By Tony Attwood
When the media en mass ignores a particular point of view (such as the one that asks why our refereeing system is so secretive, and is organised in a way that is different from most of the rest of Europe) I am on safe ground. I know where I stand. For this is part one of the two parts of all media football coverage. The mass media chooses the agenda; the “talking points”, the “five things we learned”, the “analysis” (a word now synonymous with “opinion”) and leaves the “missing points” – the bits they most certainly will not cover.
So we don’t debate the structure of refereeing in the PL because it is not a topic on the accredited agenda. Last season we didn’t debate VAR because it was only something done by funny foreigners. Now suddenly everyone is getting in a tiz about it because we are trialling it and it is becoming messy. Seemingly no one has bothered to see how Germany got on with it this year.
Occasionally however the media blinks and instead of ignoring a topic totally because “it is not what the public is interested in”, it actually does delve into that topic a little. Then things start to get interesting for it is here that we can get an insight into how the process works.
This is what makes “Pundits are good for the game even if ex-players’ censure can feel out of line” by Liam Rosenior so interesting. In this article he claims,”Former professionals such as Gary Neville educate not only supporters but also younger players while continually raising standards in terms of objectively analysing matches.” In other words the experts bring objectivity, and this helps all of us.
The notion is thus that we are moving towards greater objectivity. And, Mr Rosenior says we need this because, “millions of fans [are] expecting not only great games but informative, insightful analysis during and after matches because of the money they are paying to watch.”
So this is a justification of the media and its two pronged approach – it chooses what to cover, and then chooses how to cover it – because it has experts who can do this objectively – even though it doesn’t allow outsiders to have an influence on what is covered and how it is covered.
And indeed it seems to suggest that the media and its pundits should be applauded for so-doing because the fans need the “insightful analysis” that results from expert punditry. If the pundits were not there we wouldn’t know what was going on (and so presumably might start thinking that a match was fixed rather than expecting the notion that a match will happen and everything will always by hunky-dory.)
Thus the great danger of the media trying to respond to a criticism of its position on a topic like football can be seen at once, for the writer continues to speak of Neville by saying, “he’s being paid to give his expert opinion and call football matches as he sees them.”
So suddenly we have to ask which one is it? Is he an expert in the way a man who studies volcanoes is an expert – a person who can bring detailed scientific knowledge to the table and use it to explain to non-experts what is going on – including understanding the limits of his own knowledge? Or is this a person who simply has an opinion rather like Donald Trump has opinions.
But Neville responded to the gathering criticism of his comments by saying that we are getting an “analysis of analysis”, by which I suspect he meant that people were starting to deconstruct what he was saying to see if there was real analysis therein, or whether it was just a multiplicity of personal opinions bound together to make the statement sound as if it was a) serious and b) an analysis.
However the social sciences have evolved across the last 100 years in order to find ways of allowing people to do reliable analyses into the complex world of human behaviour. But because football pundits reject this we end up simply arguing as we might over a figure skating competition: was that a seven for the twirly bit with the spinning jump, or an eight? Was the player trying hard or wasn’t he?
In fact we learn about the sort of pundit Liam Rosenior wants us to have. Not a common everyday person who watches a match and has an opinion, but someone who can at once see what is going on and give us underlying causes. A man with specialist knowledge and insight.
But such experts have been severely criticised, as for example when the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP stated that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” But Mr Rosenior implicitly rejects this and suggests we benefit from these experts.
For they are “not only commenting on what is happening on the field of play but why it is happening”. Powerful experts indeed. They can tell us about the causes of human behaviour which has been the holy grail of sociology and psychology since the sciences were founded. And it has all been done while ignoring a multiplicity of other possibly important factors.
But science teaches us that if you don’t look for a particular underlying cause for a series of events quite often you simply won’t know it is there.
Liam Rosenior starts from the premise that nothing is amiss, everything is ok and because of that he misses lots of interesting questions, and key point simply because he is content always to look in the same direction as everyone else and ignore the fact that there are other directions in which to look. But simply claiming that someone is an expert doesn’t make him so. All this argument does is attempt to convince that everything is ok.
And if history teaches us anything, surely it teaches us to be wary of anyone who suggests that by and large everything is ok.
For those are the most dangerous people of all.