Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Twenty Four
A few years ago, we did a Blizzard event at the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool. Somebody in the audience asked what guarantee there was that a cover-up such as that which followed the Hillsborough disaster couldn’t happen again. I replied that, while guarantees are impossible, particularly when police and politicians are briefing a particular angle, I hoped that the rise of ‘citizen journalism’, the freedom offered by social media, would lead to the right questions being asked of the official account far earlier. I saw the weakening of the authority of the mainstream media as broadly positive.
I fear now I was being hopelessly optimistic.
It’s not that I think the right questions wouldn’t be asked: I’m sure they would be. It’s not that fans of the wronged club wouldn’t rally round and apply pressure: they would. It’s that, in early 2017, we seem to have entered a world in which there are so many voices all demanding to be heard that any notion of authority is problematic, that the very concept of truth is being eroded. It’s one thing to doubt the existence of a unitary truth, to recognise that some, many or all ‘truths’ are in some way refracted through various biases and prejudices, but it’s quite another effectively to say that one ‘truth’ is as good as another. When the Ukip donor Arron Banks suggests his understanding of the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire is as valid as that of the Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, Mary Beard, it is absurd and vaguely amusing (at least until you realise the political point he’s trying to make); when he starts raising alternative versions of what happened at Hillsborough, the damage and the hurt become rather more immediate.
Foolishly clicking on an exchange on the actor Joshua Malina’s Twitter feed, I recently found myself drawn into reading an argument – that’s far too dignified a term, but I’m not sure we have a word for the splurge of idiocy – about climate change. Somebody pointed out that the vast majority of scientists accept it is happening, to which somebody else replied that scientists once believed the earth was flat: they were wrong then, and they were wrong about climate change. At first, the stupidity seemed almost funny – it was, after all, presumably scientists who had persuaded the Tweeter in question that the earth was round, and you assume the Tweeter accepted the wisdom of science in other parts of life: the need to drink, eat or breathe, for instance – but then it struck me: this is the ultimate logic of a world in which all opinions have equal weight. You just cherry-pick the ones you like.
That’s why expertise and authority matters, because not all opinions are equal. That’s not to say experts shouldn’t be questioned, it’s not to say they’re never wrong, but it is to say that they’re more likely to be right than somebody half-remembering a school lesson from several decades ago to make up a theory that happens to fit their political views.
In matters of news, the experts ought to be journalists. We’re the ones who have the training and the experience (and, up to a point, the resources and the access) to pick through competing narratives, to weigh evidence and work out what happened. That’s what the mainstream media, to use that dreaded term, ought to be doing. Resources, though, are an issue. The Blizzard contributor Barney Ronay recently helped save Millwall from a compulsory purchase order on land near their ground with a series of articles in the Guardian in which he exposed various conflicts of interest between Lewisham councillors and the developer. He became aware of the story because he’s lived in Lewisham all his life and realised that something didn’t quite feel right. The fear is that this sort of deal is going on all over the country and other areas aren’t fortunate enough to have a Barney to step in. Once, local newspapers would act as a watchdog, but the vast majority now have been stripped back to the extent that proper scrutiny is all but impossible. It’s telling even of how stretched nationals are that when the CPO was finally stopped, Barney was filing on it while covering a cricket tour in India. (It’s indicative, incidentally, of the habit of cherry-picking ‘truths’ that even after Barney had laid out vast amounts of documentary evidence, one councillor gave his full backing to the mayor, saying he’d known him for years and wasn’t going to change his mind just because of some newspaper articles by “a Millwall supporter”).
Individuals, of course, have the right to challenge journalists-as-experts, to point out mistakes and, when they do, with evidence or reason, the newspapers and television channels should acknowledge any error. (Of course in a world in which all opinions are valid, many of those taking journalists to task seem unable to differentiate between errors or bad practice on the one hand, and a differing opinion on the other, as a glance at any comments section will demonstrate.)
The problem with citizen journalism is precisely that it lacks the authority that mainstream papers should have, that they used to have: nobody knows what biases an individual may have, what agenda he or she may be pushing. It’s that authority that should be the great strength of mainstream publications which at least in theory have a structure in place to ensure a measure of balance.
But recently, that authority has been squandered. Certain newspapers have taken clear political stances on certain issues and have disgracefully twisted their reporting to fit. To an extent, of course, newspapers have always had a political standpoint. That’s only natural. There are certain stories that will appeal to one readership that don’t appeal to another. There are ways of addressing a story that present one side or the other in the better light. That’s not particularly a problem and is, essentially, unavoidable. But what has happened recently, with distortions, untruths and recklessly inflammatory headlines, is far more serious. And the long-term danger is that if the mainstream media loses its credibility, then truth itself is lost: particularly in an age in which politicians have taken to telling out and out lies, they should be the arbiters, they should be the ones calling the liars to account. It’s far harder to do that if they themselves are fundamentally mendacious.
Perhaps it’s slightly ridiculous to be addressing such grand themes in a football magazine, but it occurred to me in putting this Blizzard together that it’s probably the most political issue we’ve done. It’s political in a direct sense in the discussions of the aftermath of the Gabonese elections, the rise of Asia and Yorkshire’s leaning towards Brexit, but also more indirectly, in David Stubbs’s ambivalent nostalgia for the calm of 1996 and a number of pieces that variously address issues of identity. That was not a conscious plan, but that it has turned out like this probably says something about the age in which we live.
And it occurred to me as well, that many of the habits that have corroded faith in journalism are readily apparent in football coverage – and that the basic principles are important in all forms of journalism. The constant search for ‘lines’, the willingness to wrench quotes out of context, the common habit of going into a press-conference or an interview looking to trip a manager or player up and get them to say something controversial that they may not mean, all that is common and distorting. But so too are the exaggerations and sensationalism that have infected even publications that would consider clickbait anathema.
There is a need, now more than ever, for a sense of responsibility. That’s true for readers and commenters, but it’s especially true for writers and editors. It matters less in football coverage than elsewhere, but standards are important whatever the field. Truth has never been a virtue in such need of being upheld.
This article appeared on Episode Seventy Two of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.