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Newspaper apologises for column after ‘pressure’ from football club

GrahamSpiers-285x280An award-winning sportswriter has defended his views after “pressure” from a football club led a daily newspaper to apologise for one of his columns.

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.”

20 comments

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  • January 29, 2016 at 10:36 am
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    Glasgow Rangers are a disgrace for going down this route which actually – in terms of protecting their reputation – works against them, making them look bullies at best and pretty sinister at worst.
    I sympathise with the awkward political and legal position the Glasgow Herald editor found himself in but I would not be surprised if he had a sleepless night or two knowing that he and his paper did not defend their reporter in the manner they so clearly should have done.
    I question how far Rangers would have gone in terms of legality – did they really want the expense and public embarrassment of dragging this issue through the courts? And if they were going to withdraw all that advertising, well surely that’s a fantastic follow up story in itself for a fearless, independent newspaper, which would have heaped further embarrassment on the football club?
    Now it looks like Rangers have the Herald on a string and perhaps they do – deeply wounding the reputation of the reporter, the editor and the historic paper itself.
    The only people to emerge with any credit from this are the writer, Graham Spiers, who had more courage than anyone above him in the Herald, or in owners Newsquest; and former Herald reporter Robbie Dinwoodie, whose blog deserves him the gratitude of right-thinking Glasgow Rangers supporters everywhere as well as the wider journalistic community.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 10:45 am
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    “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.”

    Well said Robbie Dinwoodie.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 11:06 am
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    Of course it is basic journalism that no reporter should file a piece that cannot be defended in court and no editor should run such a piece.
    But as the paper became judge and jury and it was never tested in court we are none the wiser, though it is interesting to note the reporter, who seems experienced, sticks with his version.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 11:06 am
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    Of course it is basic journalism that no reporter should file a piece that cannot be defended in court and no editor should run such a piece.
    But as the paper became judge and jury and it was never tested in court we are none the wiser, though it is interesting to note the reporter, who seems experienced, sticks with his version.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 11:35 am
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    The problem here is that he didn’t name the director. There are nine members of the board(s) at Rangers, each of them with a claim that they have been libeled by the article. Eight of them clearly have a justifiable and very winnable claim. One of them has a ‘my word against his’ argument, whether or not he would have won is open to question.
    Basic newspaper law I’d have thought. Failure of the journo and editor – but then sports reporting is awash with this sort of stuff.
    Having said that, poor show form the paper’s management who took the decision to print but then failed to back their journalist.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 11:54 am
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    Shameful for The Herald and even more so for Rangers. The bullies win.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 12:39 pm
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    In my experience, when a lawyer says “this cannot be defended in court”, it usually means “apologise/retract/pull from publication so it doesn’t become a problem for me to deal with” or “the company won’t even pay for photocopying for this case, let alone legal representation”.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 12:40 pm
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    It’s worth pointing out that rather than being a Celtic-leaning journo with an axe to grind, Graham Speirs is a boyhood Rangers fan and has gone on the terracing at Ibrox when not reporting on matches. Though he might be staying away for a bit…

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  • January 29, 2016 at 2:43 pm
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    Now columnist Angela Haggerty has been sacked by The Herald after more pressure from Rangers. The NUJ is furious. Something must be done, it is a disgrace.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 2:44 pm
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    My sympathies are with the editor. He had legal advice and it would be professional suicide for him and disastrous for the paper to go against that. You just don’t go against legal advice and that’s the end of it. The apology protects the paper from a possible libel, and protects the columnist, too. The columnist should accept that and move on. It would also count against the paper should the matter ever be “tested in court”, which is a stage that should never be reached in something like this. Why would the paper want to take something like this to court? Getting out at this stage is common sense. Yes, a climb down, but a sensible one.

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  • January 29, 2016 at 6:15 pm
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    Putting aside this case the standard of reporting in sport is dodgy.
    The reporting of the Manchester United manager saga is actually legally defamation. How would a hack react if someone wrote he or she was about to be sacked for incompetence , without a single attributed quote to back it up. Even comment must based on truth!

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  • January 30, 2016 at 10:04 am
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    This will maybe encourage journalists to write pieces that they can back up with fact. Just because our society is supposed to be based on free speech it doesn’t then provide licence to spout lies willy nilly.

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  • January 31, 2016 at 12:32 pm
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    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.”

    If Mr Spiers has evidence to support his claim, then publish that evidence.

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  • February 1, 2016 at 9:23 am
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    The Herald apology centred on Spiers saying Rangers were unwilling to tackle offensive behaviour. As far as I read it, it wasn’t saying his comment on the director was inaccurate. But if the paper can’t back any of it up why was it printed in the first place? Subs of old at The Herald would have flagged this up, not now – now that there aren’t any.

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  • February 1, 2016 at 10:17 am
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    Our newspaper company once forced the editor to publish a front page apology for a completely accurate story about a police drugs raid on a school, because the school said it might conceivably have advertised with us in future but now wouldn’t.

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  • February 1, 2016 at 11:49 am
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    Had I been editor of this piece I think the first question I would have asked is “Can you back this up in court if necessary?”
    Not being wise after the act. It was a basic fact taught to me 30 years ago and has not changed, despite sports reporting appearing to have its own rules of libel as OLDER HACK rightly points out on HTFP.

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  • February 1, 2016 at 2:38 pm
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    when did “sources said” “linked” and “reported to have” been accepted as attribution. For years in sport, that’s where. They truly live in their own murky world.

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  • February 1, 2016 at 5:06 pm
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    I’m no longer in newspapers, so am probably out of touch with libel legislation, but I thought recent changes in the law laid the onus on the plaintiff to prove material damage before a court action could be sustained. This would put the libel and slander laws on the same footing.
    In this case, it would be extremely unlikely that an unnamed director could prove material damage simply because he expressed approval for a sectarian song.
    After all, I like the Star Bangled Banner, Danny Boy and Scotland the Brave, but I am not a Yankee Doodle Dandy, an Irish republican or a Scottish nationalist. I even like On Ilkley Moor Ba T’at without ever having been there. So what?
    Seems to me the Herald allowed itself to be pushed around by some crummy little lawyer who needed to be told to f… off in no uncertain terms.
    As an editor, I always took the view that, unless we were caught bang to rights with an indefensible libel, it was always better to come out fighting.
    Sabre-rattling solicitors soon back off when they feel the cold steel of contempt thrust at them by an aggressive editor.
    They don’t like it up ’em, that’s for sure.

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  • February 1, 2016 at 5:39 pm
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    Older Hack is being a bit naive if he truly believes speculation about a soccer manager’s future can be regarded as defamation.
    Everyone knows that six defeats in a row, or several performances short of expectations, generally mean curtains for the incumbent because that’s the nature of modern football.
    When you have 30,000 fans in the stands yelling ‘Sack him’, you don’t have to look far for attribution. More often than not, the crowd even brandishes banners to back up the verbal abuse, so there could be televisual evidence aplenty to defend a libel claim.
    In the Man Utd case, speculation has been rife for weeks that the club is/has been talking to van Gaal’s possible successor. No-one is likely to come out and confirm it, for all the obvious reasons, but a reporter would be seriously at fault if he failed to write about it.
    Besides, Man Utd fired David Moyes after only ten months for a performance not noticeably worse that van Gaal’s – and he didn’t spend 250,000 million quid on new players.
    Poor old van Gaal knows that, unless he pulls things round quickly, he’s likely to be looking down the barrel of the club’s Big Bertha.
    Everyone knows it, no-one more so than the soccer scribes who talk to ‘inside sources’ every day.

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  • February 2, 2016 at 10:47 am
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    crackington. you seem to have missed older hacks’s point. speculation and 30,000 fans shouting “sack him” won’t help you in court. Why shouldn’t VG be treated the same any anyone outside football?
    As for that well-trodden cliche “insiders” they certainly won’t take the witness box for you. They don’t even have the gumption to have their name used in the story so why should anyone believe them?
    I don’t like VGs style of football either, but hacks do owe him the courtesy of printing the facts. Most oblige, but others are hell bent on exclusives and won’t let the facts get in the way.

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