Radio gag gag

Cod Almighty | Article

by Paul Thundercliffe

25 February 2005

When Grimsby Town banned Stuart Rowson from Blundell Park last season, there were many fans, myself included, who thought nothing of the board's stand. Censorship was never really an issue; I felt they were right to make the important point that they were not putting fans' lives in jeopardy at home games. 'Ambulancegate' vilified the club and the Telegraph issued an apology and double-page spread.

Not even 18 months later we have a similar impasse down Grimsby Road. The media organisation at question this time is none mightier than the BBC, in its local guise of Radio Humberside. Although not banned from the ground, Messrs Burns and Tondeur are forbidden to speak to players or management on air, thus stopping thousands of Town fans throwing their match programme at the radio when Russell Slade refuses to accept the blame for a(nother) defeat.

The reason for this latest act of restriction is less obvious than Rowson's blunder, and centres on comments made on air by David Burns, producer of Radio Humberside sport. Burns made reference to the £420,000 fans were being asked to raise (£7k so far) for the tax bill, questioning how easy this would be. John Fenty chairman was referred to on air as "the multi-millionaire chairman". He also wasn't happy at a fans' voxpop Humberside did from the Imp car park before the Lincoln game, which he thinks was rigged with leading questions: an allegation the radio station rejects.

The club has taken the view that Humberside has not supported the Keep The Mariners Afloat Campaign. The radio station counters that it was merely reflecting the views of its listeners - the fans who have a vested interest in the club.

The tax bill is a much-debated topic and the amount of money raised so far would back up the opinion that £420k is an ambitious two-year target. Apathy envelops Grimsby and Cleethorpes like a huge black and white cloud, and the local community, possibly faced with their own bills and letters threatening court action, have yet to be persuaded by Lawrie McMenemy and Dave Boylen to do their bit.

The club would counter that Humberside's "negative and destructive commentary" has an influence over the listeners who are perhaps swayed by what Burns and co say on air. Given that the station has more listeners than any other radio station in its catchment area (Radios 1, 2 and Five Live included), maybe this has some credence, but it is a little naive.

Messageboards have backed up the club's stance by denouncing the radio station as 'Radio Hull' or 'Hullberside', even stating that its coverage has been skewed for years. Let's look at the current state of play. Every Grimsby, Hull and Scunthorpe away game is given full live commentary. Seems pretty fair to me. That Scunny and Hull have been featured more positively recently might have something to do with their league positions.

The 'negative' comments from Radio Humberside might also have coincided with the absolute rubbish we have had to witness on the field over the past three or four years. Just 32 wins out of the last 123 games - and the absolute trouncings at Hartlepool and Oldham - are testament to the hard job the commentators have had over the past three seasons to present a 'positive' angle.

Which leads us to the question: what is Radio Humberside's job? To act as a mouthpiece for the club? Offer free PR and say everything is wonderful? This would surely run against the BBC's public service remit, although tickets for matches are frequently given away to callers. This is positive, surely?

I think it would be patronising for any media organisation to pander to a football club. Things on the field have been terrible for years and no amount of campaigning can stop that rot. When you have former strikers top of the scoring charts after another hat-trick while your own couldn't even pick up a banjo, it gets depressing. We want to hear things as they are and we want to hear what the players and management think as well.

This ban has only led to further alienation for fans at a time when they need them the most. Football is all about opinions, and Humberside is being penalised for expressing one. One that was echoed by many fans.

Freedom of speech is a crucial principle in any society, and the club seems to be acting in detriment to it. I have no doubts that the club has worked tremendously hard to reduce overheads, but this has been at the cost of a football team worth watching.

But maybe it's not what was said but the way it has been said? Opinions are all well and good, but if they are laced with sarcasm or presented as facts then they can cause offence. Burns' presenting style is often controversial, looking to incite debate and obtain the snappiest soundbite.

During the recent stalemate in negotiations, the radio station has played 'The Sound of Silence' and 'Happy Talk', hardly dampening down the flames of anger from the club. Maybe the club is more perturbed by what they considers disproportionate journalism? I can see the point, but when the statement about the ban sits next to "Listen to Burnsy and JT on Mariners World from 2pm tomorrow!" on the Official Site, the water is muddier still. The club is not happy about what is being said but still has plenty of Mariners World listeners subscribing to hear what they want to hear - players and management talking about their club.

David Burns was approached to contribute to this article but was advised not to offer any opinion that might further inflame the situation. All he would offer was this: "I'm extremely disappointed. When the club needs all the friends it can get, why would it alienate the local representatives of one of the world's biggest broadcasters? It only damages the club and short-changes the fans. I hope we can sort it out soon."

The club and the BBC are still locked in talks to try and overcome their difficulties, but don't expect to hear the dulcet tones of Stacy Coldicott at 5:20 on a Saturday just yet. Both Burns and Fenty seem to be proud, stubborn people, determined to hold onto what they see as right and true, despite the fans being the ones to suffer.