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Sunderland AFC and the local media - a love affair that hurts us all

The club and media enjoy a strong relationship, but at what cost, and is it right that Martin Bain goes unchallenged?

“Everything is a-ok!”

Have you ever heard of the infinite monkey theorem?

It's a mathematical theory, one that tells us that if we have an infinite number of sentient, if not intelligent, creatures hitting a keyboard for an infinite period of time, literary perfection is not only a mathematical possibility but invariably a certainty. And I'm reminded of the local media outlets that provide 'coverage' of Sunderland AFC.

However, although organisations like the Sunderland Echo and the Chronicle do indeed perform tricks for peanuts and have done for what seems like an eternity, we're hardly dealing with Shakespeare here.

Take Monday as an example. As a result of Martin Bain's bi-monthly trip to the zoo to feed Bobo and friends, news feeds are once again abuzz with the deep insight and original thought of the local press. Of course, these opinions (which seemingly occur to the authors at or around the exact same time as they leave Martin Bain's mouth) are just so much regurgitated print and should be casually dismissed as such, but as usual the most interesting thing about what these “journalists” have to say is how little of it there is.

One gentleman recently described the North East press as "lapdogs" of the club, and I'll be honest: it's easy to see why.

Now, the general consensus on these outlets – and all newspapers in fact – is that they can be trusted. We assume that, because our fathers and their fathers before them bought and read newspapers almost religiously, that they are infallible or somehow even bound by a moral obligation to tell the truth. They most certainly are not either of those things.

You see unlike an outlet like Roker Report which charges you nothing for content and gives you the truth in its entirety, a small regional newspaper - the Echo or the Chronicle are good example - can't work like that, because a newspaper needs a sustainable source of income, and so enters the readership.

The readership buy papers and click clickbait to generate the meagre revenue attained through online advertisement and surveys. Some of these outlets might even attempt to trick you into registering with them merely for the privilege of viewing some of this dross; they can then use your forced subscription as a statistic to highlight the supposed efficacy of their organisation. Perhaps it will help some sub-editor get a pay bump, who knows?

A newspaper like the Echo or the Chronicle requires only that you part with your money/time, and what comes next frankly doesn't concern you. This unsavoury tactic coupled with the strict deadlines of any outlet that needs to produce daily content, results not only in poor, insubstantial content, but is then regurgitated two, three, four times at a minimum. Apparently it's called "re-nosing". I call it hacky.

So how do they protect themselves? How does one ensure that the readership looks past the regurgitation and keeps clicking those clicks and buying those papers?

Enter the Football Club. A constant source of interest if not news, a Football club has far more fans than any local media outlet can ever hope to attain by the sweat of its brow. For a great many of the older generation especially, a physical newspaper is quite simply the only source of news of the goings-on in their football world. The promise of daily content and something tangible to fit in your hands as you have your morning cuppa/afternoon pint is enough to make many part with the pennies it costs to grab one, through sheer routine if nothing else. And straight to the back pages thou dost flip.

But what will you find? I mean, we're dealing with Sunderland AFC here. It's a veritable treasure trove of scandal and intrigue. The court of Martin Bain which rules in the Kingdom of Ellis Short is as seedy an underbelly as you could ever wish for from a journalistic perspective, surely?

Redundancies, a monopoly on failure, academy neglect, the corporatization of a family institution... the list of topics is exhaustive. But would you find any of these subjects in the pages of your local rag? Of course not.

Sunderland v Manchester City - Premier League
It’s a veritable treasure trove of scandal and intrigue.
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

OK then, well do any of these morally-obligated gentlemen in the local press pursue these lines of investigation independently? Of course not, because gone are the bright eyes and bushy tails of the justice-seeking young journalist. No more is the inquisitive warrior of the quill, full of ideals and determined to bring truth to the people. They died long ago, and in their place sits a man that has to swallow lies and spit out headlines or else his wages stop.

Let's face it, you would be hard-pressed indeed to find any journalist employed by these organisations that you can attach the word “investigative” to. Considering the veritable hoard of issues that require a stark and transparent investigation at Sunderland AFC, that's pretty damning.

One of the more prominent arguments used to defend them here would be the necessity of protecting sources and cultivating a working relationship with their meal ticket.

The trouble there is that we all know who their source is, and the working relationship they're cultivating is one of secrecy and privileged information. One would think that as fans we're arguably more deserving of any and every piece of club information in existence, but to the groups and individuals we're discussing here, not only is it in their best interests to tell you very little, but it profits them to stretch and twist that information. Even though they're telling you nothing in 500 words, each word pays for itself because they give the impression of passing information on, whereas in fact they're merely doing Martin Bain's biggest job for him.

And that's the crux of it. Martin Bain's biggest job, other than pretending everything is in hand, is to convince the thousands of fans - who are rightly disenchanted and angry - that everything is indeed in hand.

Brentford v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

But to make out that there's a plan that any of us would support is just one tactic, because the ultimate end game is that we, as fans, shut the f*ck up. That's it. They want your silence and they want your money, but much like half of the players this club have wasted our time on over the last decade, they don't want to do the leg-work to get it. So they palm it off to the local mouthpiece and bob's your mother's brother: the local press get another headline and whatever unusual sense of accomplishment derived from producing nothing of any import, the club gets it's free PR spin out to the willing masses, and everything carries on as usual.

You've learned nothing, the press have learned nothing, the club have learned nothing, but two of those groups actually benefit. Guess which they are.

Speaking of his efforts to communicate with the fan base, Martin Bain made the unfortunate comment: "Unfortunately the majority shout the loudest."

Aside from being a stupid thing to say because it all but confirms the fact that the majority of Sunderland fans don't agree with what's happening at the club - reason enough to sod off and leave us well enough alone - it also works as a fine indicator of what Bain perceives his key obstacle to be: the opinions of the majority of Sunderland fans.

With this in mind, is it even difficult for anyone to consider that the man whose job depends on overcoming that obstacle would go out of his way to cultivate an image of success, even where none exists? Is it at all hard to imagine that such a man in this world would reach out to the local media to make overcoming that obstacle that much easier? It's all just one big game, and one that these players are good at.

But let's try to be a little bit fair here: Martin Bain has only been around for a year or so now, so it isn't like we can blame him for the sycophancy of these people. Sure, he expects it and it will be a poor man indeed that let's his morals have their head and challenges that narrative, but it's hardly like this propaganda thing is a new occurrence at Sunderland AFC.

Under various shady characters and utterly without scruples, the club has led many a foray into the baying mob, armed with nothing but a silver tongue and, depending on the severity of the circumstances, some free away kits that you couldn't pay someone to wear. The club itself is no stranger to damage control, even if the level of control eventually gained is entirely outweighed by the damage already done. Whether that's a situation that can be remedied by better people in those roles, I can't say.

One of the more frustrating facets of this huge issue with the regional press is that as individuals they know a lot more than they would have you believe.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Honestly, since I began blogging about SAFC and sport in general, one of the things that has truly staggered me is the informality with which business is actually conducted at levels I would once have considered too elite to even entertain such an idea. Grudges are held, secrets are kept, and politics is the name of the game when it comes to the running of a football club. Even I know things I can't speak of - things told me in confidence by people that would literally lose their job if I were to name them, and I'm nobody. That's something that few fans are willing to believe - that such clandestine knowledge even exists - and I completely understand why. It's because of how unfair it is that that all of your own emotions and angst as a fan, particularly when considering the sacrifices you make to be a fan, are subject to the whims of angry little people with secrets to keep and agendas to pursue. That in itself is enough to make you pray it isn't the case.

To you and I, Sunderland AFC are a football club and all that matters is what happens on the pitch. But the reality is so far from that simple, honest ideal that the comparison between that and the reality is a chasm of epic proportions.

The real fault here doesn't lie with the journalists that put their names to this propaganda, in truth. You can't really blame Joe Journo for protecting his job whilst simultaneously withholding the knowledge of the true plights at the club, after all every man has a right to feed his family. Distasteful though it may seem that the regional press keep secrets with little more than one eye on a "tell-all" book deal in the twilight of their career, the fact remains that there are secrets to be learned.

They aren't the cause of this, though it can be argued that their organisations as a whole are complicit by their decision to maintain a working relationship with an institution they could very well attempt to expose, in the interests of the fans that not only fund the club, but the press that 'cover' it. An idealistic and altogether impossible demand to make of any organisation that deals in information and knowledge.

I suppose that's my point when considering these organisations and the script the club writes for them: they aren't to be trusted. Because no matter what they tell you, no matter how much you want to believe that big business is your friend and that journalists are out to spread the truth to the people, they will always be working their hardest to fool you.

So the next time you hear that the CEO of a ticking timebomb like Sunderland is sitting down with local media and the odd random fan group that doesn't represent you, and then you see a flurry of ‘opinions’ from your local tabloid joining Don Bain in blaming everyone else but the club itself, do yourself a favour and ask: "Why are they trying so hard to convince me that everything is OK?"

I think you'll find that life with Sunderland AFC is anything but.

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