Be My Friend

It’s not so long ago that newspapers and broadcast media bestrode the world of information, disseminating news and comment to the public, explaining what was going on and read and watched by the public  in their millions.  The internet changed all that, mostly for the good and sometimes for the ill.  It allowed blogs like this one to take off, gave a voice to a citizen army of writers and broadcasters and fragmented an industry that in some sectors still struggles to generate an income and define what content is worth paying for.  New viewpoints could be heard, if sufficient numbers were prepared to listen, share and discuss, and the democratisation of opinion was held to be a “good thing” even while the established media lamented the loss of control and influence amongst the great unwashed who now had the means of answering back.  Fake news became both a reality, and a term of abuse used to dismiss awkward opinions and shut down debate, and the general level of intolerance toward contrary opinions increased.

But there was a different strand that is only now being discussed and publicly recognised in traditional media  – the centralisation of messaging amongst sports clubs and governing bodies.  In one sense, it’s little different to how business has always operated, advertising being the key means of getting messages across and PR campaigns used to establish a reputation and a brand.  The means may change, but the principles remain the same.  Where it differed in a sporting context was that while the media had always been their means of doing so, there were few methods of exerting control over what was said and what angle the reporting took.  The club or board might not like it, but retaliating against a media outlet was entirely counterproductive, as they could be starved of publicity or constantly referred to as an entity who didn’t like free speech.  The objections in print would reach a wide audience, and be more or less impossible to successfully counter.

What has changed is that a club or a sporting body can now be their own media outlet.  Football clubs have their own TV channels, where they proudly boast exclusive interviews with their own employees, and where the message can be controlled in its entirety under the guise of access.

Tim Wigmore, always one of the more thoughtful cricket journalists out there, and one prepared to ask the most basic and important questions has written an article about this very question, Manchester United’s expressed desire to increase the prevalence of its “news” app providing the catalyst, alongside an acknowledgement that the USA has been moving down the same path.  There are many good points within that, and from a cricket blog perspective there’s a certain amusement to be had given it’s been one of the central themes of the writing on here over the last couple of years.

The ECB certainly floated the idea of their own subscription channel when musing the broadcast options coming up, and the appeal is easy to see – the revenue accrues entirely to them rather than to an intermediary and they can completely control the themes and provide a direct link to their army of sponsors.  Something approaching that model has been seen fairly clearly in India, where broadcast criticism of the BCCI has been rather comprehensively shut down.  In the UK at least, there are laws preventing the subject of a broadcast exercising editorial control, but that doesn’t apply (currently) to online.  In any case, while the attraction is clear, creating a full on media company is a big undertaking and to that end the ECB realistically still need partners for the foreseeable future.

Of course, there’s nothing especially radical in wishing to control a message, businesses do that all the time though generally speaking, avoiding being in the news is the aim there.  But the creation of their own story is part of the trick, and for employees and members of the industry, it’s nothing especially new.  By way of example, working in the travel and tourism industry I will tend to be very careful about what I say in public – not just in terms of those I work for, but in general.  Becoming the story through controversial opinions is something to be avoided like the plague, except in certain specific circumstances where such opinions are in themselves the currency – viz. Michael O’Leary.

Yet a full on takeover of the message by an organisation like the ECB is unlikely to be the real problem.  When that happens journalists become much more critical anyway, and the example contained within Mr Wigmore’s article, when Newcastle United banned journalists, attracted lots of attention and even more criticism.  By trying to control the story, they lost control of it completely, and freed the media to criticise with no further cost in terms of their relationship.

The far more insidious and dangerous trend in recent years has been the use of soft power to try to direct the narrative.  Sports journalism of the day to day nature requires access to the players and other key people in order to provide copy and generate interest, readership and, yes, clicks.  This can be made more difficult, and the plum opportunities given to those who are onside and can be trusted not to cause too many difficulties.  Those that don’t follow the script find that it’s a little harder to talk to the right people.  This is extremely tough to combat and a fair degree of sympathy for the individual journalist – but not the industry – is warranted.  To turn it around a different way, the three of us on here have no compunctions about what we say for the very good reason that we know for certain there is no prospect whatsoever of us being invited into the ECB’s inner sanctum, or even within the same diocese come to that.  However in our case, we aren’t being paid to do this, and don’t have a boss who can fire us.  But our and other blogs’ freedom comes at a different cost – highly limited contact with those in any degree of power.  A few journalists maintain a back channel to us, and occasionally we are given a heads up on something that they feel unable to write about themselves, which is a curious state of affairs on the one hand, and entirely understandable on another – not least the commercial imperative.

Where it is different for a journalist is that if they lose their access they struggle to do their job, and given it’s their livelihood it’s a real risk to take.  A reluctance to rock the boat is the likely result, and the other side of the coin is that by keeping close to the ECB they can get even better access and thus even greater reach for their articles with obvious personal benefits.  This kind of behaviour is worse by far because the bias is harder to spot, particularly amongst those who only pay cursory attention to the goings on.  It’s for that reason it’s such an attractive way of working for the ECB, or for any other organisation in the same position – limiting dissent, encouraging promotion, and enabling the party line to be maintained.  It’s also the hardest to combat; many journalists are very aware of the problem, but being aware of it and trying to prevent it are two different things.

There’s no real reason to assume this will improve, just the opposite.  In order for sports reporters to do their jobs properly, they need that access and they need to be able to talk to people within the top levels of the game, not just for themselves but for us as readers to try to glean the truth.  From that comes much of the best journalism, whether from sources or openly in interview.  It is a problem for the truth if any time they report on something they’ve learned they are dismissed for daring to talk to people – that is their job.  They face a dilemma in attempting to both gain insight and obtain a good story, while at the same time being entirely aware of what the ECB are up to.  Equally, conspiracy theories about all of them are unreasonable – the vast majority have professional pride and wouldn’t allow it to happen to them and wouldn’t be party to attempts to restrict them.  There are exceptions to that, and those that behave that way tend to attract a degree of contempt for their output.  But it’s rarely a matter of open collaboration, but of being sufficiently vulnerable to rein any criticism in because of the possible consequences.

If much of sport is now nothing more than a branch of the entertainment industry, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the same kinds of rules apply to the reporting.  Interviews with members of the movie industry are almost always on the back of promoting a film rather than for the sake of it – and always remember few people would wish to open up for the sake of it, these interviews are a part of their job and one many of them greatly dislike.  The prevalence of a footnote stating that a player is being interviewed courtesy of a particular sponsor has been an unwelcome development, and creates the dilemma for the journalist as to whether to play that particular game.  It’s hard to criticise them for doing so, yet it remains something of a blight.

There are few material answers to all of this.  Either journalism as a body responds and reacts to the threat to their independence or they don’t, and as is so often the case some of them do just that, and others take the advantages on offer as a trade for their independence.  It will undoubtedly allow them to generate much copy and many readers but at the price of their integrity.  That is their decision, ours is how much trust we have in anything they might say.  Some have found that even when they are right they are no longer believed, to their clear frustration.  But it’s brought on by their own conduct, and the collateral damage of good journalism being considered guilty by association makes it even worse.  We need them, we need them badly, but the truth is that they need us as well.  And that’s what needs to be remembered.

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