Graham Spiers says “severe” pressure was placed on The Herald, Glasgow, by Rangers FC after he claimed in his column that the club was not doing enough to tackle offensive chanting among its supporters.
The columnist, who also writes for The Times and the BBC, said an un-named Rangers director had praised Loyalist anthem The Billy Boys, which is widely viewed as a sectarian chant.
Herald editor Magnus Llewellin said the paper had “no option” but to apologise as the assertion could not have been defended in court.
The Spiers on Sport column, published on 30 December, was based on Graham’s account of a meeting he attended at the club’s Ibrox Stadium in August.
However, after a complaint from Rangers about the piece, The Herald issued an apology to the club on Wednesday.
It read: “In a recent column for heraldscotland, Graham Spiers said an un-named Rangers director had praised the song The Billy Boys.
“He also questioned the willingness of Rangers directors to tackle offensive behaviour, and The Herald and Graham Spiers accept this was inaccurate.
“We acknowledge every member of the Rangers board is fully committed to fighting bigotry and offensive chanting, wherever it occurs in Scottish football, and that the club is actively tackling the issue.
“We apologise for any embarrassment that may have been caused to the members of the Rangers board.”
Magnus told HTFP: “The problem lay with the assertion by Graham Spiers that ‘at least one member of the Rangers board thinks The Billy Boys is a tremendous song’.
“As you may know, the song is regarded as a sectarian anthem.
“That left us with a legal issue which had to be addressed. The matter was discussed at length by all parties involved and, on legal advice, we published the apology.
“The issue we had was whether we could defend the contentious statement in court and the advice given was that we could not. That left us with no other option other than to apologise.”
However, Graham, who has won Scotland’s Sports Journalist of the Year title four times, has defended his position on a blog he published on the same day.
Discussing the aftermath of his meeting with the club director in August, he wrote: “I subsequently expressed my dismay at the director’s comment in an email exchange with Rangers. There was, and is, no question of me calling any Rangers director a bigot.
“Rangers duly complained to The Herald about my column. As the weeks passed a dispute arose, and the pressure brought upon the newspaper became severe.
“The Herald told me repeatedly that they now had to find a way to a public resolution with Rangers. Having searched many avenues to reach an agreement with the club, the newspaper ultimately denied my request to withhold any clarification/apology until my own position was clearer.
“The Herald has never told me that they disbelieved my version of events. I also retain the highest regard for Magnus Llewellin, the paper’s editor who has tried to resolve this problem.
“My opinion – as expressed in my column – was based on a truthful account of my meeting with a Rangers director.”
Former colleague Robbie Dinwoodie, who left The Herald four months ago after 28 years working for the paper, has also defended Graham in a post on his own blog.
He wrote: “In 42 years in print journalism I have never come across a worse failure of a newspaper to back a writer than that of The Herald and Graham Spiers.
“I left The Herald four months ago on good terms and the paper had my loyalty for 28 years. Should a reporter get something wrong there is a duty to raise a hand and accept responsibility. But when a journalist insists on and can prove the veracity of a story an editor should provide full backing. That’s the deal.”
A spokesman for Rangers FC told HTFP: “There was no legal complaint or legal action made against The Herald on behalf of Rangers. Rangers simply asked if The Herald and its writers could prove the allegations.
“The outcome was an apology and the club is entirely satisfied with that.”