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Speaking our truths - the importance of an independent fan media to Sunderland AFC’s future

Sharing our honest, independent and personal perspectives on what we see in front of our eyes is more important now than ever before. Ignorance is not bliss.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

“Intellectual honesty is a crime in any totalitarian country; but even in England it is not exactly profitable to speak and write the truth.”

George Orwell

Football is the prism through which many of us see life; the expensive habit we will never kick; the irrational obsession that drives our emotions. News of the latest goings on at Sunderland AFC is often the first thing we seek out on social media in the morning, it’s what we read about during our breaks at work or school, it’s the default topic of conversation when we chat with colleagues, friends and families.

The quality of the sources of information about football in general and Sunderland AFC in particular are, then, reasonably important to most fans whether you’re after team news, transfer rumours or takeover talk.

Local news media is a crucial part of the civic life of any community, and especially when it comes to football. In the North East, we have two local newspapers in the Sunderland Echo and the Chronicle, and the local BBC, who understandably dedicate a significant amount of space to covering the daily news from the region’s big clubs - coverage of Sunderland and Newcastle is what drives much of the audience - as well as non-league and grassroots football too.

Sunderland Unveil New Manager Phil Parkinson Photo by Sunderland AFC/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

An industry transformed

When the paper drops through the door at my parents’ house, the back pages are always first to be read. But anyone with half an eye on the industry will know that local print media has been in secular decline since the advent of the internet, and the BBC is facing the existential challenge of a hostile government seeking to nullify critical voices.

Despite some of the big UK media companies continually trying to reinvent local news for the digital age, hundreds of traditional titles have been gutted or closed, and many professional journalists have lost their jobs. Clicks are what drive advertising revenue, which is now almost entirely mediated through the algorithms of the big tech giants. It is an industry that still wrestles with how to get people to pay for the work that it produces.

Yet the familiar voices of those paid to cover Sunderland AFC remain a vital part of our lives as fans. As an exile paying for an SAFSEE audio subscription, when I can’t be at the match my mental picture of how Sunderland play is framed and shaped by Barnsey and Benno’s words on BBC Radio Newcastle. Pros like Phil Smith from the Echo have the time and the access to the club that gives their words weight and authority, and it’s a responsibility that I’m sure they don’t take lightly.

Neither the Echo nor BBC Newcastle pull their punches when it comes to criticising a player’s performance or the team’s application. But there’s an inherent quid pro quo involved in any journalistic specialism, particularly when deadlines are daily and tight. As reliant as the Echo, the Chronicle and BBC Newcastle are on the club as a valuable source of daily content, the club is also reliant on them to keep the fanbase engaged and informed, and the money coming in.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

That symbiotic relationship with the club necessarily means that most of the mainstream coverage focuses on the latest results, upcoming fixtures, injury updates and verified transfer news. It’s what most fans want most of the time, myself included.

As such, the traditional, professional media outlets tend to steer clear of expressing strident opinions, addressing potentially controversial topics and digging too deep into what’s going on behind the scenes at the Academy of Light. Investigative reporting that delves into the background issues within the club and the wider football industry is resource-intensive and, despite its importance, has a limited if highly engaged audience.

Over the last ten months the US venture capital-backed website, The Athletic, freed from the need to make a profit in the short term and with expertise in building digital subscription businesses, has begun to syphon off the best and brightest English football writers from the local and national press, who have taken many of their loyal readers with them. This is yet another blow to the beleaguered local media industry with its roots in local communities, but, as is featured in a fantastic article in GQ this week, the start-up is rapidly transforming the nature and quality of coverage of English football in the top tier and the top end of the Championship.

Tactical analysis, unique in-depth features and long-form opinion pieces about your club, from a dedicated correspondent who is often a fan themself are The Athletic’s unique selling points, and as the biggest club outside of the top 26, Sunderland AFC actually features in articles by their Newcastle correspondent, George Caulkin, behind their paywall every couple of months. However, like the occasional Sunderland stories that run every so often in the national broadsheets, these pieces often feel rather voyeuristic; they read like fables written to warn mid-table Premier League teams of the fate that awaits them if their own billionaire benefactor loses interest and they tumble down the pyramid; there but for the grace of God, go thee.


Fan Blogs and Podcasts

“News deserts” - the barren lands left behind by local news and radio amalgamation, syndication and closure and outside the gaze of the metropolitan media - have a big impact on the accountability of those in positions of power within communities.

It has often fallen to civic-minded citizens and socially-conscious freelance journalists to fill these voids, producing quality content for free because of their personal passion for the subjects and localities they’re covering. They do so out of a sense of responsibility.

When journalists who take their responsibility to the truth seriously are not there report regularly on a community or industry, the click-bait and disinformation merchants will move in. These online outlets are often targeted at people’s preexisting biases, increasingly people only read “news” that they agree with and it’s what’s driving the polarisation of society.

In football, the equivalent of “fake news” are transfer rumour sites who use catchy headlines designed for facebook shares to bring in the clicks that translate to ad revenue. They don’t care about our club or the truth, simply they want your eyeballs on their websites.

Until Sunderland are back challenging at the top end of the Championship, the kind of exposure to the media spotlight and in-depth content that is generated about other big clubs by well-resourced media organisations will simply not be there, or at least not that regularly, unless we do it ourselves.

When Stewart Donald and PR-man Charlie Methven took over the club in the summer of 2018, the national broadcast media interest in Sunderland had all but completely melted away. Some fans have claimed that Madrox Partners used the volunteer, fan-run Roker Rapport and Wise Men Say podcasts as a way of avoiding the scrutiny of professional journalists. Anyone who cares to listen back will hear how far off the mark such accusations are, indeed many of the questions put to the pair were pointed, probing and challenging and some were proposed by our listeners.

The podcasters involved have also been accused of using these exclusives to shamelessly build their personal reputations and their podcasts brands, as if there is something strange about us wanting more listens, reads, likes and follows.

It is true to say that since the Joint Statement calling for #DonaldOut, there’s been a general disengagement from this relationship by both parties. Wise Men Say no longer host the fanzone at the Stadium of Light on matchdays. The current owners have largely gone silent about what’s happening behind the scenes. In the new year, Stewart Donald appeared a couple of times on BBC Newcastle’s TotalSport show, plus that slippery and evasive interview Methven gave to the Alfie & Anna breakfast show in January. Now, apparently even the BBC has taken to reporting on fan tweets to get even snippets of information about the progress of potential takeovers of the club.

Nothing would make our owners happier than to have a free hand to do what they will with the club without critical media scrutiny. Unlike what is meant to be the case in the political arena, there is little no formal accountability in how League One clubs are governed beyond the limp “fit and proper persons” test for directors and regulations regarding wage ratios.

Clubs like Sunderland are left to be run as dictatorships who give the occasional nod to addressing the concerns of their devoted followings through fan dialogue groups, and seek to build and then protect their reputations through engagement with whatever media outlets have the biggest audiences and will carry their stories without too many questions.


Imbalance in resources

There is an honesty and independence that comes doing this as a citizen journalist; we do not need the club’s permission to work. Our livelihoods are not on the line. It can mean that people inside the club are more comfortable speaking to us as we’re fellow fans, and we have almost complete freedom to write what we see and feel.

The downside - and what limits the independent fan media’s ability to carry out investigative reporting and put into the public domain all of what is said and known privately - is the imbalance in resources between the parties involved.

However confident a freelance writer may be in the accuracy of their material and the quality of their sources, critical, challenging accounts of the goings on behind the scenes at the club can be quickly stifled with a strongly worded letter from a rich owner’s lawyers.

This limitation extends to smaller print and online commercial outlets, whereas publishers with their own in house legal team can confidently run highly controversial material. I snatched a conversation with Stewart Donald in Trafalgar Square in May 2019 about the Daily Mail article claiming to tell the real story of his takeover of the club, including the alleged use of parachute payments to buy the club.

Asked about the impact of the story, Donald told me that it was rubbish, and his lawyers were “dealing with it”. The story is still online.

Independent writers don’t have the resources of a professional news organisation behind them. “Legal” doesn’t check what we publish before it goes out - there is no legal. It took the might of The Times to officially break the story of Charlie Methven’s comments about the business acumen of northerners despite this being pretty much common knowledge amongst many Sunderland supporters with an interest in off-field matters.

Some citizen/fan bloggers writing about the club are fully trained journalists, others bring skills from other areas (statistics, business and management, or, in my case trade unionism and political science) to bear on our writing. But none of us can afford to simply publish and be damned.

Rich bumped into Stewart Donald the evening before the 2019 Playoff final

We don’t speak for you

I think we are fortunate to have such a vibrant and pluralistic Sunderland fan media, with at least four or five dedicated groups of supporters vigorously covering the ins-and-outs of the club for love rather than money.

On the Roker Report blog and the Roker Rapport podcasts, we don’t claim to speak for you, but hopefully we do speak to you. As a platform, it carries a range of views from our contributors and publishes letters from fans expressing strident and contentious opinions about both the club and about the content we publish. We speak for ourselves, as independent-minded fans and volunteers with our own professional backgrounds and personal interests.

As well as those who give their takes on the team’s performance on the pitch and the relative merits of tactics and lineups, Steve Tiltman writes nerdy stats-based analysis pieces that rival anything in the specialist sports media. Jimmy Lowson gives his honest, personal assessment of player performances in his ratings column and withstands a lot of public criticism from those who disagree. Professor Neil Graney brings his academic knowledge of business governance to the table, Chris Wynn his love of trivia to the weekly quizzes. Behind the scenes, copy editors, graphic designers and podcast producers make everything produced by the dozens of contributors look and sound as good if not better than a lot of commercially produced content.

We are all volunteers writing and podcasting for the love of the club. We are not beholden to an owner or a set of commercial priorities, yet we compete for your attention with those who do. The Echo, The Chronicle and the BBC have recently launched dedicated Sunderland AFC podcasts, and The Athletic has moved into this space with a suite of free, club-specific podcasts with which they aim to make money and drive listeners to their website content. We’re comfortable with this competition and see our authenticity, independence and freedom as our points of differentiation that brings readers and listeners to us.

But fan media outlets are not charities. We operate in the real world, the real legal system and the real economy. We also have a relationship with money and media companies. The people behind A Love Supreme have built a number of businesses from the basis of the beloved fanzine. SAFC Fan TV will, no doubt, be looking to generate advertising revenue from their YouTube account at some stage.

Our podcasts have been sponsored, and carry syndicated advertising, and the Roker Report website that you’re probably reading right now is hosted by sports blogging platform SB Nation. Its parent company, Vox Media, owns the content once it’s uploaded and the adverts sitting below this article generate the income that funds the platform that we use to publish and the site you access for free.

As I am not paid for my work, and in order to maintain my intellectual property, this piece has been published on Medium.com under a Creative Commons licence prior to it going out on the blog - something I will do from now on. We are essentially vigilant citizens. I don’t ask other fans to take the same level of interest in the goings on at the club as I, but I do ask that our integrity is not questioned without good reason. You do not have to read this. You do not have to agree with it. You can comment and put your own perspectives out there.

Sunderland v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Football Clubs Are Not Islands

Rich and powerful people and organisations, and those who support and fund them, whether in the football industry or wider society, do not want a vibrant and independent media that questions how things are done and looks for alternatives.

Some letter writers and voices on social media don’t want us to talk about politics on Roker Report. Many supporters want us to keep our writing and podcasting to matters on the pitch and not to delve into the business of the club and how it’s run or the wider social, political and cultural landscape in which the club operates. This article itself, I am sure, will receive criticism for being self-indulgent and irrelevant to the average Sunderland fan.

But this is nonsense. None of this is trivial.

Regional economic imbalances impact upon the spending power of Sunderland supporters and therefore potential revenues of the club, and the lure of the metropolis can mean clubs around London and the North West of England have first pick of the playing talent. The UK’s political environment and regulatory framework impacts upon investment and changes to immigration rules will change our ability to recruit foreign players in the future. Laws passed in Parliament frame how the sport is governed from the obligation to prioritise the interests of shareholders over fans, right down to your ability to take a pint of lager across a line in the Stadium of Light.

The same applies to our interest in how our club is run. We are in League One for a number of reasons, but nobody who has seen Sunderland ‘Til I Die would doubt that mismanagement off the field has an effect on the performance on match day - maybe not or week to week, but certainly over the course of a season or more.

I expect that when Season 2 lands in a few weeks time, we will all be able to judge for ourselves whether or not Donald and Methven’s claim that Sunderland is the most professionally run club in League One survives intact. And do note the power imbalance between Netflix and the club owners works the other way - Madrox Partners clearly believe that the spike in interest in the club as a brand will outweigh any potential damage to their reputations. Even if they wanted to veto any content, I doubt they have the financial might to out-lawyer one of the world’s richest media companies.

In theory, like the rest of the private sector, football clubs respond to consumer pressure and bad PR. But it is only when a critical mass of organised fans take action when this consumer pressure can have any real power. Whether you agree with the Joint Statement from fan media groups and the Red & White Army in December 2019, which held Donald to his word about selling the club (without, in my view, setting out a clear set of demands for the future of the club) you cannot doubt it had an impact.

Recently, a West Ham fan was banned by that club for having an anti-owner slogan printed on their T-shirt, only for the media backlash to reach such a level that the ban was essentially rescinded. But smaller clubs in our division have gone to the wall outside of the glare of a critical media spotlight, with others teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Specialist independent podcasts like The Price of Football have come along to fill the gap, covering all tiers of the pyramids across British football, but even the venerable and festiduous Kieran Maguire has to keep an eye out for the silver tongued lawyers. But sometimes, he can really let rip and use his following to warn fans of the risks of dodgy owners and their dodgy money.

Not mentioning politics and economics would be, therefore, to omit truths and limit our analysis of one of the most important institutions in our city and in our lives. Accepting without question the PR guff that the club comes out with in public would be a dereliction of duty on our part. When people say there’s no other way to run a club than as a trophy asset or part of an investment portfolio, we will highlight examples that show otherwise.

We are increasingly aware of the methods of media manipulation employed by slick PR men and political communications experts, much of which mirrors the tactics employed by Charlie Methven’s friends in Downing Street. Shifting narratives make you question reality. They want the truth to be basically unknowable. As a fanbase and as an electorate, we are always vulnerable to gaslighting.

That’s why seeking the objective truth and sharing our honest, independent and personal perspectives on what we see in front of our eyes is more important than ever. Ignorance is not bliss.