A view from Chris Blackhurst

Coverage of football is only part of a wider PR problem

Suddenly, there's lots of huffing and puffing about football clubs banning the press from their grounds.

The National Union of Journalists is up in arms, calling for an end to this "worrying trend". 

Er, what trend? It’s a practice that is as old as the hills – or at least that has existed for my near-three decades in national newspapers. The worst offender I recall was Sir Alex Ferguson. More than once, we had to grovel to the great man, to beg him to reconsider and allow our football reporter into his press conferences at Carrington, the Manchester United training ground, and the team’s matches at Old Trafford. 

Sometimes, it was never clear if the barring had passed Fergie’s lips or whether it was the United media machine second-guessing his reaction to a piece they regarded as unduly negative. Liverpool – and, for a time, Chelsea – were nearly as bad. 

Often, the offending article would be at the front of the paper, concerning someone’s private life or some aspect of the club’s finances. Mindful of what was likely to happen, we would keep the sports desk well away so that their hands remained clean. No good: they were the ones who had to deal with the screaming and swearing; it was their journalists who would be excluded. 

What’s puzzling about the NUJ stance is that they should think it’s confined to football. Fashion is far, far worse. There, anything they regard as critical can result in the withdrawal of an invitation to the next show. 

Whenever I’ve interviewed someone senior in fashion or luxury goods, the pattern has been the same: the PR is frightfully sniffy in the first instance; then reluctantly agrees – presumably after their boss has said they will do it; but then the conditions are mentioned – only certain areas can be covered while others are strictly off limits, and all quotes must be cleared. This last request I’ve managed to resist, but only after heated toing and froing. All this before we’ve got on to the pictures. 

The anodyne feature appears, the executive has said something that makes them appear witty and smart, what they regard as the brand’s qualities are highlighted and the photos look great. Cue an apologetic phone call and a delivery of white orchids (always white orchids – editors’ offices are awash with them). 

The same could be said for access to politicians, business, the arts and much more. By targeting football, the NUJ is highlighting an issue that affects the freedom of the press. But it’s only a small part of a bigger problem. Some of those in the PR industry should be made to explain themselves and account for what they do.

Chris Blackhurst is the former multimedia head of business at The Independent and London Evening Standard