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July 2021

When football journalists fall out, there’s something nasty exposed beneath

by Tony Attwood

By and large football journalists don’t criticise each other, and that for one simple reason: most of the time most of them make up what they write.  If one criticises another he or she can then be criticised back, simply because everyone is writing about fantasies.

The difference between football journalism and other journalism is that in football journalism there is never any real attempt to get things right – not even among the “quality” papers.  As a result there is also no attempt to balance football coverage or give a broader perspective.

It is sometimes said, as has been recently mentioned in the Guardian, that the media is best “understood as a marketplace of competing voices,” but when it comes to football that is not the case.   The lack of proper criticism and analysis of the FA, the failure to cover the legal cases against Fifa, or indeed Fifa’s activities that have led to these  cases, and the total lack of awareness of football’s history (as for example with any story about Henry Norris such as the Mirror’s recent accusation that Arsenal were involved in match fixing), and their current total unwillingness to delve into the curious playing statistics that started to emerge last season and have continued this season, all show this to be true.

So the curious attack on Marcus Rashford in the Mail on Sunday last weekend really didn’t cause too many waves.   It points out that the player has a nice house, and contrasts the lifestyle he has with the lives of those who is trying to help.  It’s what the papers do.  Knock someone who is doing something good, unless he shares the paper’s political views (which in the case of the Mail is extremist right wing).

The Guardian has a bit of a go at the Mail’s attack on Rashford pointing out that “”in the same newspaper is a financial columnist urging chancellor Rishi Sunak to resist reforming capital gains tax on the basis that it would “deter wannabe landlords”.  And that’s a fair start.

But then the Guardian is by and large against the abuse of human rights, and against corruption, and yet in its football columns it has persistently refused to condemn having a world cup in Qatar despite all the evidence that the grounds have been built in part by slave labour.   Yet it also got worked up about letting the Saudis take over Newcastle United, because of a copyright issue – while not going into the fact that most of the corruption stories about Fifa, have been about the corrupt selling of TV rights for successive world cups.

The Guardian’s piece is right suggesting, “Rashford is the populist right’s worst nightmare: a young, black, working-class campaigner who bases his appeal not on culture war or tribal loyalty or fiery invective, but on unity, consensus, the common ground. He is a political campaigner who rejects party politics, rejects the idea that conflict and progress are the same thing, indeed refuses to acknowledge that there is anything remotely contentious or left-leaning about wanting hungry children fed. And – coincidence! – he gets things done.”

Quite so, and yes, it is true that the “country’s conservative establishment has come to see Rashford not as a fleeting irritation but as an existential threat: a man cheerfully exposing not just the worst privations of government austerity but our own snide and bickering political culture. Small wonder his personal finances and lifestyle choices are now considered fair game. If Rashford is allowed to succeed, who else might follow in his wake?”

Indeed who?  Well, looking back in history we could see Henry Norris, endlessly condemned in the popular media as a crook who corruptly got Arsenal into the 1st division, a man recently condemned in a completely new accusation made by the Sunday Mirror (over 100 years after the events happened) for match fixing).

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The point is, giving us bits of reality and then drawing false conclusions (often while throwing in downright falsehoods at the same time) is what the media does when it comes to football.  It is what the Guardian does when it covers world cup matches without mentioning the court cases and the bribery and corruption charges that have been brought.

It is right to criticise the Mail’s childish and pathetic attack on Rashford.  But really, the question is why can’t it bring its football reporting generally up to the same standard of covering all the facts (including those that don’t fit) when covering the FA?  Why not mention that the FA didn’t keep proper records of its giving to charity, and so had to rename the Charity Shield?  Why not point out what is behind the FA’s desire to keep foreign players out of the Premier League?

Above all, why are the few newspapers which elsewhere have seemingly decent standards of reporting so selective when it comes to football, deliberately keeping out of the limelight every discussion that might lead us to question how balanced refereeing is in the Premier League?

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