News journalists were precluded from attending Ulster Rugby's weekly press conference at the Kingspan Stadium on Tuesday afternoon at which a coach and players previewed the weekend's Guinness Pro14 match between Munster and Ulster at Thomond Park, a stance communicated via an official press release.
The statement issued to a number of newspaper and broadcast media outlets who were seeking access for news reporters to the press conference read: "Ulster Rugby is contractually obliged by tournament organisers to deliver a match-week press conference that provides sports journalists with an opportunity to interview a coach and players regarding that week's fixture.
“As previously stated, the conduct of news journalists at a recent press conference negatively impacted our ability to deliver a meaningful event that focused on rugby content. All media outlets are welcome to send staff who would regularly cover our press conferences and matches, as they have done in the past.
“News journalists interviewed Ulster Rugby’s chief executive following the outcome of the post-trial review, in order to allow the coaches and players to focus on on-pitch matters.”
Ulster were unhappy with the tone and line of questioning taken by a number of news reporters relating to the court case involving Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding at a press conference on the Easter Monday.
There were a number of rugby reporters present. A small contingent actively expressed their concern to Ulster rugby officials in the aftermath that a rugby press conference was essentially hijacked and that their ability to do their work was compromised.
As The Irish Times reported last week, following the intense media interest in the wake of the trial involving Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, Ulster Rugby sent a statement to the Press Association (PA) claiming a decision to ban entry to some members of the press was taken because questions regarding Jackson and Olding negatively impacted the work of regular journalists.
That Ulster Rugby statement read: “The attendance of non-sport journalists at recent match week media events has caused significant disruption to regular attendees, who have been negatively impacted to the extent that they have been unable to access sufficient information and content for the days leading up to that week’s game,” said the Ulster Rugby statement.
“Therefore, following consultation with regular press conference attendees, it was decided that access to this week’s event would be restricted to sport journalists only.”
This assertion was disputed by a number of the rugby journalists – there were 11 – who claimed that they were not personally consulted or that it reflected the majority opinion. The Irish Times understands that what the rugby journalists sought was not the exclusion of news reporters but that Ulster Rugby would have someone present at a press conference who could deal with matters pertaining to the trial issues and that then, the coaches and players present would be able to address rugby matters.
The rugby journalists, through a series of conference calls and group emails, wanted Ulster Rugby to correct the misrepresentation relating to the position of the rugby writers, confirming that the group had not sought the exclusion of any of their news colleagues. That was done last Friday afternoon after The Irish Times broke the story. Ulster Rugby explained in a subsequent statement that there had been "no official consultation" with the cadre of rugby writers.
However at last Tuesday's press conference, one that news reporters weren't allowed to attend, Rob Herring read out a short statement from the Ulster squad expressing their "sadness" at the departure of their former team-mates.
This came a day after Ulster Rugby chief executive Shane Logan made himself available to the BBC, UTV and PA and some sports journalists at a couple of newspapers, who were given short notification that he would be available over the phone.
Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said: "The NUJ is deeply concerned at the actions of Ulster Rugby. We recognise that there are times when media briefings are of greater interest to sports reporters. It would be possible to give priority to sports journalists while facilitating requests from media organisations to accredit news reporters.
“Last week’s statement on the departure of two players was both a news and sports story yet only selected sports journalists were allowed to attend the event. This is an unacceptable attempt to control media coverage and seems to me, as Irish Secretary of the NUJ, to reflect a wider failure to understand the level of public interest in the story.
“No sporting organisation has a right to shape the news or to seek to divide journalists. Sports journalists fully understand why this issue is not just a sports story. As for complaints by Ulster Rugby about the behaviour of journalists at a press conference the officers might well reflect on the irony of their position: it was not badly behaved journalists who were responsible for the difficulties Ulster Rugby has found itself in.”