In My Opinion: Kevin McKenna: Rangers, the mainstream media and blogs

FEW spheres of Scottish society have been left untouched by events surrounding the demise of Rangers Football Club, which now operates as a newco in the Scottish Third Division.

Since the nation’s most august sporting institution went into administration on February 14, Scotland has been having one of those national conversations which end when it administers a right good kicking to itself.

Finance, faith and politics have all been dragged into the Rangers imbroglio, and the Scottish print and broadcast media have attracted among the most scrutiny.

That merry and scrofulous band of cavaliers known as the football journalists, in particular, have all had their little whims, caprices and foibles held up for the world to see, almost all of them accused of having failed to spot – or choosing to look the other way – when it came to the financial unravelling of Rangers that led to their day of reckoning.

The chief accusers of these gentlemen (and a few ladies) of the football Press are what I suppose we ought to be calling the new ‘Citizen Journalists’.

That’s ‘citizen’ as in ‘have never held a staff job on a national newspaper’.

They see themselves as valiant, courageous and remorseless seekers of the truth. Some have shown themselves capable of sentient thought and articulate prose, albeit unbound by the traditional strictures and shibboleths of the ‘old journalism’, which, in the opinion of many of them, consist solely of variations on the theme, ‘Never upset the Rangers’.

Some of their criticisms of the Scottish football Press, and its conduct in providing coverage of Rangers FC, are valid, but some are born of ignorance and pub folklore.

Thus far, I have referred to the sports Press in the third person, but I really ought to say ‘we’ when discussing them. For, in the late 90s and beyond, I was sports editor for a couple of our national newspapers.

As such, I had an excellent view of how football writers operated and was entirely complicit in a few episodes for which the new citizen journalists’ army would have sent me to their correction facilities.

On one occasion, I was happy for Graham Spiers, then the chief sportswriter at Scotland on Sunday, to visit [former Rangers owner] David Murray at his Jersey estate for a few days in the company of a handful of other journalists.

It was on this trip, or one similar, where the Daily Record’s chief sportswriter, Jim Traynor, used the phrase, ‘succulent lamb’, in describing the quality of the comestibles in Sir David’s larder.

In recent years, this phrase has been used gleefully by Traynor’s online detractors to suggest a relationship that was too cosy. Although I can’t speak for the Daily Record, I would guess that their motivation for having their man accept David Murray’s hospitality was the same as mine: to get a decent story.

The demonisation of Traynor on some football blogs and messageboards is obscene. This writer has been putting his name to stories in Scotland’s best newspapers, and broadcasting for the BBC, for more than 30 years. He is one of our best and most experienced journalists and it is ironic that many of those who seek to criticise him do so behind the cloak of anonymity.

At this time, Rangers were the only game in town.

And while I accept that, as journalists, we have a noble, sacred and sacredly noble duty to scale the coalface of truth, we also have a duty to try to sell more papers than our rivals and, if possible, rub their noses in it while doing so.

Thousands of jobs in the industry rely on these principles and more than a few mortgages and turf accountants’ fees. Any football writer who refused to entertain the entreaties of the most powerful man in football simply risked handing a potential story to his rivals.

Such a relationship is no more cosy than the entire Westminster and Holyrood political lobbies taking late phone calls from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Alastair Campbell and dutifully writing up these midnight whispers and stratagems.

The accusation that the mainstream media were slow off the mark in reporting the progress of the ‘tax case’ against Rangers and their subsequent descent into financial ruin does carry some merit. But before the current inquisition risks becoming a witch-hunt, let’s look at some inconvenient facts.

As early as 2003, Graham Spiers, writing in The Herald, and Bob Wylie, reporting for the BBC, were beginning to ask serious questions about Rangers’ finances.

The quality of writing in the best of the football blogs has, at times, been exceptional. Yet the whiff of sanctimony and self-righteousness is never very far away either.

I have been known to visit Celtic Park not infrequently over the years and so I can state with absolute authority that we have a tendency to glory in sanctimony and puritanism. We also do a nice line in victimhood…despite our 43 league titles, 35 Scottish Cups and European Champion Clubs Cup.

Unfortunately, what passes for debate on many blogs is nothing more than nameless individuals hurling illiterate profanities in response to an opinion that is merely disagreeable.

The new citizen bloggers have a few luxuries that are denied a newspaper journalist. None will ever be sued for defamation and none will risk being forced to carry an apology by the Press Complaints Commission for getting the facts wrong.

There have been some excellent blogs that have sprung up amid it all. Among the sharpest and most vibrant have been Celtic Quick News, Rangers Tax Case and Phil Mac Giolla Bhain, a Glasgow-born writer who now lives in Donegal. Each has carried revelations and cold analysis that have sometimes eclipsed the efforts of the mainstream media.

As far as I can tell, with the exception of Mr Mac Giolla Bhain, none of the blogs are written by working journalists, requiring to earn a living from their writing, so that it doesn’t really matter how many or how few people read their blogs. And they write eternally on only two subjects: Rangers’ finances and the gossip surrounding their own football club. They have no deadlines and no duty lawyer striking a red pen through their copy just before the presses roll. They are under absolutely no pressure to deliver and they are responsible to no-one but themselves.

It’s a nice and interesting pastime, all this blogging and tweeting and facebooking, and I’m sure we’d all be diminished without it. But it resembles newspaper journalism in the same way that a skateboard resembles an aeroplane.

Kevin McKenna is a columnist on The Observer and the Scottish Daily Mail.