coverage to the BBC
getting a supposed kicking from angry licence-fee payers.

There
are clearly pros and cons to being a public service broadcaster. A
major advantage is the millions of pounds which turn up in a big van
from the Treasury each year. The downside is the level of scrutiny that
goes with this.

It is hard to think of another organisation that
would allow its boss to be interviewed in front of staff by Jeremy
Paxman (kicking off by asking why anyone would ever believe a word he
said after denying interest in the top job).

And who else but the
BBC would commission a report into criticisms of biased reporting on an
issue such as Europe and then publish it so that all their rivals can
report it and give them another good kicking?

The saga of the
stricken Aurora cruise ship had all the ingredients of a classic
newspaper tale. Passengers had doled out large cheques for a
“once-in-a-lifetime”, round-the-world cruise which didn’t seem to be
going anywhere. Engine problems meant P&O were forced to delay, and
eventually cancel, the trip. In the meantime, spirits were kept up (in
all senses) by free drinks and extra entertainers such as Jimmy Tarbuck
and Paul Daniels.

But even with such a good story unfolding, many
newspapers were unable to keep it straight, and resorted to flamming it
up. They continually referred to the Aurora circumnavigating the Isle
of Wight. An arresting image, but even I – no maritime expert –
suspected that would be a physical impossibility for such a massive
boat.

And few could resist labelling the trip as a £42,000
holiday. I’m sure that was the price for a top-of-the range suite with
butler etc, but far from what the majority of passengers had paid.

But hey, why let the more boring facts get in the way of spicing up a good yarn?

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle

Next week: Chris Shaw

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