Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Do the Birmingham Mail view Bill and others as brands?

Rick Waghorn, founder of the exciting project, on visiting Cardiff last week made a point of telling us “journalists are brands”.

It is perhaps a forthright view but one I agree with.

During his 13-year tenure as Norwich City correspondent for the Norwich Evening News, he told us that for many Canaries-daft readers, he was their football writer. In fact, for many of these, he was the only writer whose work they read full stop.

He went onto ask those of us who are fans of sports teams who “our football writers” are. In responding to a Birmingham-based student, he referred to the Birmingham Mail’s Birmingham City reporter Colin Tattum.

It was interesting to hear “Tatts” get a namecheck, as it is actually a chain of events surrounding a Birmingham Mail colleague of his that led me sharing this view of journalists being brands.

For the Claret and Blue half of the UK’s second city, Bill Howell is “their football writer”.

Having worked for Trinity Mirror’s West Midlands newspapers for ten years, Bill has been covering Aston Villa for the Mail since the 2000/01 football season.

Fast forward five and a half years, and to the culmination of the 2005/06 campaign.

Villa lie 16th in the Premier League table, and perilously close to the relegation zone.

Their boss David O’Leary is under great pressure to keep Villa up and retain his job in the process.

After a number of understandably negative critiques, in late March 2006 the Irishman banned Howell from reporting on the club.

O’Leary claimed that Howell had a “vendetta against me” and that he was “trying to undermine me and the football club”.

Birmingham Mail football correspondent Bill Howell and former Aston Villa manager David O'Leary side-by-side. But when the two clashed, you might be surprised to discover which of them came out on top.

So, going into the final two months of a crucial campaign, the Birmingham Mail are lacking a Villa correspondent able to attend club press conferences or games at Villa Park. What do they do?

You might say it would be easy to dump Howell and bring in someone else to cover the Villa in these final few months.

But what actually occurred was the very opposite.

The Mail stuck by their man, with editor Steve Dyson stoutly defending Howell in editorials.

Howell himself soon became a Midlands media magnet, being invited onto a number of broadcast platforms including ITV Central’s ‘Soccer Night’ to state his case and defend his position.

Many fellow journalists from different organisations (such as BBC Radio WM football commentator Mike Taylor) leapt to his defence too.

Even the fans, already dissatisfied with O’Leary’s management, sided with “their football writer” over “their football manager”.

To this day some still refer to Bill as being the man who “saw through O’Leary for the charlatan that he is.”

After the initial media storm, Bill’s ban was revoked and you could even say that in some small part the affair was one of many contributing factors in bringing down the curtain on O’Leary’s Villa reign in July of that year.

Whether the Birmingham Mail would have been as supportive of one of their writers had he or she clashed with a manager popular with the fans and generally deemed to be successful, as opposed to one as unpopular as O’Leary, remains to be seem.

But I think what this cautionary tale shows is that, even in these times where journalists are sometimes seen as being expendable, a reporter like Bill Howell was seen as being much more than just a faceless nobody who could be replaced without anyone batting an eyelid.

Plenty of people were willing to speak up for “their football writer” when they felt he had been wronged.


Bill Howell said...


An old friend of mine, now a newspaper editor, stumbled across your post and forwarded it to me. It makes for fascinating reading.
The early summer of 2006 sure was an interesting time, both for me personally and for the football club.
I remember being on a coach going to a wedding when the whole thing kicked off.
David O'Leary had blamed me, as you say, for all Villa's ills on a Friday before an away game at Arsenal.
Sky rang me wanting to do an interview, and did so at the register office which just happened to be driveable from the Villa training ground.
On the Saturday the Villa manager repeated his outburst after a 5-0 thrashing at Arsenal.
Anyway, good look with the course and thanks for taking an interest.

Bill Howell

colin.tattum said...

Interesting piece; It's nice to see I have at least one reader on the course!
I can confirm that Bill went through a very difficult period but the support of the editor, and his own determination, saw him through. And, suffice to say, he was entirely correct in his reporting and stance.
Recently, in a company briefing, we were actually told by an invited expert on the internet and new media that reporters as 'brands' - especially football reporters like myself, Bill and Rick - were actually more important than the newspaper itself because of the identification factor and readership following. Blogging is an important part of strenthening that bond.
Colin Tattum

Chris Dickens said...

Bill, Colin, thanks for your kind words.

Really interesting to read your recollection of how things played out. It caused a big stir at the time!

All the best,