x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Newcastle United’s Mike Ashley has pressed the wrong buttons

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley's move to ban certain members of the media from Premier League club are not just petty but stupid. Now, journalists will do little to play down what has been an increasingly poor season for them.

Mike Ashley is antagonising the media at a time when Newcastle United need a little goodwill. Stu Forster / Getty Images
Mike Ashley is antagonising the media at a time when Newcastle United need a little goodwill. Stu Forster / Getty Images

The relationship between England’s regional reporters and the clubs they cover is never simple. There must always be compromise. The club provides regular access and a drip of stories and, in return, the newspapers keep things relatively civil.

For local papers that remain, even in the days of blogs, the prime conduit between a club and its fans, that relationship is even more delicate.

A national paper can fill its sports pages with other clubs; the Newcastle Journal has to talk about Newcastle United.

The paper needs the club, but the club also needs the paper as a way of explaining itself through a channel that is not so obviously subjective as the club website.

Which is what makes the recent behaviour of Mike Ashley, the Newcastle United owner, so baffling.

Last season it banned the Telegraph, a national paper, from matches and news conferences for a story that spoke of a rift between the French players and the others in the dressing-room.

Most shrugged, thought the club had overreacted and moved on. But it turns out that was just the beginning.

On Sunday, after Newcastle’s defeat to Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, the reporter from the Journal, the main local morning paper, tried to ask Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, a question in the post-match news conference. The press officer intervened to prevent him doing so.

The man from the Chronicle, the main evening paper, then tried and was also rebuffed. It subsequently turned out the Sunday Sun, the main local Sunday paper (which has nothing to do with the Sun on Sunday, a national), had also been banned from Newcastle home matches and press activities.

All three had decided not to reveal the ban so as not to disrupt preparations for the derby, which says much for their sense of decorum.

Their crime? They had reported on a march organised by the Time 4 Change group that was attended by hundreds of fans protesting against, inter alia, the appointment of Joe Kinnear as director of football, the lack of a major signing in the summer and having Wonga, a payday loans company whose ethical approach has been questioned, as a club sponsor. This happened.

It is not an unnamed player sounding off or an extrapolation from a couple of rumours. Many thousands saw it. Reporters reported on it and for doing so they are now being prevented from doing their jobs.

But this is not just Ashley acting like a petty dictator and infringing on the basic freedom of the press: it is also a spectacularly stupid move.

The pressure on Pardew is certain to increase after he became the first Newcastle manager in almost half a century to lose successive league derbies, and it is safe to assume the local papers will do little to calm angry fans.

Negative titbits those journalists may previously have suppressed will be given free rein: the papers have nothing to lose in terms of their relationship with the club and a crisis will sell copies. Ashley’s posturing means it is now in their interests to destabilise the club.