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The Herald, a daily newspaper in Glasgow, lost two columnists over a controversy involving the Rangers Football Club (soccer) team.

The controversy started when Graham Spiers wrote a Dec. 28 column critical of the team. The column was headlined, “Rangers must uphold progress by resisting return of the old songs.” Spiers said that one of the directors of the team liked the song Billy Boys, which is a “sectarian celebration of violence towards Catholics,” Herald editor Magnus Llewellin explained to iMediaEthics.

That claim about the Rangers director being in favor of the song was potentially defamatory, Llewelllin said.

After the column appeared, the Rangers complained to the newspaper, and the column was unpublished. In response, Spiers blogged that the Rangers put “pressure” on The Herald, forcing the newspaper to apologize to the team.

Next, another Herald columnist, Angela Haggerty, tweeted  “Solidarity with Graham Spiers, again being targeted by the mob for telling some harsh truths.”

Finally, both Spiers and Haggerty lost their gigs with the newspaper.

The Backstory

Spiers’s December column claimed someone in the front office of the Rangers was a fan of a song called “The Billy Boys,” a sectarian loyalist song in Scotland.

The Rangers then complained. “The initial complaint came from a member of the Rangers board and legal action was very much on the cards,” Herald editor Llewellin told iMediaEthics. “One of the guys who looks after Rangers PR also got involved later.” 

Meanwhile, the Rangers told Hold the Front Page it didn’t start any “legal complaint or legal action against The Herald” but the team did ask the newspaper for evidence of its claims.

The Herald‘s editor Llewellin told iMediaEthics that, because of “an unfortunate staff error,” Spiers’s column didn’t get vetted by the newspaper’s lawyers before publication.  The Herald had to apologize because there was a risk the newspaper would lose in court, Llewellin explained.

“We were in a bind. If we’d tried to defend the piece (which I spent almost a fortnight negotiating) our advice was we would have faced major costs, even if we’d won. Such a cost would most likely have been borne by the editorial budget . . . and, in my view, could therefore have cost staff jobs.”

So, The Herald published an apology that stated, in part:

“Graham Spiers said an un-named Rangers director had praised the song The Billy Boys. He also questioned the willingness of Rangers directors to tackle offensive behaviour, and The Herald and Graham Spiers accept this was inaccurate. We acknowledge every member of the Rangers board is fully committed to fighting bigotry and offensive chanting, wherever it occurs in Scottish football, and that the club is actively tackling the issue. We apologise for any embarrassment that may have been caused to the members of the Rangers board.”

But then Spiers blogged in defense of his column, explaining his claim about the song was based on a director telling him outright at an August meeting that the director thought the song in question was a “great song.” He also noted that he had not called a Rangers director a bigot. He said the Rangers’ complaints led to “severe” pressure on the newspaper and added:

The Herald told me repeatedly that they now had to find a way to a public resolution with Rangers. Having searched many avenues to reach an agreement with the club, the newspaper ultimately denied my request to withhold any clarification/apology until my own position was clearer.

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The Herald has never told me that they disbelieved my version of events.  I also retain the highest regard for Magnus Llewellin, the paper’s editor who has tried to resolve this problem. My opinion – as expressed in my column – was based on a truthful account of my meeting with a Rangers director.”

Then, columnist Angela Haggerty tweeted in defense of Spiers. Llewellin told iMediaEthics both of their actions undermined any attempt to avoid a lawsuit from the Rangers and keep the peace with the apology. Llewellin said Spiers “knew he could no longer write for us if he disowned the apology.”

Spiers tweeted that he “happily dynamited” his job with his statement.

The Herald said they had to drop Haggerty, who Llewellin called “a brave and talented journalist,” because the newspaper “had to act within the spirit of the apology,” he told iMediaEthics.

“By referring to ‘glaring bigotry at Ibrox’ (the Rangers stadium) only hours after we’d published a very carefully worded apology to avoid legal action, she (unwittingly) undermined it,” he said.

 

iMediaEthics has written to Haggerty and tweeted Spiers to ask for further comment.

 

 

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