Gripes, innovations and bias: the curious world of the football journalist

By Tony Attwood

This is the time when newspapers do their summary of the league season, an exercise which is in part the offering of opinion (fair enough) but also an exercise in deflection.  “Deflection” is known by many names but in essence it involves focussing attention on one topic while ignoring another, which is equally worthy of comment.   The idea of course is to reduce any temptation for readers to think that the missing topic is a topic at all.  No one is discussing it, so it can’t be important.

Indeed in the current era, anyone found discussing the topic that is ignored by the mainstream is automatically subject to abuse, being compared perhaps to a person who walks around with a tin hat on in order to avoid harmful rays from satellites and the like.

Indeed I found myself being caught out by such ploys recently, when a stream of comments arrived asking me to prove that the PGMO rules for referees set for the Premier League did not exist in other countries.

And yes I did start gathering the data, and it was a frustrating job because it took a lot of time.  That was of course my fault because I am not the tidiest person in the universe (actually the opposite) and am generally (as now) in the midst of writing not just my three blogs but also advertisements for my company’s clients, and a book and other articles.   I should be tidy, but my workplace is a mess.

So I battled on trying to find the relevant files and cuttings, and it was only after a couple of days I thought – this is unnecessary.  Because even if no other country had referee rules like ours, the rules that myself and others have suggested, are reasonable and logical.

For example, why shouldn’t referees be required to answer questions on TV after a game?   Why shouldn’t there be enough referees so that no club gets a referee more than twice (as a protection against any referee who is turned) and so on.

The fact is that rules and regulations have a logic and validity in their own right.  I’ve used the argument about other countries because I have seen that data – but actually, just the sheer logic of the argument ought to be enough.  It is safer to have a system in which referees can’t handle games involving one club more than twice – and there is certainly enough money within the richest league in the world to afford this.

Just like it is safer to have anti-crash barriers down the centre of dual carriageways.  You don’t need to see a lot of people seriously injured by a car crossing the central barrier to know this.  It is obvious.

And so the question can then be raised, why are mainstream media outlets not considering such points?

The Guardian gave us a fine example of how to ignore issues recently with its discussion of the key issues raised this season noting initially that racism is on the rise.  Good point, worth mentioning.

But then they come onto the notion that one night a week should be football free and they suggest monday’s.  “Actual football matches have been the least appealing feature of Sky’s excellent MNF since the departure of Richard Keys and Andy Gray and besides, Newcastle fans probably have better things to do on a dark and dirty Monday night in late November than make the journey to and from St Mary’s.”

A really trivial point.   Is that really the biggest thing that needs to be reformed in football… getting rid of monday night games while praising two men notorious for their appalling attitude towards women, who now deliver their commentaries on stations broadcasting throughout the middle east?

Well yes, because their next topic is “Accusations of ‘media bias’”

That piece opens with “This is not a drill. The media is not biased against your team.”  And at once we can see the point of the piece.  A serious comment about racism, a trivial point of nonsense about not playing on mondays, and then “accusations of media bias”.

And here they use a very clever trick of parodying the complaints that are made saying “the notion that writers, broadcasters, commentators and pundits are all part of one homologous mass that toes a strict set of meticulously thought out party lines is increasingly tiresome.”

No, actually what is tiresome is the parody of a very serious complaint that comments like that.  A complaint that football journalists and commentators engage in a simplistic analysis in which they all tend to parrot each other, while all staying away from certain topics that no one else covers.

It is not a conspiracy but two separate things.  First, the strict rules from the PL about what TV and radio can comment on.  The most obvious being that they must not show or mention in any detail any crowd trouble.  That one, when acted upon can be hilarious, as when a fan (I think it was against Coventry) ran on the pitch, and the cameras just had to show the other end of the pitch where nothing was happening and the commentators were only allowed to condemn briefly, and then wait.

Second it is convention.  One commentator says it, and the rest join in.  It is a question of what is a possible discussion point or not.  As with for example, is this referee really up to the job, or is he or she delivering some very strange decisions throughout this game?  Have you ever heard that even discussed?

Or let’s try this one more time for a different angle.  After the evening of the Europa League semi-final second legs BBC Radio ran the story about Chelsea getting through (just) as their main story, devoting three times as much time to the tale as the report on Arsenal’s quite extraordinary win away.  Extraordinary, not just because of the score, but also because of Arsenal’s poor away form through much of the season.

So why did Chelsea get more time and come first?

I can’t say, but when this sort of thing happens over and over again through the season, an intelligent enquiring supporter is likely to ask why.

So let me try by way of conclusion to explain why.   In my very early days as a writer and journalist I had it explained to me on a local paper that news had priorities.  For example, I was told, news from France is more important than news from Germany.  Why?  No one knew.  That’s just how it is.

That is how it is in all news reporting.  Stories have their own hierarchy – which in extreme cases is obvious, but in other cases is obscure.  So it is in football.  Certain clubs are considered “more important” not because they are more local, not because they have more supporters, not because they are higher up the league or in bigger competitions, but because they are “more important” in the eyes of journalists, editors and publishers.

That’s the problem, and that is what the Guardian will not face with articles that include the “Accusations of media bias” section.  All their article does is denigrate fans who are considered as silly people who go around thinking their club is the subject of bias.

23 Replies to “Gripes, innovations and bias: the curious world of the football journalist”

  1. So thats why Spuds are wonderful and clearly the most successful side ever seen deserves praise .
    Untold Arsenal unearths the facts backed up by stats, well done.

  2. Hi thanks for another interesting and thought provoking read. Totally agree with your comment regarding referees and the need for them to be interviewed even if it means asking about the mistakes they made during a game! They are but human so are entitled to get things wrong, but until these mistakes are pointed out to them how do they learn to correct them?
    On the BBC coverage (and I’m no fan of the biased corporation), I think Chelsea might have got more time and came first because the Arsenal game was the actual commentary game that night and they weren’t allowed to go to the Chelsea game because of contractual rights to cover it during the 90 mins. Keep up the good work COYG

  3. Guardian bashing again Tony.
    Is this sour grapes over your own journalistic shortcomings preventing you from getting the job you so desperately wanted?

  4. There are a couple of things I wonder about in relation to your comments,”Masterstroke”.
    One is why you spend time reading and commenting on Untold when you primarily disagree with so much.
    Another is why you bother to spend time insulting me – when experience must have shown you that it doesn’t make any difference – nothing changes as a result of this activity.
    And then again, I am bemused by your apparent lack of understanding of what is written. The way you use the English language suggests a fair degree of education and intellect, and while I would not in any way expect people to have their opinions changed by my jottings (it happens sometimes, but I don’t expect it) I am bemused that you seem utterly to fail to grasp the essence of a lot of articles.
    Or, I suppose another explanation might be that you are deliberately misunderstanding much of what I write – but then that suggests a really weird viewpoint and waste of your time, when surely you have better things to do.
    I am not asking you to stop writing in, because I am fascinated by what you write, but I must admit I am completely bemused by why you take up time writing to a blog whose publisher you so thoroughly disagree with, and who has been exploring this particular theme about newspapers over a period of over 10 years.
    I would be interetsed to know why – especially if it can be delivered without other speculation about the inner workings of my mind, of which of course you know nothing.

  5. While I leave Tony to bash the ‘deserves to be bashed ‘ brigade , I in turn will only ask pertinant questions.
    And I ask all the regulars here , after having a good laugh , to think about the following.

    Should those retiring PIGMOB referees be paid more ( Hush money, for the want of some better term) not to reveal sordid details , or to pen autobiographies ?

    Especially with BREXIT looming , and the rest of Europe ,UEFA and FIFA thinking zilich of them?

    I tend to think more of these things now, as my attention is once again free to roam , as the Game of Thrones is coming to an end .

  6. Tony

    “In my very early days as a writer and journalist I had it explained to me on a local paper that news had priorities. For example, I was told, news from France is more important than news from Germany. Why? No one knew. That’s just how it is.”

    Personally I think it boils down to what sells. Simple as that.

    (I say ‘simple’ as that though I actually think the psychology behind it is anything but ‘simple’, but there you go, and that’s a whole other subject.)

    It must be getting on to about 10 years ago when I had the following chat with a colleague at work, a Manchester Utd fan.

    I was moaning to him about the different ways in which Arsenal and Wenger were treated in the papers compared to Man Utd and Fergie. He said he had relation who worked in a the media who told him it was simply about selling papers, nothing else.

    How does that work I asked?

    Simple: Negative stories about Arsenal sell papers. Positive stories about United sell papers.

    He said the sports Editors worked under a broad remit of printing pro United/anti Arsenal stories on alternate days, and it didn’t matter a jot whether it was true, false or anywhere in between, as long as it fitted the remit.

    I think it’s pathetic, but you can hardly blame them if it sells their crappy little rags.

    Who I do blame though is the large percentage of our own ex players who meekly tow the line, and worse, the far too high a percentage of our own fans that also buy into it.

  7. In the actual sense of truthfulness which I believe should be allowed to prevail over the rampant untruthfulness that is ragging in football refereeing administration in the PL ceaselessly for football season after seasons, I think the time has come in the PL where there has to be accountability. The Pgmo match officiating officials should be subjected to account for the decisions they’ve taken in their match refereeing in the PL as from next season. As a first step towards making the Pgmo match officiating officials accountable for the match refereeing decisions they’ve taken in the PL, good, the VAR will officially be introduced for use in the PL matches as from next season’s campaign. And hopefully, this introduction of the VAR will curb the Pgmo match officiating officials in their anti-club antics in match refereeing to a particular club side in the PL like Arsenal during match officiating. And 2ndly, the Pgmo match officiating officials should officially be compelled by the FA to face the media to answer questions being asked by the journalists after matches have been played in a media conference. By doing this, transparency in aftermath match officiating in the PL will ensured. In fact, the Pgmo match officiating officials in the PL could also hold pre matches press conferences to answer questions file to them by the media. This could also eliminate any pre conceived agenda by the Pgmo match officiating officials against a particular club such such as Arsenal who they could have in their minds to subvert in a match in the PL.

    Man City against my wish i.e. if I have to talk from the Arsenal perspectives have disappointingly won the domestic treble yesterday at Wembley when they wallow a fake Watford team 6-0 in the FA Cup final to add to the Carabao Cup and the Premier League title they’ve already won this season to thereby set the benchmark for any club in the PL to only equal it but can’t better it because their domestic treble win in a single season can’t be bettered but equaled I suppose. But could their benchmark record of 100 points collection in the 2017-2018 season in the PL be equalled next season by Arsenal? I hope Arsenal will not only equal that their record breaking season benchmark of 100 points collected by by them last 2 seasons ago. But will surpass it even in the face of tough opposition from the other top big 5 opposition rivals club side teams who will be opposing them in the PL to give them a good run for their money in the race to win the PL title next season. But let me add, Arsenal should not under-rate themselves nor underestimate their capacity to win the PL title next season and even set a new benchmark by winning the quadruple next season. If Man City can win the domestic treble this season, then Arsenal should win the quadruple next season so as to prove to Pep Guardiola that it’s more difficult to win the quadruple than to win the domestic treble that he has led Man City to win last season.

  8. When I drove to my hotel in London after the home match against Valencia it was time for the 11.00 news. And in the sport section they went wild about Chelsea having a 1-1 draw in Frankfurt. A report from a reporter, an interview with Sarri (I think) and another player saying a few words. And they they said and I try to quote : “In the other semi final Arsenal beat Valencia 3-1”. And that was it. Now I don’t know which radio station it was but I do know that a lot of radio stations buy news broadcast from other media to have a news report.
    But the difference in how Chelsea and Arsenal was treated was odd at the time.

  9. @tony, I was disappointed at the end of the article. Here was I thinking you had done some digging around and you were finally going to address criticisms of lack of evidence in your article accusing pgmo of being run differently from other similar bodies in Europe. Not only did you end up not addressing those criticisms, but you succeeded in adding further unsubstantiated accusations against the media. After reading that you were told news from France was more important than news from Germany, I really wondered if that were a media belief or just the opinion of persons you worked with, so I chatted up 2 journalist friends of mine, their response individually was basically “what sort of fable is that?”. My personal conclusion on that is that, you are attributing the personal opinion of some persons or at best the media house you worked, to a be an industry belief.

  10. And just to add, I’m on total agreement with the quote that the notion that all commentators, pundits, media house etc are part one big homologous group with strict party lines which everyone tows, is not only tiresome, but also not creative enough as “deflection”

  11. I think you get the press you deserve and TBH we haven’t earned much this season so far. Come the 29th and we may temporarily be back in the spotlight.
    Somebody at the top of the threads sarcastically complains that Spurs are overachieving, but they’ve made it to a Champions League final on a £zero net transfer spend. I’d say that alone makes them worthy of some good press although I still hope Liverpool pulverise them.
    I think Arsenal get a fair shake from the mainline media and it’s only the dedicated blogs that give us a hard time. One actually said that he would rather Chelsea beat us in our final if it meant Spurs lost to Liverpool in theirs just so that they could not glory in victory and lord it over us, can you imagine that? But they’re only read by fans anyway, so no harm done in the real world.

  12. In spite of the predictable denial by the media, there is no question that the bias against Arsenal is deliberate and pervasive. It is not an unconscious bias that you might get for some teams from journalist incapable of professional reporting that trumps their allegiance. The bias is right across the media network, radio, TV, newspapers and non-arsenal blogs. It so blatant, that it almost feels conspiratorial. The commentary on many of our matches were often so unashamedly biased, that you sense, the commentators are ecstatic when we are losing or playing badly. I am at a loss as to why there is such media bias.

  13. Wolves VS Watford up to now i did not understand why the ref gave that penalty kick? Why didn’t we get a replay on TV.
    That ref decided to give us a boring FA final ever. Watford could have given us a better final. How much,just how much.

  14. Liverpool’s name cropped up in a champions league fixture alleged to have been fixed in 2009 – 2010. No action taken on them till now

  15. For many years there was a pretty firm line between ‘Opinion Editorials’ and neutral/unbias ‘Reporters/journalists’ in most sections of the media (Politics/Sport etc), but media then was only newspapers/magazines.
    Then it changed to a clear leaning/gentle bias but based around the facts of the article/story which everyone knew would be written in the context of the media outlets leaning, but not really effecting the sports section beyond a leaning towards more news/articles about certain teams in the outlets biggest sales areas (when newspapers had slightly different versions in different areas).
    Unfortunately now there’s no definition between Opinion articles and News articles, so the writers opinion (which is usually the ‘outlets’ opinion) is the main fulcrum of the article no matter what the story, whilst fact checking is unnecessary and therefore rarely done (beyond a quick check with like-minded friends In their media bubble).
    So news/politics has rather lost balanced journalists and gained propaganda activists.
    This is quite clear to anyone that’s prepared to look outside of mainstream media where you’re far more likely to find out the full story, and is the reason mainstream news outlets (TV/Newspaper) sales/views are plummeting.
    Sport is pretty much completely an emotion led pastime where a goal can be viewed as a GK mistake, CB mistake great assist or awesome strikers skills, so in most cases the writers bias is guaranteed to come through to some degree.
    There’s also the fact that media has changed dramatically in the last 20 years where a reporter no longer needs to do a long apprenticeship learning how to be neutral about stories, frame a story succinctly, spell and fact check the story properly, because now a computer app will re-jig it, spell check it and who cares about facts or neutrality…
    There’s little point trying to argue with them. Just sit back in the knowledge that most of them will be looking for alternative employment when a guy in a 3rd world country can watch and report (via an app) to the same quality but a much much lower cost… It’s coming!

  16. Is not most journalism nowadays geared to the online audience?

    Even the hard copy newspapers surely must now be subservient to the online market because sales of newspapers are going down, as more and more people around the world get their news online.

    So, stories are designed to be click-bait and, in the context of that, does that not mean that positive stories about certain clubs will be more popular and therefore “clicked” than negative ones, and vice versa with other teams.

    The “in-teams” nowadays are man$ity, Liverpool, manure and the scum, whilst we are on the other side.

    A negative story about us will attract more clicks than a positive one. Why that should be is beyond me, unless, we are now simply out of fashion.

    Am I wrong?

  17. Andy Mack @12:49pm

    Well said and quite to the point. I’m glad you included ‘news’ reporting in your comment, it’s not just sport. Awful state of affairs actually.

  18. jjgsol

    “So, stories are designed to be click-bait and, in the context of that, does that not mean that positive stories about certain clubs will be more popular and therefore “clicked” than negative ones, and vice versa with other teams.

    The “in-teams” nowadays are man$ity, Liverpool, manure and the scum, whilst we are on the other side.

    A negative story about us will attract more clicks than a positive one. Why that should be is beyond me, unless, we are now simply out of fashion.

    Am I wrong?”

    No, you are not. It’s exactly what I said early in my post:


    19/05/2019 at 1:34 pm

    It seems we’ve been ‘out of fashion’ for as long as I can remember.

    It was ‘lucky lucky Arsenal’ in the 70’s.

    It was ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ in the 80’s.

    The point is though it isn’t new or unique to on-line reporting, as my colleague told me many years ago.

    Again, this is what he said:

    “It must be getting on to about 10 years ago when I had the following chat with a colleague at work, a Manchester Utd fan.

    I was moaning to him about the different ways in which Arsenal and Wenger were treated in the papers compared to Man Utd and Fergie. He said he had relation who worked in a the media who told him it was simply about selling papers, nothing else.

    How does that work I asked?

    Simple: Negative stories about Arsenal sell papers. Positive stories about United sell papers”.

    Ok it wasn’t about clicks but rather selling papers, but it’s been going on for years.

    Perhaps if we didn’t have so many ‘supporters’ ready and willing to buy into all the negativity it may of stopped. Alas we have, and it hasn’t.

  19. Off subject I know but can somebody explain to me why the EFL think using VAR will give an “advantage” to teams if they use it in the play off final.

    I thought the whole idea of using VAR was …. never mind I must be wrong

    I do not hold out much hope for the introduction o VAR next season if this is the way the football bodies see it…

  20. Mr Leslie Williams

    Unfortunately a tool is only as good as the hands in which it is placed.

    You could put the most expensive driver in the World in my hands and the ball will still end up out of bounds.

    VAR in the hands of those numpties will be a disaster.

    If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a dozen times, VAR is only going to make it worse for us.

  21. @Nitram gt least I know that I am not alone in not looking forward to VAR according to “Kipper” Riley.

    What a slippery individual he is !!!!

  22. Re: Riley

    You are way too polite.

    My opinion of that particular individual would never get past moderation.

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