Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Eighteen
There was only one other person on the media bus away from the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, so I introduced myself. He was a Uruguayan and as soon as he found out I was English he started moaning about the nine-game ban given to Luis Suárez for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.
Broadly speaking I agreed with him: nine games at international level is more than a year and, unsavoury as biting is, that seems harsh. But what was weird was that the Uruguayan thought the British media was to blame – and in doing so he pursued the line of thinking suggested by the Uruguay coach Óscar Tabárez when he snapped at Bloomberg’s Tariq Panja in a press conference the day after the bite.
Quite apart from the absurdity of believing Fifa is sensitive to the whims of the British media, this seemed bizarre. Why, I asked, would the British media have it in for Suárez? Jealousy he replied, because he’d scored twice against England and because he was leaving Liverpool. I hadn’t intended to pursue the argument – I was genuinely baffled by the thought process – but I evidently didn’t hide the roll of my eyes well enough.
Why, he asked, why had the English media made such a big deal of the bite? Because, I explained, it’s a story: a big-name player, who still at that point played in England, had bitten a man. More than that, it’s an easy story: we’d already had Suárez biting pieces the previous year. He was unconvinced. The notion of a story, and that a press might disinterestedly pursue it, seemed alien to him.
It’s been a similar story with the Fifa scandal, with half the world apparently convinced that the British press pursued Sepp Blatter to get back at him for England missing out on hosting the World Cup. Perhaps a tiny percentage of the motivation does come from a sense that taxpayers’ money was wasted on it, but the campaign against Blatter pre-dates the World Cup vote by years. Rather, Fifa has been pursued because it’s worth pursuing: corruption is a story.
The British media has many faults. It can be vicious and hypocritical. It often pursues low-hanging fruit and looks to fit complex issues into pre-conceived templates. Cutbacks mean almost all writers write too much and that leads to corners being cut. There’s a lowest common denominator surge for clicks. At many papers there’s little attempt to disguise political agenda. But there is, at least somewhere near the core, a belief in journalism as a worthwhile end in its own right, that the pursuit of the story, whomever it happens to involve, is a worthy one. (There’s an uneasy truth here in that the sports pages are probably less partisan than the political pages. Fans habitually complain that the media is biased against their club, and it may even be that certain journalists do have prejudices, but the idea that any mainstream newspaper or website is doing anything other than pursuing readers is laughable; the situation is about as far removed as is conceivable from the situation in, say, Spain, where Marca can read like a Real Madrid club magazine.)
In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies points out that the newspaper industry in Britain is unique. The development of the railways and the size of the country meant that in the late nineteenth century, as the newspaper industry boomed, it was possible for a newspaper printed in London to reach Cornwall or northern Scotland by the following morning. The major newspapers weren’t regional as they were in most countries, but national; they were all competing with each other. The struggle for readers was intense and the battleground was stories.
Of course there are downsides to that – the competition often leads to sensationalism and a privileging of the salacious – but the bias is to the dramatic or titillating, rather than to an individual or an organisation. It also leads to a bloodlust, the desire when somebody is wounded to keep going after them until they resign or are sacked. That can be unseemly or unfair, but when the frothing moral fury is directed at a fitting target – such as Fifa – the energy and doggedness of the British press is uplifting. The British press – aided by a handful of others – has gone after Fifa for no other reason than because it can and it feels it should and because at the end of it there was the possibility of resignations and arrests. And that is something that makes me, as a British journalist – albeit one who has eschewed serious investigative stuff as far as possible – very proud.
It’s also why we should regard the restrictions placed on the media by Swindon Town (and to a lesser extent Newcastle United) as deeply worrying – and perhaps even more worrying is the astonishingly widespread sneering by fans that “journalists just twist the quotes anyway”. Sometimes they do, it’s true, and there are few things about the job more unedifying than a post-press-conference huddle deciding wilfully to take a quote out of context. That is an area we, as a profession, need to address. But those instances are mercifully rare. Far more important is that, at least once a week, a manager should appear to take questions from the media, that he and the club should be held to account. What if Swindon lose 10 games in a row? What if they start selling off their best players? What if ticket prices are doubled or the ground is put up for sale? Are Swindon fans really going to be happy that there is no forum for the press to ask what’s going on? Are they really going to be satisfied by the pap put out by the club app?
In the end, of course, what led to the arrests at the Hotel Baur au Lac was an investigation by the FBI, who may have been assisted by Andrew Jennings, the eccentric Cumbria-based journalist who has pursued Blatter longer and harder than anybody else. But they were vindication for all those who have probed Fifa.
After such a triumph for the British media, such a validation of its methods, there’s something very sad about the fact that, a couple of months later, clubs have begun to curtail the press’s basic freedoms. What’s even worse is the number of fans who seem quite happy they’re doing so.