Cowards die many times before their deaths;
the valiant never taste of death but once.
Caesar, Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare
Yesterday, as you may be aware, a rather longer than usual episode of the Roker Rapport Exiles podcast was released and is now sitting in your podcatcher of choice. I hosted it and, along with the regular features like an interview with a representative of the North American Supporters Association and a great round of our regular quiz game, ‘Playing Away’, it includes what might to some seem a quite contrary debate on the rights and wrongs of the Joint Statement released by Roker Report, A Love Supreme, Wise Men Say and the Red & White Army at 8.30pm on 27th December, and the subsequent twitter campaign which saw #DonaldOut trending number 8 in the UK for a good while that evening.
If you’ve not heard it, I urge you to go and listen then come back here later, but, in summary, none of us on the podcast this week were totally happy with what has transpired – some more than others, but it’s fair to say that we have not followed the lead of those who publish the podcasts or, indeed, this very article.
A little background. In the Spring of 2019, armed with a smartphone and a love of podcasts, I resolved to start MackemExiles – a show that was to be made by and for Sunderland fans like me who don’t live in the North East of England in order to give voice to their experiences and opinions in all their wonderful diversity. I was inspired by listening to a podcast with Martyn McFadden, founder of A Love Supreme, the fanzine that I have read since I was a boy standing on the Fulwell End. I recorded a 5-minute introduction using a free app, knocked-up a half decent looking logo and started a twitter account. In my mind, it was very much in the punk ethos of the original fanzine movement – filling a niche that the bigger, more established fan media outlets didn’t and doing it on my own. And then I got really busy with work and family commitments; my own mental health started to suffer. The initial burst of excited enthusiasm fizzled out.
Then, over the summer, Roker Rapport tweeted looking for people interested in joining their expanded team of podcast contributors. I think I sent the email expressing my interest about 5 minutes after that tweet went out. I am a bit of a podcast fan and I loved what Roker Rapport was doing. I wanted to be part of it.
As it transpired, the people who run and create Roker Rapport had been thinking that they needed to expand their horizons too. Due to the fact that we’re a massive club with fans almost everywhere you go on Earth, most of the people who listen to all of the podcasts do not live in the North East. The producers and editors wanted to reflect this and feature a broader range of voices and opinions, so they offered me the chance to work with some of their long standing writers and contributors and some of the other fans from afar who, like me, had responded to the tweet to turn my initial idea for MackemExiles into the Roker Rapport Exiles podcast.
It has been a dream come true for all of us. An opportunity not many people get to reach tens of thousands of fellow Sunderland fans around the world. And a responsibility none of us take lightly or for granted. It has taken us a few months and a number of failed recordings to find our stride, but along with my fellow host Brett Lyons-Davis I am very proud of what our team of around a dozen folk scattered around the UK and well beyond have created with the support of their brilliant producers and multimedia artists and the might of their social media following behind us. We’ve all become good mates along the way as well.
Have no doubt, before recording this week’s podcast we all thought long and hard about what we’d say on the issue of the ownership of the club. And we were also up front with the editorial team about our varying opinions – Gavin, Sean and Craig were all well aware that Niall, Bomber and I in particular had not joined in the twitter campaign and we had all expressed in private much of what is now out there in public regarding our reservations with the content of the statement and the way the campaign was conducted.
They have been honourable in allowing us the privilege of their platform to air our concerns. We have not and do not expect to be censored, or for this to be our last Exiles podcast as a result of disagreeing.
Here I feel I must point out that, despite us all being volunteers doing this for the pure love of the club and our desire to provide content for our fellow fans, Roker Report and Roker Rapport operates like many other media outlets and includes a good few trained journalists as well as passionate amateurs like me (full disclosure, I have previously worked for the National Union of Journalists, so I’m not a complete outsider to the industry).
There is a distinction between factual news such as match reports, the individual opinions of writers and podcast contributors and the editorial line taken by those who make all of this happen. It is the editorial line – the Joint Statement - that was challenged on the podcast; it should not be interpreted as mutiny or treachery.
Look at the Guardian newspaper as an example. The editors make a choice in which stories are covered and which voices are heard, and make statements and judgement calls such as which political party or referendum choice to recommend to readers at election time, but in its opinion pages you will find long standing Eurosceptics such as Larry Elliot and passionate Europhiles like Polly Toynbee, left-wingers like Owen Jones and voices from the liberal centre-right such as Simon Jenkins.
This is because their readership is quite diverse in their opinions, but broadly share common goals and values, and the editors feel a responsibility to use their platform as a place for debate and thoughtful, civilised disagreement. As the Manchester Guardian’s founding editor, CP Scott, famously stated, “comment is free, but facts are sacred”.
What I know for sure is that no one but Donald and his investors know all the facts relating to the financial goings on at Sunderland AFC. Those voices elsewhere online who claim to know the ins and outs are, in my view, disingenuous. As Gavin has outlined in his recent article on this site, there are a series of important unanswered questions regarding the past, present and future of the club we all love dearly. Serious journalistic question requiring serious investigation.
I am and have been from the start a “Donald sceptic”. I doubt his credentials and capability to run a huge community institution like Sunderland AFC with a team drawn from non-league football, but I have no conclusive evidence to doubt his motives or to say he’s fleecing the club. Such evidence may emerge in time. His interviews with BBC Newcastle since the #DonaldOut campaign started have showed him as weak, and his capitulation in the face of a Twitter storm may even have hint that he’s scared of what is yet to come out.
Tuesday’s official club statement on the matter has done nothing to ease my concerns about the often amateurish nature of his tenure so far, and has rightly angered very many fans who see it as continuing the patten started by Charlie Methven of blaming us for their mistakes.
But this does not mean I agree with the Joint Statement or the way in which the campaign was conducted. I have spoken to friends and family who are not avid Twitter users and whose voices have not been raised outside of social clubs and sitting rooms. They have almost all been concerned about the divisive and potentially destabilising effect it has had.
Better the devil you know, they say. I have found myself defending the right of Roker Report and the other fan groups to make the statement whilst expressing my frustration at the methods and strategy employed.
I understand the instinct to protect the club for the future, it’s the heart and soul of the city. We all share the goal of successful Sunderland teams playing attractive football on the pitch nurtured by financially sustainable club off the pitch. I’m happy to share with our readers what I have said in private about what I feel could or should have been the nature of the Joint Statement on 27th December, which is very similar to what long time Roker Report writer and Exile contributor Chris Wynn says on the podcast:
“Roker Report, A Love Supreme, Wise Men Say and Red & White Army met tonight to this end. We speak as editorial and executive teams and acknowledge the diversity of opinions within our own groups as well as amongst the wider fanbase.
This is what was said at the meeting.
This is what we want now - this is how it should realistically happen.
This is what we want by 1st Feb - this is how it should realistically happen.
This is what we want by the end May - this is how it should happen.
This is what we want in the long term – this is how it should happen”
My hope is that in publishing our podcast, Roker Report/Rapport have demonstrated that we are what we say we are – an independent collection of individual fans, directed by no single person, working together to create content for you – our comrades, our sisters and brothers, our football family. We represent nobody but ourselves. We may disagree, but we share a love and a passion that runs deeper than any one owner or manager or player.
Who is Caesar in this situation, who are the Senators charged with guarding the republic from tyranny, who is Cassius, who is Brutus? Perhaps no one in our own story fits any of those parts wholly.
The point in my beginning this piece with the quote from the great bard is that, in my view, he’s asking us to see that in many situations, especially those of the greatest importance and where passions run highest, it is rare that anyone has the monopoly on honour and righteousness.
What matters is that we have the courage of our convictions, else we may as well give up. In our story nobody has blood on their hands. The lesson is that bitter factionalism – not open disagreement and debate - ultimately leads to defeat. We need, as a fanbase, to learn to disagree agreeably and to acknowledge that what is important is our unity of purpose and motive rather than orthodoxy and devotion to a particular line dictated from above.
Online vitriol, shaming and bullying can have terrible consequences. Shakespeare warns us in his epic tragedy that civil war born of fear and hasty action rarely produces a good outcome, just a miserable citizenry and the fall of once great republics into the horrors of tyranny and disintegration.