The AFL's Mitch Cleary disaster just the tip of a worrying iceberg

Football fans, the main consumers of football media, rightly tend to get pretty testy when the people charged with reporting on the game spend too much time talking about each other.

It's navel-gazing which at best appeals to a limited audience and at worst is incredibly self-indulgent - the various spats between this journalist/media organisation occupying time, energy and space which could be devoted to talking about teams, coaches and players.

Occasionally though, there are issues involving the football media which transcend that self-absorption because they go to the heart of a larger issue. Like whether the football public is being told everything it should be.

And the temporary standing down this week of AFL Media senior reporter Mitch Cleary was certainly one of those.

To recap, Cleary was removed from his various reporting and hosting duties because he had tweeted a screenshot of an Instagram post by Brooke Cotchin, wife of Richmond skipper Trent. It was a post from a Queensland beauty salon where Brooke breached COVID-19 protocols for AFL players and families, and it led to the Tigers being fined.

The AFL had decided not to name anyone involved in the breaches in its news releases on any of the fines it announced. Cotchin's name, though, had already been publicly revealed in several other media outlets.

But given the significance of the penalty and the prominence of the guilty party (as with Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley) the names involved were very much valid news. Unaware of the agreement, Cleary did what any respectable newshound would do. On his own Twitter account, he reported it.

The subsequent overreaction by the AFL predictably brought howls of outrage from Cleary's media colleagues and saw him swiftly reinstated. Though not without irreparable damage to any standing AFL Media had as independent arm of the media.

Unfortunate, because over the journey AFL Media had generally done a pretty decent job in maintaining a journalistic distance from its master.

While there had been the odd occasion in which journalistic integrity had been questioned, AFL Media's reporting and analysis had been every bit as uncompromised as that of other major media organisations - even in such weighty matters as the Essendon drugs saga.

But it is particularly unfortunate now, because the exposure of the preparedness to undermine basic journalistic tenets to protect AFL policy comes as those principles are simultaneously also being undermined by slavish devotion to corporate interests.

It hasn't been lost on many football fans how dramatically the AFL website has changed in recent times, in appearance, in content and, sadly, in its usefulness as a resource. But that is merely a reflection of changed priorities.

First, the AFL sold off its long-standing matchday program, the "AFL Record" to media company Crocmedia. It then made significant changes to the make up of it's leadership team and it's strategic direction.

For the last year-and-a-half, the main focus of AFL Media has moved away from simply reporting, analysing and backgrounding football news, and towards, in broad brush terms, "lifestyle" - the objectives both to appeal to new and developing audiences, and to more effectively monetise content.

The mantra of the new direction is, to "transform and re-structure the media division at the AFL to grow the game for all Australians in a commercially viable and sustainable way".

Sounds noble. But it raises a philosophical debate becoming a recurring refrain across the entire media industry, even well before the COVID health crisis hit. And that is, how far do you take such strategies before they impact tellingly on the core of what was the business and risk alienating your core constituency?

Well, put me firmly in the that camp. And I'm pretty confident that I'm far from alone. Because if you're a "footyhead", the AFL website these days is a massive frustration and disappointment that goes beyond sometimes not even having any reporters present at games.

Once a go-to site for essential game and competition statistics, the offerings in that regard have been dramatically slashed, and are far less user-friendly, the focus now very much on the league's own "AFL fantasy" competition.

Pure football news is much harder to find on the website, if not the AFL app - the focus of seemingly all the developmental attention now.

The website homepage is a hotch-potch of blurbs, promotions and sponsored content like the "Last Time I Cried" interview series, which does a decent job in having football stars open up about emotional matters and mental health issues, while simultaneously undermining that work with a sensationalist title which implies men showing emotion is something out of the ordinary.

Even a very basic function of any self-respecting sporting competition website, a "Match Centre" strip across the top of the page which allows immediate, obvious access to a specific game's details, has been tampered with, now a curious pop-up at the bottom right corner of the screen.

If you're into football history, the AFL's access to which is unlimited, you might as well consider yourself a dinosaur, as little or no use is made of archival footage; the priorities on audience development clearly not extending to instilling in them a knowledge and love for the game's past.

And, of course, there is now barely a section, department or category not sponsored to within an inch of its life.

Perhaps my Twitter feed isn't representative, but most weekends this season it has overflowed with complaints about what the AFL is doing to its own media division.

And are the numbers of the disenchanted being outweighed by potential converts to the game via a flood of "lifestyle" offerings of which they were already being offered plenty through club websites and 1000 different Instagram feeds? Frankly, I have my doubts.

What I do know is that a responsible sporting organisation with the right priorities needs to treat its audience with some respect, not like a guinea pig in a sociological experiment, and not as collateral damage when it comes to making a buck out of sponsors.

And for all those reasons, the Mitch Cleary debacle this week is an AFL disaster. Because if the public now knows for sure it's not being told what it should be, after already feeling like it isn't being given what it wants, it has less reason than ever to have slightest trust or faith in the people running the show.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at