Old Firm media embarrassment and VAR control

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Over ten years ago, in a moment of unguarded and wholesome clarity, Tom English, now of the BBC, once declared that “Celtic don’t want consistency from referees, they want decisions, good or bad, in their favour.”

He was right of course. It applies to all teams. It applies to all fans in the latent natural bias that exists in being a supporter. I don’t watch a Rangers match as an impartial observer and any decisions for and against my club matter and in the fog of battle you will claim and cling onto almost anything. The commentators are there to provide insight, information and hopefully some balanced reason to the unfolding spectacle.

The recent Rangers vs Celtic match was a good contest and the result almost universally accepted along with the feeling that nothing too controversial occurred. The referee and his team would’ve breathed a sigh of relief after the match and all in all it was a good day's work. Perhaps the greatest compliment John Beaton will ever receive was when Andy Walker specifically mentioned his handling of the game in the 60th minute, praising him for letting the game flow and basically treating players openly and fairly in a well-fought, physical game. Further nods to the lack of officiating drama were provided in the post-match interviews when both managers had no complaints about the result or the referee. On social media most of the press pack praised Rangers performance, endorsed the result and rated Beaton's performance as good (which in Scottish refereeing terms is stratospheric). Newspapers, tabloids included, said similar, at least initially. One good example is that Graham Spiers tweeted Beaton was 'terrific'.

Then something changed. At some stage later that evening an edict was sent out to members of the Scottish press to change the narrative.

Like any game of football there's always scope for different perspectives and different interpretations. There will inherently be the Rangers, the Celtic or the neutral viewpoint; and with reason, time and the clearing of the battle fog those usually converge towards an accepted neutral position for most incidents. As with any match there’s dozens of incidents to pour over and a different view can be drawn or a different decision demanded from the referee on those. There were flicks, kicks and shoves from all parties during the game – many of which could’ve been argued to a yellow or red card. If you really want to you can eke out injustice in any match, you just choose the incidents you want and ignore the ones that don’t fit your agenda.

Tabloids will also pick up on individual incidents and sensationalise them - that’s to be expected. But even with that you would hope they would be balanced in their selections – for both commercial sense and the basic true representation of events. Quite why the BBC would get swept up in a seemingly agenda-laden, unbalanced witch-hunt is a bit more surprising and disappointing.

The BBC still trades on trust. It's part of its brand built up over decades. Trust to deliver the news. Trust to be accurate and impartial. Yet some of its main commentators in Scotland seem to have ditched their original reasoned thoughts on the match and picked up the new ones at exactly the same time as the shock-jocks and tabloids. The BBC receive footage of the match and then cut and edit it to suit. In this case they chose to focus on incidents involving Alfredo Morelos. He got his own headline montage for three alleged incidents, and this subject matter was pushed and discussed as the primary content of the match. This narrative later ascended into calls for the compliance officer to act; apparently only on the three incidents involving the Rangers player and no other incidents in the game. The public were told these were serious incidents and the compliance officer absolutely has to act, mustn't they? Actually no, they don’t. Cue the indignation to the failed witch-hunt, which was provided in spades by tabloids and BBC alike in a synchronised outpouring. Incredible, ten days after the match, BBC Scotland are still showing the above montage.

To be clear, the position pushed was the Celtic favouring viewpoint. A montage could’ve easily been provided balance with a reckless challenge by Brown, a stamp by Christie and a goal-denying hand-ball in the box by McGregor, that would have been a fairer summary. These could’ve and probably should’ve been forwarded to the compliance officer at the same time. I have no idea if they were as no one knows the protocol for the compliance officer reviewing incidents though given the force of the BBC's campaign they seem to be confident that they decide what the CO looks at. Beyond that and and just as easily a Rangers favouring agenda could’ve been pushed with a narrative of all three Celtic player incidents demanding red cards and action from the compliance officer. That would’ve been just as easy and just as justified.

So why was the Celtic viewpoint on this allowed to be propagated? Why was balance cast aside within the BBC to seek sanction against Rangers and Morelos alone and overlook the equally merit worthy acts from the Celtic players?

Quite simply, the media response has been ridiculous and toxic. Some of the outrageous comments from Chris Sutton and John Hartson are disgusting and surely beyond the threshold of decency from paid pundits? But they are at least partially understandable (SFA stitch-up to stop Celtic the only explanation for Morelos let off - Sutton) in that they were Celtic players. Unfortunately, Sutton now regularly refers to a Rangers striker as 'Buffalo Brains' which is petty, laughable and downright unprofessional from someone else who often played the game on the same edge Morelos does. Quite why BT Sports and the Record provide Sutton with a platform to regularly attack Rangers from a clearly unbalanced position is another story.

One can only surmise that a similar arrangement exists for the BBC's main protagonists? They are allowed whatever opinion they want, if it is actually their opinion, but part of that surely relies on a degree of consistency? The problem here is we have some functioning human adults doing a complete 180° in many of their stances in full public view - there must be something about blue shirts that throws their reasoning circuits into spasm? On Twitter you will find numerous example of this staggering hypocrisy (the @RangersObserver feed in particular is worth a look for good examples of this.

Now, this would all be fairly hilarious if it wasn’t so serious. The BBC has been party to driving a fairly extreme and partisan viewpoint on something. This then, possibly through design, fosters a sense of injustice within a section of society. Which in turn results in strong emotions which then spill over and before long we have death threats against the referee - (Old Firm ref John Beaton 'calls in cops' after threats following Morelos decision) despite a fairly decent performance which was also commended by many high level ex-referees. It is really pretty simple, if the ridiculous stance hadn’t been pushed by the BBC and the Scottish media then the animosity would not have been ramped up with John Beaton in the cross-hairs. It goes without saying that Celtic got their oar in too with a statement, short in self-awareness, with calls for public explanations and meetings at Hampden.

Of course, the ones who started the whole episode now either try and distance themselves from the consequences or flat out deny any culpability in it. However, at some stage surely the media in this country has to accept responsibility, this isn’t reporting the news or facts this was pushing bizarre and extreme nonsense. So why was that narrative chosen and who chose it? There would appear to be several reasons in it being chosen.

The Rangers win was monumental in many ways. It held way more meaning to the club and support than the three points at stake and it burned away much of the cloud hanging over the club since 2012. Celtic were also very poor. Their form is stagnating from previous years and their manager and board don’t appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Peter Lawwell, the recent recipient of a huge multi-million pound bonus, needed to deflect from all of that. And the Celtic board know that the Celtic support love nothing more than a big bucket of injustice to pickle their collective victim-hood in. In short, deflection from a relatively poor performance and boardroom issues. Peter Adam Smith at ITV summed it up perfectly in his tweet:

One of my long-standing gripes with the BBC has been the quality and flavour of their coverage for a number of years now and this Old Firm game was a perfect microcosm of this. During a dialogue with an Aberdeen fan he questioned Morelos not being cited by the compliance officer. I’d asked if he didn’t think the other incidents were worthy of attention? He hadn’t seen them. He hadn't watched the match and relied on the BBC's output to form his opinions. The other incidents mentioned in the discussion where Naismith’s (Hearts) kick at Brown (Celtic), McGregor kicking out at Ajer (Celtic) and Morelos’ successful appeal of his red card (at Aberdeen). These were the incidents the BBC staff had chose to make a big deal out of. In my opinion they deliberately ignored plenty of similar and valid incidents and selected certain others to fit an agenda. I’m also content enough in my observations to state that many of their match reports don’t accurately reflect the matches and in particular the key incidents from those. There is a definitive theme to much of their reporting and it doesn’t favour Rangers. The recent Old Firm fallout just further cements this for me. This isn’t what the BBC is meant to be. Obviously, I don't expect pro-Rangers coverage, just balanced journalism for all clubs.

The problem is that the BBC should be above this and we all fund it through the license fee. I know I don’t pay for their news to represent transparent third party agendas. It should be beyond reproach but it has been hijacked in recent years. This cannot simply be ignored because the BBC it is too big to be ignored. The BBC Reporting Scotland bulletins play throughout the day and will reach across the society far outside the relatively small hard-core that follow and discuss what’s going on in football. Those listeners will hear and believe that Beaton is corrupt, he helped Rangers, Morelos is a thug and should be banned, Rangers players get away with stuff and, equally important, there were no issues with the Celtic players. That is the message that BBC Scotland chose to put out. Reporting Scotland regularly reaches 500,000 listeners, 10% of the country. That is more than the Rangers Twitter account, worldwide. For some measure of scale the bigger Rangers fan accounts have around 20,000 followers. The excellent 'Heart and Hand' podcast may get 80,000 hits for its weekly flagship shows and has 3,500 subscribers who enjoy the daily updates but it still lags well behind mainstream media figures. Those numbers and reach is why the continued flagrant misuse of the BBC cannot be ignored.

We have seen things escalated still further from the threats on John Beaton. The referees union have even issued a statement calling for the SFA to do more.

Somewhat brazenly Tom English at the BBC has the gall to report on it. His article continuing the narrative that his volte-face, Celtic-centred view of the game was justified, that those were the only incidents in the game and the only points of note. The rest never happened. The truth now buried under seven days of continuous agenda-driven invective. And near the end of the article is his clarion call - the mention of VAR.

Take yourself back to 2010. The last time we were here, Celtic kicked in the front doors of the SFA and they helped themselves to a desk or two. They created the compliance officer position and they’ve pretty much kept it as their own pet project to this very day. Yes, this is the system they are currently raging against.

Is this the purpose of this mock-indignation and tears of injustice? To get a seat at the table of VAR and ensure Celtic gain the same access and control as they did to the compliance officer? VAR, like reporting and like the CO role, completely relies on a degree of impartiality, it relies on everything been treated on its own merits and it relies on consistency. It will also rely on the media assisting with the costs and tech infrastructure. Would VAR function correctly if the same guys who wrote the script for the Old Firm fallout get their hands on it? It's certainly a frightening prospect that Rangers need to act on much stronger than they currently do.

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