By Tony Attwood
Jonathan Liew is a journalist who I must admit, used to annoy me a lot when he worked for the Telegraph, for he appeared to have a brief of knocking Arsenal on a fairly regular basis. Then I think he worked on the Independent. Now he is back big time on the Guardian, and he has evolved a more sophisticated style to output the same message – that the media is completely neutral in its reporting of Arsenal, and that sniggering is a reasonable way of reporting football.
Of course this wouldn’t matter too much if his writing were checked by sub-editors for accuracy, but because he includes what might be classified by some as “humour” it appears that the sub-editors don’t touch his work, and thus the circle is complete. He can make up anything about Arsenal, and it gets published in what is elsewhere a serious newspaper, and thus it begins to take on the mantle of truth, when it fact its whole purpose is to hide the truth.
Take this for example:
“You can sense trouble brewing for Arsenal the moment they go on the attack. This sounds paradoxical but, once you’ve watched a club like this for long enough, reading the early signs of calamity becomes a sort of sixth sense, an almost shamanic instinct, like being able to see tomorrow’s weather in the pattern of a leaf.”
Ignore the sarcasm and a sense of “I’m so clever I can write this stuff and get it published” which wafts up from the text and what happens is that a reality bending story comes to be taken as reality. Of course it would be far more worrying if this writer were a climate change denier, but the fact that he is a football reality denier and the Guardian are giving him full exposure, really does tell us a lot about where football journalism has got to. Try this…
“First comes Arsenal’s initial surge (bae: come over), an attack that sends at least half a dozen players sprinting forward at full pelt in search of a late winner. Then Matteo Guendouzi (distracted boyfriend) gets his head turned by the prospect of glory and completely loses sight of his original job. Next, as Willian sprints towards goal, a half-paced Saka (the “This Is Fine” dog) can scarcely be bothered to track him. Then Shkodran Mustafi (the anime butterfly guy) is utterly hoodwinked by Tammy Abraham (“is this … a first-time finish?”). Finally, as Chelsea’s players wheel away in celebration, a furious and ultimately futile inquest (the argument from American Chopper) can begin.”
In case you got lost at the very start with the “bae: anything else” bit let me try and help. On social media it can mean “baby” or “before anything else”. In Danish it means excrement. You may or may not have the foggiest idea what the fellow is writing about, but one thing is clear, it is not positive from the point of view of Arsenal.
Occasionally he calms down, and then we see what’s really going on, as with,
“Arsenal fans were quick to point out that Jorginho, the scorer of Arsenal’s equaliser, should have been dismissed for a second yellow.”
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Well, yes up to a point – but since the Guardian’s own report on the match mentioned that there was a case for Jorginho to have gone this is clearly misleading. It was not just “Arsenal fans”. But mentioning that one’s colleague also thought things were amiss would spoil the rant.
Instead we get the comment that the picture of Arteta on the front page of the programme was of “either a new coach who means business, or an air steward about to point out the nearest emergency exits.” And you may say, “I find that funny, so it is worth putting in. And that is fair enough, except that other clubs don’t get this treatment.
Because if you combine this “humour” with the personal opinion presented without evidence that the club is immersed in an “innate fatalism, an assumption that calamity is just around the corner,” then one man’s personal opinion becomes an opinion dressed as a fact. When it is (as we have shown in our comparison analysis of the level of negative coverage of different clubs in the past) an approach which is primarily devoted to Arsenal, then its prime function becomes to legitimise the ceaseless knocking of Arsenal without reference to reality by journalists.
And it gets worse for this “innate fatalism” is described as “Arteta’s most toxic inheritance. For now, of course, it is an inheritance he is stuck with. Even Arsène Wenger didn’t burn the place down immediately”.
So what does that mean? In his first season, Mr Wenger took Arsenal up to 3rd, the following season he won the league and cup. Was that “burning down the house”, or not burning down the house? Given that two years before Mr Wenger we were 12th I’d say that was pretty good, so in the bizarre world of urban slang that Mr Liew inhabits, I’d say he burned down the house if burning down the house means doing good in contemporary urban slang. (This phrase was popularised by the band Talking Heads, who in writing the song wrote down a series of phrases at random, and then joined them up to signify the chaotic nature of contemporary society. Perhaps it now signifies the chaotic nature of Mr Liew’s writing, one can’t be sure).
Mr Liew’s view of Arsenal is that for years players have hidden and shirked in order to get away with doing as little work as possible. So let’s consider. In the past six seasons Arsenal have won the FA Cup three times, come runners up and third in the league, as well as 5th and 6th in the other seasons. Not as good as the early Wenger years, but has given 3 trophies more than Tottenham, and two more than Liverpool (and indeed better league placings than Liverpool). Of course the Champions League was a major trophy for Liverpool, but still the comparison over recent years has a relevance I feel).
Indeed Arsenal’s last six years contains the sort of record that most clubs would give up their ownership of their ground (if they do own it) for. And yet Arsenal have done all this apparently by hiding and shirking. That’s quite something. It suggests that if only Mr Wenger had got off his backside we’d have won the league three or four times as well as those three cups.
Or could it be that as in his Telegraph days Mr Liew is generating a narrative that is far, far more insidious?
Through the use of a message that is wholly unfounded and unproven (as is the story of innate fatalism) the journalist creates a sense that hopelessness is real. In short what Mr Liew does is propagate a feeling that Arsenal is in trouble because of its own failings, whereas Arsenal’s “failings” would be success in most other club’s eyes, and indeed would be success in terms of most of Arsenal’s past.
In the face of the clubs with unparalleled financial resources Arsenal under Mr Wenger still picked up cups and top four positions. That could be celebrated as success, but instead Mr Liew portray’s it as total failure. But worse he does it in this faux humorous style which seeks to avoid any chance of a reader actually thinking, “this is simply not true.” In short Mr Liew’s message is, “I’ll blame the club,” when in reality the media itself created the story it now runs every day.
And as we know from seeing what AFTV has done, when the story has nothing to do with reality, the damage being caused can escalate. Mr Liew’s writing is in a very different class from that of the ranters on AFTV, and yet the harm it causes to Arsenal is the same.