Ulster Rugby’s ban on news reporters attending pre-match press conferences following the sacking of two rape-acquitted stars has been criticised as an “unacceptable attempt to control media coverage”.
Tuesday’s event, traditionally open to all media, was again understood to be confined to rugby writers as the club moves to limit questions about the fallout from the players’ trial and subsequent dismissal.
In a statement ahead of the latest event, Ulster Rugby berated news journalists for having “negatively impacted” a press conference held after the acquittal of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.
Only sports reporters were allowed to attend a press conference at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast last week, when Ulster and Ireland hooker Rob Herring read a pre-prepared statement saying players were saddened by the duo’s exit.
That ban appeared to continue on Tuesday, when the weekend PRO14 match against Munster was previewed, with the Press Association having been told its news reporters would again be excluded.
It is understood other news reporters were also denied access.
The ban on news media came after an apparent concern that too many questions about Jackson and Olding’s high-profile trial were asked at the first press conference in the aftermath of their acquittal last month.
Local rugby writers were angered last week when Ulster Rugby issued a statement saying the decision to restrict the media event to sports journalists was made “following consultation with regular press conference attendees”.
The rugby reporters insisted they had not requested any ban on news counterparts attending.
It is understood they had voiced concern with club officials about how the previous press conference had unfolded, but they insist they only asked for a more structured format to ensure rugby matters were definitely covered.
Mr Dooley said the NUJ was “deeply concerned” by Ulster Rugby’s actions in continuing the ban, and argued that both news and sports reporters could be accommodated.
He said: “This is an unacceptable attempt to control media coverage and reflects 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.”
A spokesman for Ulster Rugby said: “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.”
He added that reporters “who would regularly cover our press conferences and matches” were welcome to attend, and suggested that an interview by some news organisations of Ulster Rugby’s chief executive Shane Logan which took place in the aftermath of the trial, should now “allow the coaches and players to focus on on-pitch matters.”
While Jackson, 26, and Olding, 25, were found not guilty of rape last month, other aspects of their behaviour had been heavily criticised, with major sponsors of Ulster Rugby having voiced concern.
The IRFU and Ulster Rugby review had focused on a series of sexually explicit WhatsApp conversations involving the players and their friends about the sexual encounter at the centre of the rape trial.
The messages, which referred to women in derogatory terms, were presented as evidence during the marathon nine-week trial at Belfast Crown Court.
Jackson and Olding had been accused of raping the same woman at a party at Jackson’s home in June 2016.
Last month, a jury of eight men and three women found the players unanimously not guilty of rape after deliberating for three hours and 45 minutes.
All jurors also acquitted Jackson of sexual assault.
Two other men, Blane McIlroy, 26, and Rory Harrison, 25, were also unanimously acquitted of lesser charges connected to the case.