Updated: May 10, 2020
A few weeks ago I had what’s probably best termed an exchange of views with Guardian sports editor Ian Prior on Twitter. It concerned news values, and in particular the reaction to the Suarez affair. Twitter is not the best place to have a detailed debate, so I’ve been wanting to expand on the subject ever since, and Jonathan Wilson’s observations in The Blizzard’s latest editorial have prompted me to get my thoughts in order.
I was doing some writing at home when I saw several people tweeting the news that Liverpool were about to issue another statement on the Suarez shebang. I tweeted the thought that perhaps the sports press might, at some stage, be tempted to write about the game rather than the surrounding hoo-ha. At which point Ian Prior responded that this was a big news story, far bigger than Spurs beating Newcastle 5-0, as they had recently done.
I hadn’t actually mentioned the Spurs game, but Prior may have been forgiven for thinking I was another supporter seeing his own team as the centre of the world. So I responded that I was making the observation as a journalist rather than as a partisan. The conversation bounced back and forth, with Prior first scoffing at the notion that another journalist may have different news values, then asserting that the Suarez story “was the most toxic in the history of football”.
I guess toxic, rather than biggest, was an interesting choice of word, but it still struck me as rather hyperbolic. I said so, which ratcheted up the exchange a little more, with Prior asking me to ‘take my time’ deciding which stories were bigger. In the sprit of the challenge I didn’t do extensive research, but off the top of my head came up with the 1964 match-fixing scandal, Don Revie’s departure from the England job, and Hillsborough. The response came back that the Suarez affair was much bigger than all that, and that my assertion that more should be written about the game itself ‘risked reducing sports reporting to chalk boards while ignoring the wider societal issues’.
I did have a bit of a laugh at this point, because for the best part of the past 30 years I’ve been accused of paying far too much attention to wider societal issues – but Prior was not to know that. We eventually agreed to move on, after accepting a tentative invitation to debate the issues at Northampton University from Alan Seymour, but that Blizzard editorial has brought the thoughts back.
Wilson writes of being bemused as he sat down to report the African Cup of Nations final by a Nigerian journalist who urged hi to look at the slow-mo footage of the Evra-Suarez non handshake on her video feed. “Is that really what we’ve become?” he asked, before going on to say that “it was still hard to wonder, reading the abuse that flowed back and forth on every Suarez blog, whether we in Britain hadn’t actually lost sight of what actually matters about sport: the sense of emotion and drama and striving to achieve something extraordinary”.
Context is so often everything, so it’s worth remembering Wilson’s thoughts came from the final at which Zambia completed one of the most remarkable and emotional victories in many years, Prior’s were expressed from the midst of a shift on The Guardian’s sports desk, and mine came from my back bedroom while I was updating a book and waiting for a lamb casserole to cook. But still, the thought lingers that much of what passes for sports news is nothing of the sort.
It’s worse in transfer window time, when media brands pretty much give themselves over to agents, players and managers attempting to flog, move on or tap up players. But for increasing amounts of the year, non-stories or stories that are inflated out of proportion are taking more and more space and time. Take just one recent example, close to my partisan heart. ‘Redknapp rules himself out of Chelsea job’ was the headline. What had actually happened was that a journalist had asked Harry if he would be interested and Harry said no. He hadn’t been offered the job. He is unlikely ever to be offered the job. But still the story ran, provoking much comment from people who should know better.
Am I arguing the Suarez story was not a story? Of course not. But after the initial furore, there wasn’t really much to say. No one will ever be able to prove whether or not Suarez is a racist. Everyone – especially including what one wag amusingly called the ‘Liverpool branch of the South American linguistics society’ – has a view and developed expertise in this previously obscure area, but there is very little fact to be picked over. Of course, Liverpool’s bungling press office made the story bigger by not immediately issuing a ‘no offence intended’ apology and then instructing Suarez to shut up for a few weeks. The subsequent ban and damage to the reputation of Liverpool and football came in the wake of the club’s bone-headed obduracy.
But by now the story was increasingly about a serious of assertions rather than any facts or events. The media was feeding on the furore caused by the story, rather than moving the story itself on. It’s not hard to see why it gained so much space, especially in the age of internet search – it was a great chance to get some very searchable terms such as Liverpool and Man United into the headlines. But if we think it was a big, important news story, we’re in trouble. Big, important news stories are things such as corruption in football – the sort that Tom Bower wrote about in Broken Dreams. Large sections of the sports press dismissed that one as the work of ‘someone who doesn’t really know about football’.
But I’d also take issue with the view that writing about the game itself ‘risks reducing it to chalkboards’. Jonathan Wilson’s book on the history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, doesn’t separate the game itself from its wider impact. Not does David Winner’s Brilliant Orange or Jimmy Burns’s Barca: A People’s Passion or a host of other titles that put the playing of the game at the centre of the picture.
In all the vast coverage of modern football, how much is really about the game and how much is just so much showbiz gossip and hype, so much inflated and concocted controversy, the stoking of petty rivalries for marketing purposes? What’s being missed is the real beauty of the game, the essential truth of what sport means and what sport can do. And what’s the wider societal impact of that?