By Tony Attwood
Why this story?
The argument on Untold, based on our published research, is that well over half of the football news that appears on the newspapers, their bloggettas, radio and TV, are fake.
Add this to the deliberately misleading emphasis that the media give even when reporting facts (the Guardian’s notorious “Arsenal have only two players who scored in double figures last season” is the benchmark example) and it is easy to see how badly serviced we are as football fans by the media.
This article looks at how this appalling situation came about.
Since in football the broadcast, print and digital media are now all dominated by fake news, it is not surprising that the media does not write about the issue of fake news in the coverage of football, since to do so would be to criticise itself. Indeed the simple fact that it refuses to acknowledge that there is any fake news, despite the mountain of evidence that arises week after week, itself shows there is something seriously wrong with the football reporting industry.
As a result little is written about the history of fake news, and even less about why it has become the dominant type of news when reporting football. After all, if you are part of something truly awful, but it earns you a living, you are hardly likely to write about that awful something that controls your industry.
So, it is down to us to fill in the gaps. That’s what I am trying to do by exposing the nonsense that is written, from the daily knee jerk reactions to the widespread agreement to abide by PL requirements and not talk about certain specifics.
This article is about how it all got started.
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Fake new came to Britain in a big way during the first world war. Prior to that there was no specific censorship of newspapers in Britain save from the laws of libel, obscenity and “disturbing the king’s peace” which was a catch all approach to stop the publication of news that the authorities did not want released – a sort of early version of the Official Secrets Act – and as a result once that Act came into being the notion of disturbing the King’s Peace faded away.
However every day reporting changed with the advent of World War I when wholesale censorship of the press was re-introduced on the grounds of stopping any story that would give aid to the enemy. This was formalised with the creation of the Department of Information, and subsequent Ministry of Information, which was then finally closed down after the end of the war.
But three unforeseen events occurred during this period as a result of these developments, and these paved the way for fake news as a newspaper industry.
Bereft of news from the war itself, and with no political news to publish, the newspapers (of course the only source of news at the time since this was before the days of radio) began printing rumours such as the tale of the German Corpse Factory which supposedly took the dead from the battlefields and rendered the bodies to make everything from nitroglycerine to soap, from candles to boot dubbing. It was run in both The Times and Daily Mail although there was no evidence for it at all.
This sort of writing was considered good for morale – boosting the hatred of the enemy and encouraging people to put up with food and coal shortages.
Once this notion of printing rumour as a way of keeping people focused on the need to win the war was established, it was only one step to publishing less dramatic but equally untrue stories as a way of filling blank pages.
In one, which I found through my work on the “Henry Norris at the Arsenal” series running on the Arsenal History Society blog, the story circulated in 1917 that Belgian refugees in London were using their clubs as centres through which German spies could meet to prepare acts of sabotage.
This tale was a perfect piece of fake news in that although there certainly were some Belgian refugees in London, and they did indeed have their own cafes and clubs where quite naturally they would meet, they had no inclination or reason to give refuge to Germans. It was in fact the exact reversal of anything that was likely to happen, since the refugees were in London because Germany had invaded Belgian, thus making these people refugees. As such they were hardly likely to allow their clubs to be used by Germans plotting the invasion of Britain.
Thus a lack of real news caused the papers to create wholly preposterous fake news, and editors and publishers quickly realised two further incredible benefits to them, of fake news. First it was cheap: an imaginative writer could just sit down and make it up; there was no costly reporting needed. Second the public seemed to have not just an appetite for it, but also an extraordinary ability to forget one story as soon as the next came along.
Which meant something rather important: there always had to be the next fake story – to ensure no one was asking questions about the last story.
Now I am not going to take us all the way through the history of fake news – my intention here was to show how it goes back at least 100 years, and comes from this combination of a desire to serve a particular end, a lack of actual news, the fact that it is so cheap to create (one man and a typewriter in fact) and the extraordinary willingness of the public to believe and then forget and then be even more ready for the next story. (To explain this last I would need to put my psychologist’s hat on, and I will leave that for another time).
Quite when this trend spread from politics into football I don’t know but I do know that in the 1970s newspaper reporters were starting to complain quite often about the quality of the reporting of football on TV. At this time the newspaper industry, which had had a monopoly on reporting football matches until Match of the Day arrived in 1964, began to realise that what they were saying in print and what fans were seeing on the screen, were utterly different.
This occurred because TV had a disadvantage. Whereas newspapers could turn tedious and boring matches into something worth reading about by indulging in wholesale attacks on the ineptitude of players and managers and setting out what they would do if only they ran the club, TV found it would lose its audience if it showed boring games – or even suggested that a game might be boring.
Therefore editing was used to make all games look good, and the myth of the “best league in the world” was born.
The two sides fought out their positions for a decade but the arrival of live TV coverage of matches itself made newspaper coverage less vital. Additionally the invention of the notion that the football fixture list was copyright (something introduced to help the League get money out of the football pools operators who were the precursors of the on line gambling companies that dominate the market today), then gave the League power.
If it held in its hand the right to stop anyone publishing fixtures, it could also require those to whom it did licence the fixture list, should not report certain aspects of football. Slowly the League got its way and has led us towards today’s situation where there is a whole list of things that cannot be shown or discussed in broadcast coverage, including, most notoriously of all, the concept that referees make wholesale mistakes. If you can remember Alan Green’s radio commentaries from 15 years ago, you’ll appreciate the huge difference there now is in the way the referee is treated by the media.
That is why I have seen the “160 game review” from last season as so important. We were not looking primarily for bias but for referees ineptitude – something that newspapers and broadcasters are now hardly allowed to touch on. A reporter can say “the ref got it wrong” but not “he’s now got over 40% of the fouls wrong in this match”.
Thus with a mixture of discoveries about what the public liked, and what it would forget, some clever use of the copyright regulations, and a desire of the increasingly powerful Football League and then the Premier League to keep its image clean, the ability to show and report football in a meaningful way has declined.
Just as newspapers in the first world war needed fake news because they had nothing else they were allowed to report, so today newspapers and the latest spin off, the football blogs and 24 hour sports news channels, need something to cover. They don’t contradict what TV and radio is saying, because it is such a dominant medium, to contradict it makes one look a chump. (Just read the comments from people who refuse to believe our analyses of events – they really do see us as delusional).
So just as their forefathers did in 1914, the newspapers, bloggettas and other news channels, all now unable to run real news, just make it up.
My view is simple. Someone has to gather evidence and expose what is going on, or else we all sink in the morass of invention and reality is lost. Which is why I want Untold to keep exposing fake football news. Why I want to show that 97% of football rumours are myths. Why I so value the vast number of reports we have on referees and their errors.
There is of course the other issue – the fact that the fake news makers are picking on certain clubs – but I’ll leave that for another day.
I’m sorry if my “going on” about fake news bores you, but I do believe exposing it in football is important, both for football in general, and for Arsenal in particular. And not many other people are seeking to write about it.
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