By Tony Attwood
What is the purpose of newspaper football journalism? It is not a question one hears asked very often, and indeed is not a question that football journalists ever pose at all.
But this is Untold, and the clue to what we are is in our name, so let’s try and answer the question. Why do we have newspaper football journalism.
1. Is football journalism there to report on recent events?
This was the original idea of the newspaper, and is bound up with the very origin of the word “news” – it comes from the mid 15th century word “
And there certainly are a lot of new things in the world to report, but the trouble for the newspaper is that radio, TV and the internet get there first.
And this is where our problem begins because the football journalist working in newspapers has lost his raison d’être. As a reporter of the new things he’s outmoded and outdated, out of touch, out of time.
2. Is it then to be reflective, to interpret and make sense of an ever increasingly complex world?
Now that would be good, and indeed some newspaper articles do this well, as do certain magazines like the Economist, New Scientist, New Statesmen and the like.
And the important thing about these publications is that one can gain insight even if one doesn’t agree with some of the underlying positions taken, because the articles are long enough to allow the author to spread out his argument, and be reasonably honest about his journey within the article.
What’s more, in such magazines, which come out weekly, the writers know that events will have moved on by the time people read what they say, so, there is no question of one focussing utterly on the past half day.
And that is where the newspaper football journalist falls down on this score – he is so bound up with today’s events there is no chance for a broader perspective. The whole “Five things we learned this weekend” is a desperate way to stay up to date, without doing any work. And it never succeeds.
3. Is it to investigate and to question critically?
Well, certainly in some of the more serious newspapers this is certainly the case when it comes to some areas of public life. Generally not in relation to politics, where the papers stick to the news that supports their own vision of where the country should go, but it can be true elsewhere.
Sometimes in economic matters the press can pick up on issues of importance, and give us a detailed analysis of what’s what, as they can on secret government surveillance (although most papers in Britain let us down seriously badly, as they did during the Edward Snowden affair), and they are generally hopeless over the corruption of the police by politicians in child sex cases, such as that of Lord Greville Janner of Braunstone, a man whose case the government clearly don’t want us to know about. They were also fairly feeble in looking at how whole local councils can fail their populace when child sex exploitation becomes the normal way of life in certain parts of the country.
So if the press fails to expose and pursue on issues as importance as child sex abuse can we expect anything when it comes to football? Football is never as important as the rights of children to a decent life, but there is still much to investigate. But failure elsewhere means it is unlikely to be found.
4. Is the point of football journalism to run press statements?
My answer is absolutely not, but this is what the British press on its football pages is doing, as with the Independent printing an outrageous load of excuses and lies about Barcelona just recently in an article that treated whatever the club said as the truth.
Or what the Telegraph did in running PGMO statements about referees as if there were not a single element of controversy in anything they ever said or did.
Re-printing press releases is the lowest form of journalism, and that is where we seem to be.
5. Is it to annoy?
The Duchess in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, had the view that little boys only sneezed in order annoy, and thus gave the famous advice,
“Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.”
The poem gave us an insight into the chaotic insanity of the world of the Duchess, and indeed gives us a view of a similar situation in the sports departments of our newspapers – and indeed our radio and TV stations too.
Here there is no chance of looking back and contemplating, taking a long view and seeing the overall impact of this and the effect of that.
No, the cause of each action is known, there is no need to consider any background or theoretical interpretation, everything is clear and simple so we can hit the child because we know for sure why he has sneezed.
Football, they are saying, is simple, so we don’t need any serious insights or theoretical analysis. Besides football supporters are stupid, so that’s all they deserve.
6. Is is to undermine certain players?
If point five above seemed a bit dark, then this consideration really should make you worry. Think on this headline for example
What now for Theo Walcott? Nine years at Arsenal and still not a certain starter.
It is gibberish of course – for a long time Theo was a certain starter, but his recovery from injury has been slow and has coincided with a rare run of few injuries in the team. But this headline is very large type ignores reality and screams out worry.
And yet it is only when one asks, what is the purpose, that we get to understand anything about what is going on here. Worry becomes an easy solution, you don’t need to do any analysis or have any thought if all you are going to do is worry your reader.
7. Is it all then to cause worry and doubt?
This point now comes out of point six, and is certainly bolstered by the headline
Why Arsenal, Manchester United and City will suffer under new rules
That story was run about the change in the way clubs get drawn in the Champions League – but it was run about six months after the initial decision was made by Uefa. The implication of the headline is that things have changed – but nothing had changed from the decision last year to reward champions of leagues more, and longevity in the Champions League less. It is just there to cause worry and doubt.
8. And is it also to tell us we’ve got it all wrong?
Doubting headlines certainly are commonplace, and of late we have seen the growth of the headline that not only focuses on doubt but also suggests that our perception of reality is askew, as with “Have Arsenal really improved this season?” by Charlie Eccleshare on 23 April this year.
The piece opens with the arrogance that many of these more recent doubt and re-think pieces have delivered. “We decided to compare Arsenal’s key statistics from last season and this season to see if the club really have made significant progress.”
Nothing “We’ve decided” – you, poor reader, can’t sort these things out. And why should you – you are just a football supporter, of no importance, significance or indeed intelligence. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about this, let the big boys get on with the job.
So they come up with a conclusion, before presenting any data, and it is that “the results suggest Arsene Wenger’s team haven’t really moved up a level.” Here is how it goes…
Firstly, in terms of points gained per match, this season’s Arsenal are actually doing worse than last season’s counterparts, and their win percentage has also decreased.
|Arsenal 2013/14||Arsenal 2014/15|
|Points per Game||2.08||2.06|
|Arsenal 2013/14||Arsenal 2014/15|
But then the figures shown that Arsenal are doing more – they are scoring more goals which is what most of us like to see.
|Arsenal 2013/14||Arsenal 2014/15|
|Goals per game||1.79||1.97|
And then it all gets muddled.
Overall, Arsenal are conceding fewer goals per game in 2014/15 (1.00 compared to 1.08 last year) – though this can be largely explained by three major aberrations last season: the six-goal defeats away at Chelsea and Manchester City, and the 5-1 loss at Liverpool.
|Arsenal 2013/14||Arsenal 2014/15|
|% Clean sheets||44.7%||34.4%|
|Goals conceded per game||1.08||1.00|
And from all this they conclude:
It’s very much been evolution as opposed to revolution at the Emirates this season, with improvements either marginal or non-existent.
While recognising that this is a load of old turnips…
It is of course always of limited use to compare a team with one from another season, as all that really matters is the comparison with the teams in the league currently.
But still Arsenal are doing poorly.
Nevertheless, a look at the stats is a reminder that Arsenal haven’t made the great strides that many have been suggesting this season.
And finally a bit of patronising
And the Gunners shouldn’t scoff too much at last season’s fourth position – they’ll likely be in that position by the next time they play, albeit with games in hand.
(Actually Arsenal weren’t – they were second, but maybe the fortune telling glass at the Telegraph who ran this story was misted up).
Now I have given over a lot more space to this possible use of the football columns in the papers than the previous seven points because it is more invidious.
It looks like analytic journalism – not really investigative, although that opening bit about “we’ve decided” tries to make out something important is happening, but the analyses is nonsensical.
Each season is different because of injuries, the vagaries of referees, the success of clubs in attracting new players, the comparative strength of each side, and of course chance.
This sort of analysis would tell us that the Man U team that won the league in 2011 was actually worse than the Man U teams of 2010, and 2012. In 2011 they won the league but with a considerably poorer number of points than in the years either side of that when they didn’t win the league.
But to make this important is statistical nonsense because it doesn’t take into account the way different teams were playing and their comparative strengths.
Of course we can draw conclusions from data – like the fact that Liverpool with Suarez were a much better team than without him: they came 7th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 2nd… and that second was with him. That is a good starting point to analysing Liverpool, but even then it is still only a starting point. It is when you realise that in the seasons of 7th, 6th etc that Liverpool were closer to relegation than winning the league, that the new insight starts.
But this fine management of data needs more intelligence involved than this article shows.
9. But maybe newspaper journalists are just there to have fun?
Occasionally the press is funny, as with Chelsea are more popular in the Outer Hebrides than at home. That is funny because reading it we all know that the population of the Outer Hebrides is far smaller than the capacity of Stamford Bridge, and so there’s a reversal of reality, which arises from the way the stats are considered. But sadly this type of fun is rare.
And here’s a worrying thought – think of the rumours that bedeck most newspapers most of the time. We all know 99.9% of them will never happen, and that most of them are simply invented without even the first element of truth in them.
So why are newspapers deliberately misleading us in this way?
The answer the journalists who come up with the gibberish is that it is because people like it. Karl Marx’ phrase, “the opium of the people” comes to mind.
But according to Marx, religion is there to perpetuate the hierarchy of society, to keep the Lords on the top table, and us plebs scrabbling for scraps. So are newspapers doing what they do vis a vis football, to continue their own existence, rather like the hierarchies in Marx view of religion.
Maybe, but if that is so the methodology is set up to mislead and depress. The jokes are few and far between and most fans don’t see the failure to get a player who is “set to” come to their club as a joke.
10. So what are newspaper football journalists there for?
If we judge by what they do, not much apart from misleading and depressing. We don’t need them to report on recent events, they are not the slightest bit interested in investigative journalism, their skills at interpreting a complex situation seem south of zero and they are no good at telling us who our team is going to buy next year.
They are however good at running press statements and annoying people who really know about their clubs with half-baked semi-skimmed analyses and undermining players by suggesting they are no good, not wanted or just past it – which means they are good at causing worry and doubt, not least through telling us we have got it all wrong.
Overall it seems that they have no useful purpose at all. So why do we still have them?
In his song, “Tombstone Blues” Bob Dylan said,
Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge
My review of Tombstone Blues on Untold Dylan, chose this final line of this verse as the key to the whole piece. My thought then was that we lived in a world of useless and pointless knowledge. What I didn’t think of at the time, was that even useless and pointless knowledge is better than being undermined by half truths, lies, rumour and tripe.
We are being fed knowledge which is not knowledge at all. We are being laughed at and treated with utter contempt by football journalists writing in newspapers. We are being given lies and half truths by people who present themselves as knowledgeable.
It is all rather sad, and it’s time to do something about it.