Michael Kelly: Sorry no longer seems to be hardest word for BBC
THIRTEEN minutes. That, according to my Ibrox informants, was how long into the new season it was before Ally McCoist's ability as a manager was questioned by fans. Having to operate with that kind of pressure in the background, it is not surprising that the new Rangers boss should have reacted so vehemently to a perceived distortion of his views on violence at football matches.
Seeing questions on football disorder as a trap, he tried very deliberately to avoid significant comment, only to find himself stitched up in the editing suite. What is surprising is that the BBC should have so quickly admitted that the attempt to spice up a dull exchange was an error and issued such a fulsome and, for them, humiliating apology.
Normally, news organisations are loath to admit mistakes. Retractions are usually only grudgingly given after the complainant has doggedly pursued the issue through the appropriate regulatory body.
All the talk in recent weeks has been over the power of the press and the lack of effective control. Football, it seems, is the exception. Certainly, BBC Scotland is right to fear the power of the fan. The Sun's circulation in Liverpool has never recovered from the way that paper treated the Hillsborough tragedy. The Daily Record found itself hit by a boycott by Celtic fans for its front-page story under the headline "Thugs and Thieves" after reporters travelled to Newcastle to cover the players' Christmas party. That was in 2002. Celtic fans still quote this as proof of media bias. More significantly, despite stories of stars behaving badly always making good tabloid copy, since then there has been no newspaper coverage of any similar nights out.
The BBC has, until now, been more resistant to pressure from clubs. Alex Ferguson was so enraged by a negative profile aired on Newsnight that for years he has refused to give the BBC post-match interviews. Despite the embarrassment of having to hear bland comments from a junior member of the coaching staff rather than the great man's pearls, the corporation has stood firm.
In a wider context, the BBC has traditionally been very slow to react to complaints. Most notoriously, Greg Dyke didn't even bother to listen to the tape of the interview with reporter Andrew Gilligan before rushing to that reporter's defence. Only after the Hutton Inquiry found that the BBC had no justification for claiming that the Iraq dossier was souped up did the Labour government receive an apology. And it took a public outcry and a sustained press campaign before Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand were condemned for their treatment of Andrew Sachs.
It might seem, then, that this speedy apology to McCoist signals a new era of rapid response and instant contrition. Other facts contradict that view. Only football anoraks will be aware of this but, since last season's Scottish Cup Final, Celtic fans have been pursuing the BBC over a half-time discussion during the TV coverage which referred to sectarian singing by Celtic fans. Despite being on the back foot over this, in that they refuse to name the songs sung, the BBC has so far declined to withdraw the allegations or to apologise. Expect the pressure on them to do just that to increase.
The BBC in Scotland is in a relatively weak position vis--vis Rangers. Would McCoist have dared issue the same threat to Sky? He wouldn't and he couldn't, given the lucrative contracts in place.
Clearly, despite the fact that it must pay something for its radio coverage and TV highlights, BBC Scotland has decided that in the smaller pool north of the Border the prospect of a season ban on its commentators from Ibrox while it fought a contractual battle was too big a price to pay and beat a hasty retreat.
If all of these petty disputes were to do solely with football they would matter little. It is not, after all, a matter of life or death. But this season the focus is going to be as much off the pitch as on it. Already Strathclyde Police has rather insultingly warned - some would say threatened - managers, players and fans that their actions on the field and inside stadiums will lead to prosecutions. We'll have to wait and see how the courts deal with a late tackle. The First Minister, determined to bring even more specific laws to bear on the issue, is still in the throes of deciding watertight wording for his new statutes.
He should take a warning from the convoluted explanation the BBC had to devise in trying to extricate itself from Celtic fans' criticism of its Cup Final coverage. In answer to a fan's complaint, it wrote: "There is a continuing debate around the definition of 'sectarian' and we accept that it would have been more accurate for our presenter to refer to songs that some people believe to be an expression of sectarianism but which many people nonetheless find both offensive and provocative."
It comes very easily to many sensitive Old Firm supporters to find singing offensive. If the new law comprises similar wording then the Supreme Court - or will it be Strasbourg? - will be sitting on appeals for years.
As a result of the overreaction to a few minor incidents at Old Firm matches last season, football has unwillingly found itself dragged on to a much wider stage. It is going to remain in that limelight for a long time. And while it is there, it is important that media outlets are free to interrogate clubs, comment and criticise. They cannot be browbeaten by clubs into muting criticism simply to satisfy the demands of partial fans.
On the other hand, there is a time and a place. It is reasonable to question managers about their own behaviour and that of their players.It is not appropriate to use access to pre-match or post-match press conferences to interrogate coaches about wider issues on which they are not expert and for which they are not directly responsible. Expect clubs to devise such guidelines following the McCoist incident.