By attempting to control the images presented of their club at home games to an extent that challenges the basics of press freedom, Southampton Football Club have managed to harm their image severely.
It began last week, when Southampton’s Club Spokesman Jordan Sibley sent emails out in response to accreditation requests by photographers that read “Just so you are aware, this year, Southampton Football Club will be syndicating images from all home fixtures via a local agency.” An odd thing to say, as Southampton’s accreditation request form makes no mention of this, and a decision that would ban all other national, local and agency photographers from St. Mary’s.
The motivation for this appears to be part commercial (photos from a single handpicked agency could be guided to ensure they feature sponsors’ names more prominently, for example), and part petulance, as Roy Greenslade explains:
Local newspapers often bear the brunt of these kinds of ban when chairmen/managers/players take umbrage at critical coverage, whether it stems from the team’s performances, the coach’s talents or the state of the ground.
Sometimes, the two reasons are linked. Though Southampton’s ban appears to have a commercial motive, note what the club’s owner, Nicola Cortese, said a couple of months ago:
“Our fans and staff should be reassured that I will only make decisions affecting our future based on sound football and business thinking, and not on the whims of a local newspaper keen to maximise readership or pundits whose agendas are unclear.
“Furthermore, I will not respond to every piece of idle speculation. We have too much development work to do to waste time on such pursuits, and my time is dedicated to that work.
“As a local paper, I would have hoped that it would provide the local community with news, rather than gossip. However, I am not so naïve as to expect such speculation to stop.”
That barb was clearly aimed at the Daily Echo, which has probably been doing nothing more controversial than doing its job. From my earliest days in local journalism – when I reported regularly on three clubs – I discovered that no chairman or manager is ever happy with any coverage that isn’t slavishly supportive.
Southampton aren’t the first club to try something like this, with Newcastle banning reporters last season and Leeds’ in-house picture agency boycotted by the national press, who only printed photos of the club away from home.
But the good news is, Southampton’s decision has blown up in their face: the local agency in question, Digital South, have refused to participate in this attempt to suppress the freedom of their own profession. Despite a loss of potential income, Digital South’s boss Robin Jones took the principled stand, as he explained to the Sports Journalists’ Association :
“I disagreed with their stance on a total ban of photographers from any media source,” Jones told sportsjournalists.co.uk.
“I voiced this opinion to the club and genuinely thought that the ban would not take place. It became clear to me on Thursday that this ban was indeed happening and so I rang the club to inform them of my decision to decline their offer.
“Basically, a ban on photographers is simply a bad idea,” said Jones, whose agency employs two photographers, including his son, Michael Jones, also an SJA member.
“We felt that we were between a rock and a hard place, because we are sure that another agency or photographer might come forward to do this work for Southampton. But it is not something we are prepared to do.”
Jones’ stance comes after a show of solidarity by the press against Southampton’s decision: the Society of Editors, the Sports Journalists’ Association and the Telegraph Media Group all supported a media black-out of all pictures supplied by Southampton if they restricted coverage to a single hand-picked agency. Southampton have put themselves in a tricky situation, as they will know have to either back down or find an agency willing to go against their peers, and that would likely be one with low quality standards to begin with.