We are a few minutes into Sidney Lumet’s criminally under-rated masterwork Q&A when a telephone rings in a guy’s apartment. He rolls over in bed and picks it up. He is assistant district attorney Francis Reilly, still just a kid, and his boss, a ball-busting sleaze named Kevin Quinn, has called him up because a legendary police officer named Brennan has shot and killed a low-life outside a dingy bar.
It’s the kid’s first case, and that’s why he’s been chosen. Quinn assumes that he’s a career boy, a box checker who’ll follow the rules and not rock the boat.
Quinn, for reasons of his own, wants this matter dealt with quickly and without fuss. He gives the kid the low-down on what he knows of the case, and then sends him on his way.
Just as the kid gets to the door, Quinn calls him back for a second.
He tells the kid to make damned sure he gets it all down on paper.
“For all intents and purposes,” he says, “the Q&A defines what really happened. If it’s not in the Q&A it didn’t happen.”
It’s a moment which sets up a wonderful movie, and one I came back to last night when I was pondering the day’s events.
There is something almost mystical about getting stuff “on the record.” As Scottish football fans we are well used to seeing how the media version of events has the ability to become the accepted history, no matter how incompetent the writer or distorted the facts.
When Rangers existed, when they were still a superpower here, it was almost comical reading the media’s craven reporting of everything that snaked its way out of the Ibrox press room. Rangers thought of themselves as the biggest thing in town, and the media bought into that and acted accordingly. Back then, the club at Ibrox was Box Office stuff. Now they’re Cardboard Box Office, and the assorted oddities who’ve come and gone or inhabit the boardroom now no longer have the same pull.
Nowadays, the spotlight shines elsewhere.
Over the last couple of weeks, since the Legia game in Warsaw, something unusual has been going on in the Scottish media. Certain writers have taken it upon themselves to launch into unprompted defences of Peter Lawwell and the Celtic strategy, in a way that is oddly reminiscent of the way in which they once defended the man who lorded it from Ibrox, David Murray.
I find this unusual because on the back of an horrendous result, the appointment of an unknown manager and the spending of zero money despite a transfer cash surplus in the tens of millions they should have been writing searching articles asking hard questions.
I am moved to wonder what motivated them to write fawning pieces of sycophancy instead.
Tell you what, I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Later on today, it’s said that Lawwell himself will sit down with the media and let them question him, so he can get his side of the story out.
Lawwell is a smart man, and he gets his due credit for being willing to do this, but it’s not because I expect anything particularly illuminating to come out of it. No, it’s a piece of PR spinning, and I can guess pretty much everything he’ll say, from “we are working hard to bring in players but there are no guarantees” to “we are constrained from operating in Scotland.”
It will be the same old excuses, the same old mantra, the same old tired nonsense, with the occasional vague promise of “jam tomorrow” thrown in.
No, where he gets credit is in being able to read the tea leaves. He knows that getting the board’s side of this on the record is important, especially with Europa League ticket packages to sell. He knows that if he’s going to pull something out of this firestorm of criticism that he has to get in front of it, in the way Malky MacKay knew he couldn’t ride out his own self-made disaster by hiding away from the world.
In short, he had no choice but to step forward and take some flak. He doubtless believes that a “warts and all” session in front of the hacks will work as a piece of damage limitation, and under normal circumstances he might even be right.
These aren’t normal circumstances. Because some us won’t be listening to the answers he gives half as carefully as we’ll be listening to the questions he’s asked.
I’m concerned about that, because I’m way too familiar with how the media operates to expect that this will be a forensic examination. I fear that it won’t be anything of the sort. It will be softball stuff, easy to deflect. When they do ask difficult questions there will be little cross examination, little scrutiny, as to whether the answers he gives stack up.
Our hacks have never been terribly efficient. They’ve never been all that good at sifting through what they are told, and separating out the spin from the substance.
There are some questions which are crying out to be asked here: whether Neil Lennon’s leaving was related to the club’s downsizing strategy? What he thinks of Johan Mjallby’s comments in one newspaper yesterday that this is exactly why the backroom team chose to go? Does he accept that the strategy of selling players after only a few years at the club defeats any manager with a notion of growing, and building, a team? Does he realise that this will leave us in the same position every summer, scrambling to replace those who’ve gone? Does he value the continuity and the growth of the football team as having a higher priority than the balance sheet? Does he believe that good players will ever want to stay at a club which appears to lack the ambition to build a strong squad? Does he accept that our wage cap keeps us shopping in the bargain basement, and is the reason we have a 40 strong squad which is nowhere near to being good enough?
There are many more questions that can be asked here, areas which don’t even touch on the business or football, like whether the club has any interest in reaching a new understanding with The Green Brigade; whether we are progressing the causes espoused by the fans, such as our demand for answers on the SFA’s granting a European license to Rangers before their liquidation and our pursuit of justice on EBT’s. None of those questions will be asked either.
The truth is, and he knows this because we all know it, the Scottish sporting press is safe ground for someone in his position. They are too dependent on hand-outs from the clubs to rock the boat, and Celtic is the biggest boat there is, with more scraps to throw at them than any other side. Lawwell himself is a Great White Shark, a cagey proposition to try and catch in a net, and if you manage to do it what then?
I suspect that this is the reason we’ve seen certain editorials in the press defending a strategy which any journalist in his right mind would be taking to bits in a forensic way.
Graham Speirs, who’s lead off hitter inspired a whole article on this site, didn’t even come close to making a convincing argument on behalf of the way we’re run, referring to “six years of success” which yielded a paltry three domestic trophies, half the available league titles and five colossal failures in Europe offset by one good year. It read like a Celtic press release rather than good journalism.
I think in some ways it probably was. Speirs was one of a number of journalists Peter Lawwell deliberately started courting back in 2008, inviting a selection of hand-picked hacks to come up to Celtic Park for a bite to eat and a wee off the record chat. It was at this meeting where Lawwell told Speirs that the club was facing “five difficult years.” Is it a coincidence that Speirs chose to praise the decisions that had been within that timeframe? Maybe it is, and maybe it’s not.
We know this meeting took place, and we know that conversation was had, because Speirs broke ranks and wrote about it. Oh he didn’t go into detail, and so he wasn’t ejected from the Circle of Trust, but in a column later on that year he wrote about the lunch in a piece that was laying out what the future at Celtic Park would look likely look like. The absence of Rangers aside, it’s pretty close to where we are today.
Who else was there? Speirs didn’t say, and on the surface of it there’s nothing unusual about that kind of gathering. It happens all the time in politics and in showbiz and it is a matter of routine in those professions, and I am sure sport is the same.
Being courted like that must be nice for the media. It makes them feel special, but it also compromises their objectivity.
Hugh McDonald’s article of the other day was even worse, if that’s possible, leading off with a headline that was inviting ridicule before I even read a word of the article itself. “Money Can’t Buy Them Players …” was the title of this arrant nonsense, making Celtic the only football club in the world for whom a cash surplus has become a negative.
In another article which read like something that could have been written in The Celtic View, another hack talked about how Celtic could afford a £10 million striker, but that we could not afford the £20 million he would cost in wages over four years … an unintentionally hilarious piece of sums-on-the-back-of-a-hankie which he appears not to have realised amounted to a salary of £100,000 a week, a sum nobody has even remotely suggested is realistic or desirable, and which no player in the £10 million bracket would ever come close to getting paid.
This article was nothing more than an excuse for why Celtic no longer even pursues blue chip players. (And I mean that in the comparative sense, not in the literal “let’s sign Messi” one).
The question I’m posing is; why are some in the media willing to make this excuse for us? Which leads to the next question; how can we trust these people to ask the right questions, that will get us the answers we deserve and clarify the thinking of those who run Celtic?
The obvious answer is that we can’t. Truth to power does not come easily to our hacks, and Lawwell has the kind of influence not even Murray himself could have wielded. Hugh Keevins has already been ejected from Celtic Park in the last couple of years, and whilst I supported it and think it was long overdue, and in fact think other journalists with clear anti-Celtic biases should have joined him on the outside looking in, there was a very clear message being sent out with the ban.
Toe the line or face the consequences. And this is a guy who’s authority reaches beyond Celtic Park. He’s on the SFA’s main board and is one of the leading players on the governing body of the SPFL. This is a guy who can close more doors than just the one to the Parkhead boardroom in their faces.
No-one in the press will go out of his way to push too hard, and as nice as it sounds to imagine a Celtic CEO having them this nervous it’s dangerous because it keeps the truth from us as much as Murray’s own influence with the press kept the truth from Rangers fans.
No, today’s question and answer session will be mildly amusing but not overly interesting. Nothing new will be said. No new course will be charted. Those expecting fireworks, revelations, tough questions or detailed answers will be disappointed.
In Lumet’s brilliant film, the young Assistant DA, Francis Reilly, played by the always excellent Timothy Hutton, finds out what really lies behind Quinn’s desire to have the Q&A reflect only one side of the story. His crusade for the truth has devastating consequences, and uncovers a dark underbelly of buried secrets, compromises of the blackest kind and a corruption that runs deep.
When Peter Lawwell is finished talking today many people are going to be eminently satisfied with just what’s “on the record.”
It’s worth remembering though that the Q&A doesn’t represent exact truth, only a sanitized version of it, the one that’s deemed acceptable for us to have. I’ve seen too many of these elsewhere to take it at face value.
Getting to the real nuts and bolts of this is going to be a much tougher task.
Once again, I think getting the real answers (or at least asking the real questions) is going to come down to the fans.
This is a job I don’t trust the hacks to do at all.
(On Fields of Green badly needs your support as we enter our own transitional period. If you can make a donation, we’d appreciate it. You can do so with the Donate button at the top or the bottom of whatever device you’re using. Every support we get is massively helpful.)