Ulster Branch accuse journalists of ‘unprofessional’ behaviour
Ulster Rugby maintaining the ban on news journalists attending press conferences
Ulster head coach addressing the press conference at Newforge Country Club, Belfast on April 2nd. Photograph: Philip Magowan/Presseye/Inpho
The Ulster Branch of the IRFU has accused journalists of “unprofessional” behaviour at the first rugby press conference after Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of rape.
Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes spoke to the media on April 2nd at Newforge Country Club, after which Ulster imposed a ban on news reporters from attending their events.
Three journalists present at the Easter Monday press conference, when contacted by The Irish Times this week, are adamant that their conduct was respectful and professional.
In advance of the April 2nd briefing , Ulster had issued an email on the conduct of the meeting: “Please note that this is our match week media call so only rugby matters will be discussed. No comments will be made in relation to the trial or subsequent review.”
One of the most high-profile trials in Northern Ireland legal history had concluded the week before on March 28th at Laganside Crown Court in Belfast, so Jackson and Olding were still considered Ulster players.
No members of the Ulster executive had been available for comment while senior communications manager Richard Finlay and operations director Bryn Cunningham did not attend Newforge.
“There were sports reporters and news reporters present and we each did our jobs,” said Jilly Beattie from the Daily Mirror.
“I made it clear to Jono I was a news reporter and put my questions to him. He was as generous as he could be and when I asked him if the rape trial could have any impact on the upcoming match, he said the questions were ‘legitimately fair and there’s nothing sinister about it’ but it was difficult to answer.”
When Claire McNeilly from the Belfast Telegraph asked if there was any truth to the rumour about a “split in the changing room”, Ulster’s marketing communications manager Damian Kelly interjected: “Sorry, I think we’ve established we can’t make any further comment on off-field issues.”
Gibbes confirmed that Ireland winger Craig Gilroy was available for selection. Gilroy was subsequently suspended by the IRFU, for a Whatsapp message he sent to Olding.
When Gibbes was asked if a code of conduct existed for players, Kelly, again interjected: “That’s of no relation to this week’s game, so we’ll have to move on.”
Afterwards there was a heated exchange between Kelly and a journalist.
News reporters were subsequently banned, yet sportswriters and broadcasters familiar to Ulster Rugby, along with camera men and photographers are permitted to attend Ulster media events.
On Wednesday, media manager Richard Finlay confirmed the ban remains on “an ongoing basis” and was asked to explain in what the “conduct of news journalists at a recent press conference” actually meant.
“We are not prepared [to explain the Ulster statement] at this stage,” he replied, “I can just say it was unprofessional, to say the least.”
It was put to Ulster that journalists from the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News, PA and the Daily Mirror all claim this accusation to be false.
“Okay, all I am saying is we will stick by the original statement, “ said Finlay.
When asked if any sports journalists requested that news reporters be excluded from Ulster press conferences, he replied, “No”.
“Ulster rugby stated that having had rugby writers raise concerns about the conduct of news journalists attending a previous press conference, Ulster rugby made the decision.”
In addition to the restrictions on news journalists to the Ulster press conferences, The Irish Times reporter Amanda Ferguson was denied accreditation to the Ospreys game at Kingspan stadium on April 13th. Ferguson was told in an email by Finlay: “I’m afraid we have to give priority to sports journalists hoping to attend and therefore we would not be able to accommodate you.”
It was put to Finlay that almost half the press seats were empty that night.
“We have issued a statement,” he responded.
Why was the accreditation rejected?
“It is based on the conduct of news journalists who have attended recent events. We are facilitating, at the minute, sports journalists for rugby and sporting events.”
This week Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, stated: “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.”
Amanda Ferguson, The Irish Times
“The ban is happening to men as well but it is worth noting this has been generated by women journalists. I am glad the NUJ is speaking out on this very serious matter because it is becoming all too frequent for organisations, politicians and governments to try to control the media and limit press access. It must be challenged every time it happens.”
Claire McNeilly, Belfast Telegraph
“No news reporter behaved unprofessionally at the press conference. They just got asked questions Ulster Rugby weren’t prepared to answer. Jono Gibbes even said the questions were fair enough. We were courteous. Twice I asked questions – one about the rumour split in the Ulster changing room – but I was shut down. “
Jilly Beattie, Daily Mirror
“The atmosphere at the press conference on Easter Monday was tense at times. It was the first press conference held by Ulster Rugby since the end of the rape trial in which their two players were unanimously acquitted. But there were legitimate questions still to be asked such as the levels of team morale, how the situation had impacted or not on the game, the team, training and how they planned to move forward.
“This story had been running its natural course and news and news consumers were moving on. But Ulster Rugby’s decision to ban certain reporters from news conferences delivered a ridiculous, senseless and needless own goal.”