There’s a challenge I like to set to anybody I find myself discussing the issue of perceived ‘media bias’ against their team. I always ask them to find me a supporter of any club that would indicate that their team is fairly treated, perhaps even preferentially treated, by the mainstream media. Football is a partisan and emotive sport that produces a lot of strong opinions. It is also very popular, so a lot of people talk about it. That’s a heady mix that produces a lot of debate and, when conducted respectfully, that’s a very good thing.
I have a lot of interests, but I find football and music to be the ones I feel most ‘informed’ about. This is because both music and football are so popular that the act of talking about them is in itself a lucrative industry. An ill fated trial at Crystal Palace when I was 9 years old is the most direct experience I have had of top level football. Yet I am paid money to write about it. I hope it’s not supremely arrogant to assume that this is because my opinion is deemed to be informed by those that pay me.
If indeed I have managed to amass a critical eye for football, it has been enhanced greatly by absorbing the opinions of others, most of whom have even less experience of playing the game than I do. As such, it is easier to absorb material that can broaden your thinking and increase your understanding. Over time, this can lead one to feel very sure about their opinions. That mixture of intellectual satisfaction and entrenched club allegiance can lead to sensitivities being violated when we read something with which we strongly disagree. This often motivates us to believe that a journalist or a publication harbours some kind of ‘bias’ or ‘agenda’ against our club.
Football journalism has undergone a huge shift in the last 5-10 years. Where the recipe was once dominated by facts (or ingredients that have been ‘genetically modified’ to appear as facts), seasoned with a sprinkling of opinion, nowadays it is opinion that monopolises the pie. Often, we will find an article about our club offensive simply because it doesn’t chime with our own opinion. In this case, it is the reader that is biased and has been appalled because the article doesn’t confirm their own bias.
As fans, we probably haven’t shifted our mind-sets to correlate with the changing landscape of football journalism. We still think of journalism as a medium dedicated to relaying factual information. It might be that we conflate the journalist’s opinion with a betrayal of factual data. We’re all fundamentally biased to some degree by our opinions. That’s what makes us hold opinions in the first place. The trick of course is to be secure enough to challenge your opinions and, if you’re open minded enough to entertain a persuasive counter opinion, to be willing to change them. One’s convictions are much more satisfying if they are hills from which we stand rather than caves in which we hide.
The press’ treatment of Mesut Özil over the last month or so has caused many to assert that the German is being intentionally mistreated. I have to agree. I don’t believe this is because the fourth estate has a bitter and bilious Arsenal bias at their heart. I think they do it because it creates a narrative that sells and my suspicion is that much of what has been written is orchestrated and pre-determined. The only agenda is money. Clicks, website hits, sales, advertising space. Arsenal fans are amongst the most ‘active’ consumers of media in football.
Poking the Arsenal hornet’s nest generates a lot of traffic. It is much the same for the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool who can sometimes be seen to share this persecution complex. The question is should this preoccupy us as much as it does? For a start, engaging with this sort of article helps it to fulfil its purpose. There’s a lot of interest in Mesut Özil and there are few more successful strategies for amassing website hits than outrage and indignation. That’s why the Daily Mail gave Adrian Durham a column.
It’s the bitter irony at the heart of the debate; click bait cannot work without clicks. Even those of us that would urge for a collusive effort to ignore this strand of journalism find it difficult to avoid at times. Philippe Auclair memorably described football as “an echo chamber with everybody screaming. If it sounds like it’s hell, it’s because it is.”
Football writing, like any other form of writing, at its best should be illuminating, engaging, interesting, well argued and informative. It’s natural that when we deem it to be none of these things, it’s frustrating. But how much does it matter really? Does it have a discernable effect on our club beyond just being a bit irritating?
Simon Greenberg, who eventually became Chelsea’s Head of Public and Press Relations, was once banned from the Selhurst Park press box when he had been working as a journalist from the Evening Standard. The Palace chairman at the time was Simon Jordan. He described in a 2006 article how Greenberg subsequently threatened to write deliberately negative pieces about Crystal Palace. These pieces, he allegedly warned Jordan, could create such a maelstrom of adverse feeling that they could adversely affect results and discourage potential commercial partners.
I recall the late Brian Woolnough of the Daily Star describing himself on Sky’s Sunday Supplement show as having worked “with six England managers.” The word ‘with’ implies that Woolnough saw himself as part of the England set up, rather than an observer and analyst of it. Arsenal reportedly banned The Sun newspaper from their press conferences for a set term some 13 months ago. An article directly following Arsenal’s F.A. Cup defeat to Blackburn, possibly the most combustible fan sentiment has been in Arsene Wenger’s 17 years in charge, claimed that Wenger was in line for a generously termed contract.
The club felt the article to be mischievous and misleading, designed to intentionally capitalise on the cacophony of ill feeling towards the manager. Those cases I have just talked about suggest that the media can influence more than just perception. Or at least, the extent to which they influence perception manifests itself into something more damaging than mild irritation. For a football club, that means there’s a belief that it can create factors that are detrimental for results and for revenues- the two main drivers of any football club in the 21st century.
If indeed the coverage of a club can impact in such a way, is it wrong to be precious about what we perceive to be deliberately cynical articles? But then if we do demonstrate ire towards it, are we not then simply multiplying the amount of screaming in the echo chamber and exacerbating it? Where is the line between a journalist’s opinion and his / her desire to generate controversy?
Did Neil Ashton really think Özil being physically injured against Bayern was an “excuse”? Was he just trolling to generate traffic? It’s all terribly confusing. It brings to mind the famous old saying, “Those that think they know it all are very annoying to those of us that do.” LD.
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