By Tony Attwood
The article Can possible reasons for unsupported opinions be understood, explained and contribute anything to Untold Arsenal? gained considerable praise on Untold, and quite rightly so in my view, because it opened up an issue that has long puzzled quite a few people who are kind enough to spend time on Untold. And that certainly includes me.
Walter has already taken this matter further in his most recent article Does Arsenal still need Klopp or Pochettino to make the final breakthrough? and I would like to continue the debate one step further if you will give me a moment of your time.
Indeed I think it is fair to say I have not been thinking of much else since I read AKH’s piece, to the extent I hardly noticed who I was dancing with at the regular Friday Night Bop (which in turn raised a few comments). But that’s a different matter.
I think we now have three issues…
1: What is it that is so odd about football reporting in the UK?
Untold has, over the past eight years, reported regularly on a number of things that go on in football which seem to be very odd. And having pointed them out, we’ve tried to find explanations.
The most obvious of course is the activity of the PGMO and we’ve approached this from two sides.
On the one hand, when we ask non-PL referees to take a look at what they see when a PGMO ref is given free rein on a pitch, we find reports of refereeing that is often inept in the extreme, and sometimes seemingly very biased. On the other hand we see an entire structure, organisation and behaviour of PGMO that is very different from that of any other European referee organisation, and the way it operates and things it does again gives rise to concern.
So we are not saying referees are bent, or PGMO is corrupt, but asking the first fundamental question – why is PGMO as it is, and making the point that if that question is never answered then severe doubts about the honesty of the refereeing system in the PL will continue in the light of what we see on the pitch.
We have also raised questions about numerous other matters (and please don’t turn away – I’m not going to give details of each one – but let me just give a few selected headers).
There is the non-reporting of financial issues relating to the FA and Fifa, except when they could hardly be ignored as the authorities moved in and arrested Fifa people.
There is the eternal insistence that transfers are important and constant ignoring the fact that 99.9% of the transfer stories in the media are wrong – and that is even before considering the impact those transfers that do happen, have on a club.
There is the fact that most managerial appointments fail to bring about improvement, and more bring a downward turn than a rise to the top.
There is the fact that radio and the press, plus virtually all the blogs ignore the argument that TV is manipulating football. The media hasn’t always been like this, and I’ve mentioned the reports I found while writing the Arsenal in the 70s series, in which journalists did openly criticise the way TV stations were misleadingly editing matches.
Then there is the wholesale refusal of all aspects of the media to examine issues within football with evidence and logical deduction and the insistence (as Walter pointed out) that the last match is the defining moment. Indeed, as he said Liverpool! is the defining example of this. Before the Europa Cup Final we were at the take-off point to the next great Liverpool! era. After the defeat the manager was a serial loser, and Liverpool! became Liverpool?
We can also go back to the slow and uncertain way in which all the media handled the FFP fine given to Man City; the notion of headless chickens comes to mind. While Untold relentlessly published article after article on the topic BBC Radio 5, Sky, BBC TV and all the papers were continuing their theme of either ignoring the matter totally, or saying that the EC would rule FFP anti-competitive (we knew they wouldn’t since they had already ruled the reverse.)
A similar sort of nonsense surrounds the issue of why England does so poorly at football, given the interest in the game in this country. Over and over again we have one answer: too many foreigners playing in England. It was Untold (well actually me, working through a weekend in 2010 when nothing else grabbed my attention) analysing all the figures that came up with the very clear correlations. Success on the pitch relates to the number of players per coach with a licence. The Telegraph reprinted the argument a couple of years later without acknowledgement, but even despite that, no one considers the point. The utterly untenable notion that it is the number of foreigners is endlessly repeated.
I could go on, and if you read Untold regularly you’ll know I have no difficulty in going on and on, but I will stop at that point to ask the all important question: why is this happening.
2: Why is football reporting so seriously compromised – the standard view
In most of what I have written on Untold over the last eight and a half years I have primarily argued that the media does not pick up on any of the key points outlined above because the media has a vested interest.
Broadcasters are the big powerhouse, and Sky and BT paid over £5,000,000,000 for the rights to football for three years starting this August. Clearly they want to protect that investment, and criticism of the very essence of football, and the removal of the notion that something is not right in football is a strong motivation to kill the debate.
Other media outlets which show highlights also have paid money and don’t want to lose their audience. The press pay far less, but given the sway over public opinion that TV has, they really do think ten times before saying anything that undermines the credibility of every aspect of football and sets them outside the norms of the debate.
I have also argued that by pushing the debate into trivial matters (such as the transfer window deadline) they have maintained their grip on the definition of what counts as important, and indeed what counts as reality.
3: Why is football reporting so seriously compromised – the new view
When I read AKH’s article Can possible reasons for unsupported opinions be understood, explained and contribute anything to Untold Arsenal? I suddenly had a light-bulb moment. Maybe editorial decisions are not based primarily on a desire to stop any debate on the issue that things might not be right in football.
Maybe instead most people working in the media are stuck in one of the two phases of concrete thinking and reasoning that AKH describes so clearly. We might even say that a handful are in the later stage while the majority are stuck in the early stage. (See AKH’s article for clear definitions of these stages)
But, it could be argued, this is odd because although all media outlets have their political agenda, when they move outside of that some of the media (certainly not all but some) try to reflect reality. If there is a terrible plane crash they don’t immediately say all planes are unsafe. If there is a terror attack by a person who professes to follow a certain religion, they don’t immediately call for the rounding up of everyone who professes to follow this religion. (OK this argument breaks down in the current debate about the UK in the EU, but I think that is a special case, and I don’t want to divert myself onto that at the moment).
Indeed we do owe a lot to journalists and newspapers. OK, often they are handed the stories on a plate by the whistle blowers such as with the Panama Papers or the MP expenses scandals, but several of them have followed up police, sex and political corruption and made sure the issue is in the public domain.
So if you are bright, honest and with a moral compass, and you want to be a journalist you become an investigative journalist. If you have no moral compass and become an investigative journalist you get sucked into “three in a bed sex romp” journalism. Very few of those who are left do investigative journalism in football.
Indeed the fact that Untold, with virtually no resources can relentlessly pursue everything from the PGMO issue to the question of why England does badly on the international stage, not only speaks volumes for the dedication of people who kindly take the time to write for Untold, but speaks also of the paucity of the infinitely better resourced mass media.
True, there was the handful of journalists who collected data on Fifa, but seeing corruption there was hardly quantum mechanics. A blind man in a dark room with the door locked could see that Fifa was corrupt from tip to toe. Indeed the amazing thing with Fifa was how all the papers failed to follow the story through to consider how corrupt the FA must be to openly throw public money at Fifa in a desperate insane bid to bring even more corruption into England by holding the world cup here.
3: Conclusion: why is Untold out here on its own, while the mainstream media goes its own way?
So now we have three explanations as to why Untold is on its own.
3.1 The media has a vested interest in not questioning the game, because that could lose it viewing figures, and having just spent £5 billion, that is the last thing media execs want.
3.2 Most sports journalists are concrete thinkers of restricted intellectual maturity, who cannot engage in abstract thought. So they emphasise the current situation, rather than the broader picture. Today is all there is, context is nothing.
3.3 A combination of the two points above.
AKH, I am so indebted to you for your analysis. I do think you are onto something here.