I watched two things on TV last night, and both rang bells in my head.
The first was an old Hercule Poirot film with David Suchet, based on the 1924 Agatha Christie short story “Western Star”. It contains the lines…
Hastings: “I don’t know how they get these stories in the papers.”
Poirot: “They make it up.”
The other programme involved Zurich against Milan. Part way through one of the commentators said something about Flamini. I didn’t catch it exactly but the other one then said something like, “Flamini always looked better than he was at Arsenal because of who he was playing alongside.” The point being that anyone can look good with Cesc playing next to you.
That was interesting because a) Milan didn’t look very good to me and b) I have never heard that criticism before of Flamini. It is certainly true that he has not been the star of the show since leaving us, and I have made the point a couple of times that maybe Wenger took into account not just his final season with us, but his last three years. Maybe Wenger didn’t think he was that good without Cesc.
Flamini has started half the league games Milan have played this season – which continues to give the impression that he is not really central to their team.
Anyway, my mind wandered, and I came back to the Agatha Christie comment, and I thought I would return to that old theme with a real life example of how stories get into newspapers.
In real life, away from watching and writing about Arsenal, I write a range of other things – including press releases for companies.
Recently I undertook some work with a significant and respected company (whose name it would be stupid of me to put here) who were researching certain aspects of people’s behaviour.
Having done my bit to help the research along I was asked to write up a press release and circulate it to the national press. I dutifully did my writing, and my colleagues circulated the piece to journalists.
What was interesting was what happened next. My piece was about the research and its possible implications, but it was sent out by my company by email – not on the headed paper of our client.
The story was a good one, even though I say it myself, so I expected it to be covered – and it did appear in most papers from the Sun to the Telegraph. But for once I thought I would check with my colleagues who work the newspaper desk, and I asked how the process had gone.
After we put out this press release, no one phoned us to check the story, no one phoned the client. The nationals ran the story, taking my press release almost word for word.
Now I want to emphasise that point. The newspapers all have journalists on their staff, and the mythology of newspapers created by the movies and by detective novels is that these journalists investigate matters, digging, probing, asking, searching…
In this case they were given a story – they had no research to do. But you might have expected at least one of the papers – one of the more serious papers perhaps – to make a phone call to us or our client to check the details. After all, anyone could have sent this out.
Yet it was almost as if the papers wanted my story to be true, and certainly didn’t want to risk an interview with the company knocking a good story on the head. They would sooner believe a hoax (which of course in this case it wasn’t) than check that the story was real.
Now, in this case no one was deceived, and nothing went wrong. The research was good, and the implications dramatic. But my point is that there is no way that the journalists would know this.
But let’s transport this true tale to the sports department. Supposing that instead of being a writer with a certain number of ethics in my sleeve, I was in fact working for a footballers’ agent. He says to me, “Player x wants a pay rise. There’s 5 grand in it for you if you can get a story in the press that will this along.”
I think about it, and write up a piece that says that Milan are looking at this player, and it is published.
Then with nothing more on the books I make up a completely fatuous story about Player Y from Spain and how he is unhappy at his club because he didn’t realise how wet and cold it can be in England. The papers, without any other news, run it. I don’t get paid, but my name moves up the register a bit.
Then another agent comes along with another tip, and I pick up some more money from the agent.
Next, one of the papers, seeing that they have run three of my stories just recently pick up the phone and say, “There’s money in it for you if your next story is an exclusive.” I oblige. I don’t have one, but I make it up.
In the world of football journalism standards are much, much lower than in other areas of the paper – but if the nationals are now not even going to check a story like this – then that shows you how low we have got. If we are not checking on the news pages you can imagine what it is like in the happy-go-lucky pages of the football section.
You’ll excuse me if I give no further hints as to who my client is or what the story was – I am sure you can understand why. The key point is that this is the standard of journalism within a wide range of papers – including some of our most serious papers.
There is only one rule when looking at football stories in the paper. Start from the premise that they are made up.
As for Flamini – I think there is good cause to say, maybe that commentator had a point. Shame we didn’t hear more of it at the time. Or put it another way, I wish I had thought of saying that when Flamini walked out.
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