By Tony Attwood
Imagine that you go out of your front door tomorrow morning and find armed police and the military patrolling the streets where previously there was no such activity. Carefully you drive to work, noting the army digging bunkers and erecting barricades, patrols at every junction. You slow down to look for a moment and find three assault rifles pointing at you as you are told in no uncertain terms to keep moving.
The first thing you think is: there must have been a terror attack. So you turn on the radio, but all you get is the normal programming. The news (in England at least) is about the aftermath of the election in the US and Brexit in the UK plus what is happening in Syria. You buy a newspaper. Nothing there about it. At work you check each newspaper’s web site. Nothing. On social media people are talking but on the established news channels – nothing.
You might be excused from wondering why the media is actually not reporting what seems to you to be the biggest issue of the day and I suspect you might be shocked.
But now supposing this sort of thing happened each and every day. Supposing it was commonplace. You would, I suspect, get used to it, because by and large we get used to most things. The first time I saw six ambulances each carrying seriously ill or injured patients, queuing outside my local hospital waiting for admission, I was shocked to think that the people inside were not getting urgent treatment because the hospital had no places free to admit them. Now if I see it, I just shake my head. It is how the system has collapsed in England. We get used to it.
The problems with reporting football is not a military takeover, and is certainly not as important as having not enough hospital beds and not enough doctors for the ill and injured. But there is a parallel. The reality those of us who go to matches at the Emirates regularly see is not reflected at all, not one bit, by the media.
At the last home match for Arsenal, the central issue for a huge number of Arsenal fans present (certainly those who made a noise, and those of a more older nature who sit around me in the upper tier and communicate in gentler tones), was the behaviour of the referee. It dominated discussion with my season-ticket holding neighbours during the game, and at half time, and as the match ended. And it dominated discussions with my friends who sit elsewhere in the ground, in the train on the way back to the Midlands.
Yet on Match of the Day there was not a single mention of this issue. Nor was there in the Observer’s report.
In the Telegraph’s rolling account of the game on Saturday afternoon there is one mention of the ref: “The referee has a wee chat with Grant about taking forever over his goal kicks. Will that change anything? Probably not.”
And that is it.
So why has this happened? How come that the world we observe from being at the match is not remotely the same world as is reported via all the mainstream media.
There are two possible reasons.
One is that the media outlets have been told that to keep the rights to show football on TV or have a seat in the press box, they have to follow the party line. This has been made clear when it comes to crowd trouble or pitch invasions (absolutely no showing thereof, and no reference to it can be made). Maybe it extends further.
The other is that the media editors believe that if they report what they perceive to be certain “negative aspects” of football their audience goes down. This might be because they feel readers don’t like any notion that the game is fixed or that referees are incompetent. Or it might be because to start giving us this story of either an incompetent or bent referees now, will call into question what they have been reporting for the last ten years. They need to keep their audience, and they need to avoid looking foolish, so they censor.
We first discussed this in relation to the way that time wasting by goal keepers is covered up by TV with rather pointless footage of a player trotting back to the halfway line. But now a new model has been brought into reporting: if the media ignores it, then people will believe it is not happening, even if they see it with their own eyes. Besides, as Facebook has shown, fake news gets a much bigger coverage than real news.
In short what we have is a situation in which media reporting of football has become what Frederic Filloux called (when speaking of Facebook) a “walled wonderland … inherently incompatible with news”.
Facebook have done nothing about fake news reporting because the fake news has brought them ever greater audience figures. The football reporting media does nothing about the invented reporting of football in which referee incompetence or corruption has no part because that is what they have been doing for the past 30 years and they are afraid of stepping out of line.
Facebook is currently working on the idea that fake news generally can be spotted by readers, but this is clearly a long way from the truth. We tend to believe what we see on TV as real and when what we see is influenced by the pundits who push our thinking in one direction via clever editing, and the commentators in the ground who set the tone for the pundits to follow through, we’re done for.
When people who are used to digital media are given the task of sorting out the fake news from everything else the researchers who undertake the work describe the results as “dismaying”, “bleak” and “a threat to democracy”. And yet in terms of football the situation is far far worse, although to be fair the threat that arises from delivering fake reporting (such as the reports that utterly ignored the role of the referee in the Stoke game, and the crowd’s reaction to him) is far less important than the threat to democracy of fake news generally.
But there is another side to this story that makes it even more worrying: the broader issues that are not tackled.
Before the raids on the Fifa offices in Switzerland, there were a few books around about Fifa’s corruption, but they were carefully kept separate from the fact that England plays in and even bids on occasion for Fifa events and pays vast sums into Fifa each year.
Meanwhile the Football Association in England is so appallingly awful and disjointed that now some of its previous chief executives have come out and said it is hopeless and beyond reform. And yet all we get is a series of secretaries of state suggesting that they might one day cut the tax payers money given to the FA – which they never do.
PGMO, which controls refereeing in the Premier League, is run on a model not used in any other large footballing country – the model that was in place in Italy when it had its corruption scandal, and yet no media outlet investigates or considers why we need a highly secretive body running refereeing, and why they have adopted this model.
Football in England, we have just discovered, for years been mired in the deepest, most appalling scandal relating to the abuse of children, and yet has conspired to hide the problem, even paying those abused not to speak about it. And where were our investigative reporters through all these years?
The Qatar World Cup is a nonsense in terms of playing football, and an abomination in terms of the government of the country and the way it treats the people who are preparing for the world cup, and yet football sleep walks into it, at a moment when concerted action could lead to real change.
And so on and so on. We are being fed a wonderland picture of football by TV, radio, newspapers and social media which has precious little to do with reality on or off the pitch, and there is no sign that this is changing.
Tales from Untold