A few weeks ago it came to light that the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle’s main local evening paper, had entered into a joint scheme with payday lenders Wonga to provide a £30,000 fund for local sports clubs to apply to for funding. Wonga are Newcastle United’s main sponsors and there’s been some discussion about the rights and wrongs of whether a company with their business model should be sponsoring the club. Even so, the Chronicle seemed to see no conflict of interest in entering such an arrangement with an organisation which was at the centre of controversy about sponsoring an institution so central to the city. That’s a controversy, not to put too fine a point on it, which the Chronicle should be informing and reporting upon to the citizens of Newcastle in a fair, balanced way. That involves examining the issues and providing their readers with the information necessary to understand what’s going on.
The suspicion quickly arose that the Chronicle’s editorial independence may have been compromised, and so it proved. The language used to describe Wonga in the Chronicle’s pages had subtly changed. No more ‘payday lender’, replaced by ‘digital finance company’ in all cases from a few days after the deal, certainly a less harsh description.
Further examination of recent stories provides evidence of the presence of a positive editorial line when printing stories about Wonga. View these two stories covering the same event, a meeting between Wonga PR chiefs, Newcastle United employees and fan representatives on Aug 19th. One is from the Chronicle, one from the Journal.
The Chronicle’s, despite having a picture showing a Citizens Advice Bureau representative and Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah, doesn’t mention them or their contribution to the debate in any way. In 3 main sections, we are told firstly that fans are grateful to Wonga for turning up and secondly that the club are very happy to have Wonga as a sponsor. Finally, there are a series of quotes from the Wonga representatives explaining away their controversial image and concerns about their role as sponsor without ever mentioning what that controversy is about, or what the concerns are.
The Journal story is quite a contrast. From the off it has a completely different tone, while also covering the positive angle on the deal which is the only focus of the Chronicle story. We learn about a strongly-worded attack on the company by Chi Onwurah. There are quotes from Newcastle CAB’s Chief Executive expressing worry about the company’s presence in the city. There’s mention of a question from the floor about fan hostility. The reasons for misgivings about the sponsorship deal are explained clearly and at length, and a long list of prominent organisations who share those misgivings is provided, from the Church of England, MPs, Unite the union, Newcastle City Council, and the Citizens Advice Bureau.
The two stories provide a completely different spin on the same event. What is shocking is that the two papers they appear in are sisters, both owned by Trinity Mirror, the Journal being the morning counterpart to the Chronicle in the evening. Not only are the two papers in the same stable, the two stories were written by the same person, reporter Kate Proctor. The only explanation for the differing slant in the two stories is editorial instruction. Why would the Journal be immune from this? Who knows. It appears to be the case however.
In a piece printed in the Chronicle tonight as a reaction to the recent transfer window, the question is asked of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley “how much do you pay the North East Press pack to write nice things about you?” The answer, in Wonga’s case, appears to be £30,000, the amount they provided for the Chronicle’s Wish Sport fund.