The War for Truth
Football, social media and the erosion of faith in the institution of journalism
This is one tweet. I could have picked any of hundreds. I just happen to have seen it as I sat down to write this piece, although I’m sure there will be plenty who will regard the selection of this Tweet rather than any other as evidence of bias. “Kongolo’s challenge on McTominey [sic] was no accident,” wrote an account seemingly based in California. “Huddersfield targeted the kid. Why has it barely got a mention?” There followed a slew of replies, almost all of them agreeing that this is yet more evidence of media bias against Manchester United.
I haven’t seen the challenge. I’d been away the weekend it happened. Other than a clip on Monday Night Football, I haven’t seen any of United’s win over Huddersfield. I had to look up Scott McTominay to make sure he was the midfielder I vaguely remembered coming on against Benfica in the Champions League. Obviously I was furious, so sent off an angry email to Football Journalist Central asking why I hadn’t got the conspiracy memo this week but it turned out the McTominay line was hidden beneath a raft of other instructions reminding me of the need to hate Manchester City, make Antonio Conte’s position untenable, despise the city of Liverpool, not take Tottenham seriously and undermine Arsène Wenger while simultaneously keeping him in a job for all eternity. And neglect the other 14 Premier League clubs, while scoffing at every other league in the world and ignoring the Championship and Leagues One and Two.
I used to joke that nothing made me more sceptical of democracy than reading the comments under articles. The levels of stupidity, closed-mindedness and aggression were horrifying. Was this really what people were? Even those who agreed with you were often smug, or co-opting your argument to press their own agenda. The usual response from editors tended to be that the commenters represented a tiny fraction of those who actually read the piece, but that always struck me as complacent: you can’t really assume that if we don’t know what people think they’re probably fine.
Social media, comments under articles and audience participation have created a major problem. As Ed Smith pointed out in in the New Statesman, social media means that we’re all editors now. The idea that the internet and the connectedness it offers would lead to a grand exchange of information and ideas has been exposed as hopelessly naive. Instead, Smith wrote, what has been brought to the surface is a world of “petty vindictiveness, bullying, indifference about due process, herding behind vogueish opinion, self-righteousness, the restless desire to find feet of clay in everyone and a yearning for instant justice.”
It’s unrealistic, of course, to expect everybody who has a Twitter account first to undertake a course in journalistic law, but it’s perhaps not absurd to hope that before retweeting something, users may pause to ask themselves how much they know about the subject, whether there is a reasonable expectation of truth. But that’s tied into a much wider point, one that extends across the whole media, social or otherwise, and has become one of the most pressing issues of the age: that of bias and truth and the point of journalism.
Postmodernism teaches that there is no such thing as unitary truth, that we all necessarily bring our biases and preconceptions to any subject. Unless we have some profound religious faith (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) that seems fairly unarguable. However open-minded I try to be, I am ultimately always going to write from the point of view of a middle-class white male born and raised in north-east England in the mid-70s and now living in London. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t strive for objectivity, that I can’t try to understand how those of different backgrounds see things, that I shouldn’t aim for Truth. Even in analysis or opinion columns, which is what these days I tend to write, there are basic standards to be upheld: you don’t lie, you don’t distort. That, after all, is what journalism is.
But Truth is slippery. Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon depicts a murder from the point of view of four different witnesses, whose accounts are contradictory but plausible. This gives rise to the so-called “Rashomon effect”, the acknowledgement that it’s very rare for two observers to see the same event in exactly the same way. It’s the job of journalism (or certainly news journalism and history) to sift those accounts and build up the most likely narrative of what happened, expressing multiple possibilities where appropriate.
A recognition of the impossibility of Truth is useful, perhaps invaluable, as is an awareness of your own biases, but what that absolutely does not mean – and this is an argument beloved of those who wilfully trade in misinformation – is that all truths are equally valid. “Maybe the Earth is round, maybe the Earth is flat” is not a nuanced representation of all sides of an argument; unless we are to reject science and any notion of empirical, evidence-based reasoning, one side is nonsense. This is where the BBC gets into trouble with its rules on balance.
I’m broadly supportive of the BBC and, having spent a lot of time in countries that have no equivalent, I’m hugely grateful that Britain can support such an institution, but at the same time it bears a level of responsibility for legitimising extremism in Britain. Far, far too often its need to offer a contrary voice leads it to provide a platform to extremists without providing necessary context or, in some cases, seemingly doing any background checks into a self-declared spokesman’s actual qualification for speaking on a topic. And far, far too often contentious or outright inaccurate statements are allowed to pass without challenge, whether in the name of providing ‘debate’ or because a presenter is insufficiently briefed.
That’s where the football analogy breaks down: there is little danger in a programme in which one person argues Wayne Rooney is the greatest striker England have ever had and another argues he has wasted his talent, whereas the bizarre courting of Nigel Farage, a provocative televisual presence who used to lead a now virtually defunct party that has never won a single parliamentary seat at an election, has helped generate an atmosphere of intolerance that has had profound and deeply unpleasant consequences. (Their attempts at balance often seem founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of what is opinion and what is science: two economists or politicians can argue about the best way to tackle inflation, but if you’re going to tell me climate change isn’t real, I want rather better evidence than Nigel Lawson harrumphing).
That’s not the BBC’s only shortcoming. It suffers an occasional smugness of tone, weirdly insists on banal public interaction and has a habit of referring to “the media” as though it were not somehow part of it, allowing itself to exist somehow on a higher plane while parroting items of titillation, provocation or propaganda that have appeared in the newspapers (exercising, even more profoundly than the press barons at which Stanley Baldwin first levelled the accusation, power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot though the ages ). In the great war for Truth in which the world is currently engaged, the BBC is an occasional facilitator of the spread of misinformation, but it is generally a force for good.
And, make no mistake, this has become a war.
There’s a danger always of assuming things were better in the past, that the newspapers of 100 years ago placed a greater value on objectivity. The Mail’s “Hurrah for the Black Shirts” headline serves, as ever, as a useful warning against nostalgia – as indeed do the circumstances of Baldwin’s attack on the Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook, as they sought to sway a 1933 election in Westminster St George’s. Yet it does seem there has been a slippage, a shift in the nature of what news is. The internet has created a series of problems for newspapers that have combined in a way that seems particularly unfortunate.
Most obviously, the ready availability of information online has decreased sales. There have been cut-backs across the board. There is no money to spare. Proper reporting is expensive. Investigations take time. They require journalists to travel, to stay away from home. Often it’s speculative, journalists digging in an area that seems suspicious but unsure whether they’ll turn up anything newsworthy.
That perhaps explains the Telegraph’s laughable investigation into corruption in football which, thanks to the FA’s cravenness, led to Sam Allardyce resigning his position as England manager for reasons nobody has yet been able properly to explain. He was offered a lot of money for an easy speaking engagement? Who wouldn’t be interested – and he even said he’d have to run it past the FA. He said he could explain how the transfer of players owned by a third party could be made in such a way it satisfied Premier League rules? That was made to sound deeply corrupt, but in fact it’s just a matter of aligning differing regulations, something that Premier League clubs often have to deal with. He was a bit rude about other managers? Come on. But the Telegraph, having invested time and resources into an investigation, had to justify the expense, so flammed up a slightly indiscreet conversation into something that appeared far worse. So far the only wrongdoing uncovered by their investigation involved a Barnsley reserve-team coach.
But there’s also a problem that news, once broken, is rapidly disseminated and copied. An investigation that took weeks or months becomes somebody else’s tweet in seconds and the vast majority of people don’t care where the news originated. Understandably, newspapers have begun to ask whether old-fashioned news journalism is really worth it. What they can offer, though, is good writing, whether amusing, well-argued, provocative or some combination of the three. That cannot readily be replicated.
That, though, has led to an elision between news and comment pieces, a blurring of the lines exacerbated by the fact that online the divisions between the sections of the newspaper are far less clear than they once were. The on-page furniture, where the article was in the paper, used to signal to readers what sort of piece they were reading: now you click on a link on Twitter or Facebook and that context is removed.
Add in an increasingly desperate quest for clicks and algorithms that promote the popular with no regard for quality and the result seems to have been an almost complete disregard for anything old-fashioned like the pursuit of truth. The tabloids, of course, have long since spiced up their front pages by blending fact with opinion. The Express has been a lost cause since Richard Desmond took over and perhaps before (it may be too hollowed out to be revived by Trinity Mirror, who bought it and the Star in February, promising further cost-cutting). The Mail and the Telegraph have lost all sense of decency and responsibility, at least at the front of the paper.
The Mail’s “Enemies of the People”, “Saboteurs” and “Traitors” front pages to describe anybody opposed to their stance on Brexit, whether through personal belief or because of the way they have interpreted the law, were disgraceful, assaults that can have no place in a democracy and whose existence highlights the toothlessness of press regulation. The Mail’s sports section, well-funded, remains exceptional; the battery farm of their online offering rather less so.
The Telegraph’s George Soros front page of February 8, based around an article by the former Prime Ministerial advisor Nick Timothy, was even more appalling. There are two possibilities: either they were being wilfully anti-Semitic or they lack the basic historical knowledge and awareness of contemporary events in eastern Europe to understand why their use of the tropes of secret conspiracy and international capital are anti-Semitic.
The Telegraph story amounted to nothing more than the fact that Soros, who has always backed free trade, openly made a £400,000 donation to Best for Britain, an organisation committed to halting Brexit. You may disagree with him and you may be troubled by a foreign billionaire seeking to influence British politics, but there is nothing conspiratorial about it and there are far greater concerns about secretive donations to the Leave campaign that are now being investigated by the Electoral Commission, by which the Telegraph seems far less concerned. Not surprisingly, the story was soon being used to justify a nakedly anti-Semitic line in Hungary, where (the Jewish) Soros is mysteriously accused of seeking to destabilise the state by encouraging an influx of (largely Islamic) refugees.
When the two possible explanations for an editorial decision are racism or dangerous ignorance, resignations should follow. Instead, the Mail and the Sun dutifully followed up the story the following day. The Mail on Sunday (a different paper to the Mail even though material from both appears on the same website) responded by then giving Soros the right of reply in a column, which from a journalistic point of view is exactly what it should have done.
Of course, all newspapers have their political slant. All present and order their stories in a way that is informed by that. That’s natural and inevitable. But again, there are protocols to be followed, basic levels of decency to be observed. The Telegraph used to be a newspaper I disagreed with profoundly on political grounds but which I basically trusted. First it was shattered by cut-backs and now it has become a right-wing propaganda sheet dog-whistling anti-Semitism. Its credibility was severely damaged in 2015 when it accused Jeremy Corbyn of “jigging” before the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph, printing as ‘evidence’ a photograph of the Labour leader from which a Second World War veteran to whom he had been speaking had been cropped out, changing utterly the context of a gesture he was making. That scandal should have prompted a reassertion of values; instead the Telegraph has continued its descent, tub-thumping for Brexit and gifting swathes of its front page to comment pieces from the likes of Boris Johnson and Timothy.
This general decline in respectability is doubly worrying. It’s dangerous because it feeds misinformation into the public sphere and it’s dangerous because it erodes trust in the institution of journalism. That has already had troubling consequences. Public figures now routinely dismiss allegations made against them by blaming conspiracy in the Mainstream Media. That’s a particular issue in the US, but it’s also happening in Britain, where a strand of politician, supported by brigades of ideologues, willing idiots and, perhaps, Russian bots, derides any negative story about Brexit while spreading fear about immigration. If you can’t trust the established newspapers, then why not instead read the new media outlets? But the problem is that many live outside the parameters that theoretically govern the mainstream papers (although it has admittedly become increasingly difficult to mount a defence for them on grounds of responsibility or decency). Sites like the Canary and Squawkbox are unapologetic in the message they try to push, but there are also far more insidious sources, deliberately sowing discord and provoking racial tension.
“Fake news” is an accusation hurled around as soon as anybody dislikes something in the media. Often it just means “I disagree” or “I’d rather you weren’t taking about this.” The problem, though, is that a lot of news these days is fake, manufactured, packaged or edited to promote a particular viewpoint. The issue is exacerbated by a general lack of resources in the media. A story surfaces in one outlet and the tendency for other outlets too often is simply to copy it rather than carrying out their own research, which in turn gives the report a false legitimacy (or to take the pusillanimous BBC line of reporting the reports while making little attempt to analyse their veracity, which has much the same effect).
What, you may ask, has this to do with football? To which the answer is that everything we see in political journalism we also see in football journalism. Fake news was prevalent in football long before it entered the mainstream, as were partisan groups who selectively ignored stories and arguments they didn’t like and co-opted weird conspiracies that fitted their world view.
Alex Ferguson was a master of manipulating the news agenda, often with blatant untruths. José Mourinho has carried that on. Frank Rijkaard never entered Anders Frisk’s room at half-time in that Champions League meeting between Barcelona and Chelsea in 2005. Although at the time he said he had seen him, Mourinho has subsequently admitted he was told (by whom is unclear) that he had. His initial allegation led to such fury that Frisk was forced to retire having received death threats.
Mourinho is very good at injecting suggestions that change the perception of events. Think of Thiago Motta’s red card for Inter against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final in 2010. How do you remember it? Sergio Busquets, admittedly, didn’t help with a manifest over-reaction but most (if an unscientific poll of the press room at St James’ Park is to be trusted) think of it as a scandalous decision. Watch it back on YouTube: Motta, already booked, flicked his fingers into Busquets’s face. It’s an entirely reasonable second yellow.
Or take the first leg of the Real Madrid v Barcelona Champions League semi-final the following year. What are your memories of that? The Pepe red card? Mourinho’s “por qué” rant afterwards? The general toxic mood? Lionel Messi scored a genuinely brilliant goal that night, but it’s been all but forgotten. Mourinho has successfully shifted the narrative from Barça’s excellence to vague innuendo about conspiracy.
Apportioning blame is difficult. The nature of sports journalism in Spain, clearly, doesn’t help, with certain newspapers overtly backing certain teams. It feels too easy, and futile, to blame social media, although there’s no doubt that Twitter and Facebook have accelerated the spread of unsubstantiated rumour and conspiracy theories. (Technology seems always to have been a concern, though: the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary in the late nineteenth century, for instance, was in part blamed on improved printing technology which allowed the widespread dissemination of cheap news sheets.) But it does seem that social media helps foster something toxic in modern culture.
The idea that football journalists have a collective bias – at least in England – is laughable. Almost all support a team, but the vast majority – not all, admittedly – have the capacity to leave that to one side. It’s remarkable as well how often accusations of bias come from people with Twitter handles like @xhakaozil98 or @culeblaugrana as though they, so devout in their fandom that they derive their identity from it, are somehow purer than the twisted hack who’s supported Port Vale since 1965 and really couldn’t care less who wins the Clásico or the North London derby.
The most obvious impact of a journalist’s support is an interest in their club and its history: a story or a detail I may ignore about another team I might look into if it’s connected to Sunderland. I certainly am more likely to notice historical parallels when they’re connected to Sunderland.
That’s not a major problem because journalists support a wide range of teams – and besides, it’s natural; people are always going to be more aware of certain issues than others. Barney Ronay, for instance, broke the story about Lewisham council’s compulsory purchase orders and the impact they might have on Millwall because he lives in the area, heard about people’s concerns and investigated. The fear is that a similar scheme elsewhere may pass unnoticed because they didn’t happen to have such a gifted and diligent journalist on the doorstep (which is the real danger in the decline in local newspapers).
But it does open the door to accusations of whataboutery, a favourite tactic of the obfuscators and conspiracy theorists. This has become such a default that almost whatever you talk about you’re asked why you’re not talking about something else. So when, before the Cup of Nations in South Africa in 2013, I wrote a piece about how five South African Football Association officials had been suspended pending an investigation into match-fixing I was accused by a small but persistent group of having an anti-African agenda, seemingly because I hadn’t listed in the piece every other incident of match-fixing that’s ever happened. The best way of stopping people talking about match-fixing is very simple: don’t fix matches.
Or at an Amnesty event in 2014 to discuss the World Cup in Brazil, the panel was accused of ignoring human rights abuses in Israel because we were talking about corruption and police brutality connected to, well, the World Cup in Brazil.
The flip side of that is the zealots who post a screenshot from, for instance, the television coverage of Manchester United’s FA Cup tie at Yeovil showing Mourinho cheerily hugging children, and insist that the mainstream media will never show the United manager is such a positive light, a tweet that ignored the fact the picture itself had been lifted from the mainstream media.
That’s not to say that it’s not possible to manipulate by omission, whether conscious or unconscious, because it clearly is. But it is to say that the practice of journalism is not possible if when writing a story (or opinion piece) you have not merely to get the facts right (and form a reasonable argument based upon them) but also catalogue every single instance of similar events.
It is true, of course, that there will be journalists who have good relations with a particular player, manager or agent which may shape how they regard events. Only in a small handful of cases, though, does that translate into the journalist becoming a mouthpiece for that contact – and when that is the case it’s usually fairly obvious.
Most journalists, though, exhibit bias in two ways. All of us want to be right, so if we’ve written that Manager X would be a disaster at Club Y, there is always a tendency to interpret performances and results in that way. And most of us want our jobs to be straightforward. Something like Germany’s 7-1 win over Brazil in the World Cup semi-final is perfect because it’s obviously a big story and it’s as good as done after half an hour, giving us plenty of time to write a considered piece. A game like Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham in February is a nightmare, with the story changing and more and more drama being added in the 10 minutes before deadline.
Where that starts to become a problem is when the template starts to shape a story that doesn’t necessarily fit. To take a very simple example, everybody knows that Manager Blasts Referee over Penalty is a story that draws readers. So in any game in which a penalty has been awarded, however blatant, managers will be asked what they think of the decision which is a form of crying wolf. Some penalty decisions are dreadful but they risk being lost by the controversy that is often generated around perfectly reasonable decisions.
Journalists also love stories with an easy moral. I was forced to confront that in a conversation with a Uruguayan journalist at the 2015 Copa América. He insisted that the reason the English media had condemned Luis Suárez so vigorously after he had bitten Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup the previous summer was because they felt slighted he had left the Premier League for Barcelona. That is nonsense – I can’t think of a single British journalist whose mind would work like that – but it is telling of how the media perhaps operates elsewhere.
But it did occur to me that we as a nation probably pounce on that incident because we’d written the same story in 2013 when he’d bitten Branislav Ivanović. We had the background about Suárez biting Otman Bakkal in 2010 and we’d worked through the morality of why biting, being so alien to usual conduct on a football pitch, merited (or didn’t) a worse punishment than a bad tackle. The bias was to the story, and that is perhaps something if not unique then at least more common in Britain than elsewhere.
To an extent it’s an accident of geography and history. Britain had (just about still has) local newspapers, but the national papers were truly national, the railways carrying them in hours from the presses of London to all parts of Britain. There was never the sort of regional bias you see in, say, Spain, where a newspaper would be targeted at an audience in Barcelona or Madrid. The British papers had to appeal to everybody. Competition was ferocious and the ground on which those battles were fought was the story. That led in certain cases, of course, to sensationalism and exaggeration, but it also meant a privileging of what was important and/or interesting over the promotion of some local agenda.
That commitment to the story is not without its downsides: there are times, for instance, when a level of sensitivity would demand the story not be exposed, and there have certainly been instances of journalists twisting facts to fit what they think the story is. But by and large it’s a positive. You find a politician acting corruptly and you act to expose him whether you voted for his party or not at the last election. You think a football club has breached regulations, you expose it whomever you support.
That’s why there have been repeated investigations from British newspapers over the past couple of years into Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Mo Farah. While there have certainly been some cheerleaders, there has also been a scepticism, no matter that they are British. The contrast with the behaviour of the Australian media during the Ashes is striking; at least some of them seem to see their role as being to support their team and undermine opponents. That is emphatically not the case in Britain, and nor should it be whatever the calls at every World Cup to get behind the lads – itself, of course, a precursor to the pathetic calls from Brexiters to “stop talking Britain down” every time a report surfaces suggesting the whole thing will be a disaster.
There is a romantic view of journalism that only infrequently fits the reality. Very occasionally journalists uncover a major wrong and are able to initiate the process of putting it right. Far more often the job is routine and, in football certainly, a case of trying to find a subject from which 800 words can be wrung. And, generally speaking, football journalism isn’t especially important (although it was to Anders Frisk).
It still has a value from the point of view of informing or entertaining, or participating in a wider discourse that slowly creates a sense of culture, but if journalism is really to matter, it must hold public officials to account. Its job is not necessarily to provide answers (the number of journalists who have become terrible politicians testifies to that) but it is to ask the right questions. That doesn’t mean sneery, shouty interviews in which a politician is unable to express any sort of coherent opinion without being interrupted, but it does mean a basic respect for truth.
That is what has been so horrifying over the past couple of years in Britain. Whether you are a leaver or a remainer, the shambolic nature of the present government is undeniable. Most media seem to accept that but what is baffling is the refusal on the part of certain outlets properly to interrogate statements they make. Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox have all made claims about Brexit that have categorically been proved to be untrue (as have Farage and Corbyn). Perhaps they were consciously lying, perhaps they were ignorant and incompetent; either way, their careers trundle on remarkably unaffected. Misleading the public, it seems, is no longer the stain you might think it should be in a mature democracy. As truth has lost its grounding, so being exposed in untruth has lost its sting.
That’s where everybody has a responsibility. I’m aware this is offering a hostage to fortune; mistakes do happen. But it’s incumbent on everybody, writers and readers, to try to re-establish a respect for truth. We, as writers, must call out untruth and obfuscation when we see it, and we, as readers, must avoid hyper-partisan, blinkered responses whether in football or politics or whatever and must beware of blindly propagating misinformation. There is a responsibility in a retweet that it’s easy to forget. And if respect for truth can be re-established, then perhaps there may again be consequences for those who abuse it.