This Tweet was making the rounds among several football journalists today:
Newcastle United's 'Cash for Questions' national media plan detailed here: pic.twitter.com/QTbVYFM2lX
— Oliver Todd (@oliver_todd) December 11, 2013
It outlines Newcastle’s new media strategy, which involves charging journalists for “exclusive” interviews with players. This is the latest in a long line of moves from both the Premier League and its member clubs to restrict or charge for access under the guise of protecting its product. For better or worse, many in English football regard media coverage as a proprietary issue.
To someone in North America, particularly the US, this might seem bizarre. Perhaps it’s the combination of a constitutional guarantee of press freedoms and centrally-run professional leagues with long-standing traditions of press access, but the idea of charging news outlets to speak with players appears not only strange, but repugnant.
Intuitively, it makes perfect sense to let reporters into the club to do their job. All newspapers have sports sections, sports is news, sports reporters are at least expected to follow the same ethical guidelines in reporting as their A section counterparts (insert Daily Mail joke here)—why not grant them the access in the name of press freedom?
Yet it’s still difficult to see, on first glance, a legal basis for football clubs in England—most of which are privately owned and operated—to grant press access wherever possible. Private companies aren’t obliged to hold press conferences for example, or answer journalist questions. Freedom of the press in practice means allowing journalists to openly report the news without interference (unless the reporting is defamatory), and holding public institutions like courts, governments, and publicly-funded companies open and accountable to the press. It doesn’t mean forcing private persons or companies to hold press conferences.
Many sports journalists know this, but they argue that it’s in the clubs’ best interests to let the media promote their product to the public. It’s not certain however the Premier League agrees, and in some ways both the PL and clubs view accredited journalists and photographers as just another content provider alongside blogs, betting sites, and aggregators.
Moreover, both clubs and the league know that football helps sells papers, and so they see access as a quid pro quo thing—we’ll let you come into the club and talk to players and the manager if you respect our content agreements with third-party content providers (hence the Premier League’s restrictions on live blogging and publishing match and player data for accredited reporters, thanks to Tom Dart for the link). They also see no problem in picking and choosing which reporters they will let in the building, and have geared rules on media access to primarily benefit rights holders, ie broadcasters.
Meanwhile, managers like Arsene Wenger have been openly critical of his club’s responsibility to speak with the same broadcast media who indirectly pay his clubs millions of pounds in rights fees. The idea that they would extend this apparent privilege to newspapers is laughable.
None of this is, in my opinion, a good thing. Despite the fact they’re often privately owned, football clubs are very much a public, community-based institution. Perhaps one of the more compelling arguments for supporters owning football clubs is the attendant responsibility to be publicly accountable to the media, rather than trying to hoover up every possible pound from the press.