Oscar Wilde said “The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.”
Carl Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward brought down a President and changed the nature of the business, later went on to castigate what it became, and said, “The lowest form of popular culture – lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism. Today, ordinary people are being stuffed with garbage.”
The creator of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, one of the most crusading journalists on the planet today says “If journalism is good, it is controversial, by its nature.” I believe strongly that he is right. Yet the quote on journalism I found most relevant to the subject of this piece came from Rush Limbaugh.
“I never, ever have seen media this way. It’s almost indescribable. Making up stories, refusing to run real stories. It’s making themselves look like utter fools. There’s no journalism, there is no media. There’s pure, full-fledged advocacy here.”
He was talking about the American media, of course, but those words are as dead on accurate as you can get when you apply them to the Scottish sporting press. Never have I seen standards so low, or propaganda so pure, or incompetence so complete. I am astounded at how appalling they are at what they are supposed to do. I am stunned at their disdain for those who are better at it then they are and I am amazed at their contempt for those in the business with the courage to treat the job as more than just a pay cheque.
The coming weeks will see the publication of the verdict in the Big Tax Case, and the media will be falling all over themselves to claim “exclusives” and get it out there that they knew it all and told it all, and that without them the world would have known nothing of what was going in inside Ibrox. The truth is somewhat different, as everyone who has studied the game in Scotland these past couple of years is well aware. Had it been left up to the crusading Scottish media, the gates of Ibrox would have been padlocked shut without a soul having the first clue as to why, or how, it had happened. And just in case I’ve not made myself clear, let me do so now; the Scottish press was not so much asleep at the wheel when the crash came as they woke up pissed in a ditch the following day, having somehow crawled out of the wreckage.
These guys were trumped again and again and again, and there are files galore out there, laying testimony to all of it. Read over websites like RTC, like CQN, and check those dates. These guys were at the forefront of the story. It’s all there for anyone who wants to have a look at it. The media’s own contribution is there for all to see too. The ways in which they were wrong are all laid out like a banquet, for anyone wanting to feast on their shame. I noticed recently the Daily Record removed its notorious “The Billionaire Set to Buy Rangers” story from it’s website, the abject humiliation of it now too much to bear, perhaps. But no matter. Many of us keep our own records, have our own archives, and can quote the story chapter and verse … along with the names of the writer who penned it, the department head who endorsed it and the editor who let it run. That story – and their shame at printing it without even the most basic attempt to corroborate a single detail – will live on in infamy forever, along with succulent lamb and many others.
I am a Celtic fan, and many of the articles I write will have roots in that perspective, but I want to say something from the off, and I don’t think I’m crawling out on a limb. Celtic fans do not distrust the media any more, or any less, than the fans of Rangers do. The cynicism is mutual. Disdain for the spineless hacks we have in this country is not a tribal thing any more than wondering what the Hell has gone wrong with our national team is. The utter contempt in which these people are held is a cross-community affair if ever there was one, the kind of thing that could honestly get the fans of every club into one room, and in total agreement.
I haven’t bought a newspaper regularly since my second year at University, and the surprise when I actually tell people that is surprise on my end, at how many of them give me an understanding nod and then tell me they’re the same, and it cuts across all the papers. This is not about favouring The Record over The Sun, or the Herald over The Express, or, really, anything over the Daily Mail. In Scotland, this malaise affects them all, as if it’s a cultural thing, as if it’s a virus which has swept through every newsroom.
Let’s be even clearer; it’s the sports departments, and only the sports departments, I have a problem with. When they are doing news, straight up normal news, many of the dailies are actually bang on. On most local issues, they are razor sharp and I don’t ignore the papers because of their coverage of politics, as that is so slanted it’s ridiculous, and another nod to Limbaugh’s quote, which, as I am well aware, is, itself, a politically slanted rant, as he’s talking about a perceived left wing bias in the US media. The coverage of politics is the same on both sides of the Atlantic. All 57 varieties of political thought are catered for in one publication or another.
I follow politics, as I do all news, online, and I read everything there is out there on the subject, covering the whole spectrum, from the far left to the far right, here and in America, the better to get a clear idea of what’s really happening. I am a leftie, but I find it instructive to read what the right-wing papers are writing on any given day; indeed, their analysis is often concise, insightful and brilliantly written. It is partisan, but that’s not a deal breaker, especially when you know what you’re reading is filtered to reflect certain biases.
But sports journalism isn’t meant to be partisan, or to contain bias. The clubs have their own media departments to handle that, and many have their own publications to do spin. Furthermore, sports journalists are not supposed to be scared to go boldly where others fear to tread. This isn’t covering war, where what you write can get people (including you) killed. Investigative journalism in sports writing isn’t like digging for dirt on financial institutions or chasing corruption, or tackling organised crime. Are you going to get your kneecaps smashed for saying a manager is bad at his job, or that a new signing is not producing the goods? Of course you’re not.
Being scared to do your job – as a sports journalist – is contemptible. Either that or something has gone badly out of whack in society. More on that later.
I am not, by the way, talking about sports journalism as a whole.
I am sure that at the bottom, scrambling around writing match reports at Third Division games (a popular gig at the moment I hear, judging by the number of lead writers who are showing up to cover them) and writing about Scotland’s other sports, there are any number of cracking writers, probably younger folk, who have the fire in their bellies and know what they got into the business to do. I exempt them from criticism, and pray they read the blogs, and look at the veteran journalists with the same weariness we do. These people are not to blame. It is those at the top, those whose names are most familiar, the likes of Traynor, Guidi, Jackson, King, Keevins and others, who have crashed circulations, destroyed entire institutional reputations and threatened the very sports journalism industry in which they have worked for years.
There was a time when there was a mutual respect between supporters and the press. It seems an eternity ago now, speaking as I do in an era where idiots with typewriters caustically throw around terms like “fundamentalists” and “internet bampots”. Look at the likes of Jim Traynor, and what galls you, above and beyond the nonsense he writes, is the condescension with which he treats everyone who calls the god-awful radio show where he is the anchor, or the hotline where he and others post sarcastic responses to the points of the people who, in buying his paper, pay his wages. It’s in that contempt he most clearly displays how little he thinks of his readers, and his listeners, even some of his own colleagues, and how little regard he has for their views.
Who do these people think they are? Are they something special? Legends in their own bathrooms? It is worth noting that Keith Jackson, the author of one of the “billionaire” stories the Record is now heartily ashamed of, the man who penned the words “off the radar wealth”, and then later claimed he’d never believed a word Whyte had said, this year won an industry award for the best sports journalist. That must be a little like a homeless group having an award ceremony for who under the bridge has the best cardboard box.
Are these people serious? Keith Jackson is the best they’ve got? This is the man who went on TalkSport on 19 April claiming Rangers had “entered the endgame” and that within a few hours everything would be resolved. On that day he said it was the Singapore bid which looked likely to get over the line.
Then on 4 May he announced in an “exclusive” in The Record that Bill Miller had come to the rescue, and that the deal was done.
Within days he was on TalkSport again saying it was no surprise that Miller had pulled out, and the deal was dead. A few weeks later, with Charles Green in charge, Jackson went back on the show and called it a “hostile takeover” and claimed that a fans revolution would turf him out in favour of the Walter Smith led consortium.
Tell me, was the decision to give him an award some kind of self-parody, or is this real? If he’s the best they’ve got they are in trouble.
Before I go much further, I want to answer a familiar media charge, that we in the blogosphere are somehow freed from the shackles which bind those on the news desks because they have to “be careful what they write” whereas we can write what we want.
In the last year, I have heard variations on that theme, repeated ad infinitum, until I wanted to scream. I can sum up my response in a single word. Garbage. Libel and defamation cover my writing in the same way it covers theirs. In fact, those who work in the mainstream press, backed by an army of researchers and fact checkers, and covered six ways till Sunday by lawyers, actually have it better than we do. If something I wrote here, or elsewhere, crossed the big white line I would have to fund my own defence. They don’t have to worry about that, yet they hide behind that lie in a manner which is quite shameless, and cowardly.
Some of the sports journalists teamed up recently, because someone was putting together a book to raise money for charity. It’s a noble cause. Three of the writers from the Sunday Mail contributed pieces, and last weekend they each published their piece in the paper. They will say they were advertising the book, which is perfectly valid, but the whole exercise might have been self-defeating, as these were not sensational stories which would have made anyone rush out to buy it. Waddell told a tale about how he’d once got to talk to Duncan Ferguson (wow), another writer spoke about how he’d gotten an interview with AC Milan’s third choice keeper on the eve of a Celtic game (amazing or what?) and then there was the story by Hugh Keevins, which I found easily the most illuminating and instructive of the three.
Keevins had chosen to re-hash an old story, to re-tell an old tale, and make a snide point at the same time. Everyone knows he has recently been banned from Celtic Park. The rights and the wrongs of why aren’t part of the story, although I happen to believe when someone has made it their business to criticise you no matter what you do it’s probably not the wrong move to tell them they’ll no longer be allowed to do it from your living room. The point is, in rehashing the story of his previous ban he’s taking a cheap shot, and insinuating that little has changed. He’s right, of course, but not in the way he thinks. Two separate Celtic boards have chosen him, out of all the journalists in Scotland, to kick out of the press box. A bigger man might look at himself and ask some searching questions, but not Keevins, who uses the article to peddle myths and half-truths, pretending that he wears the shame of the event like a “badge of honour”, hoping we won’t notice he’s been sulking about it and playing the victim card ever since.
His rewrite of history is fascinating, especially in how it relates to the reasons why he was banned. The decision, actually, was nothing to do with Celtic Football Club itself, or at least not at first. He was banned from a private members club, by the staff and members there, because his was an unpalatable presence as far as they were concerned. The reasons for his ban were many in number, and not limited to his passing judgement on the abilities of a man who, as a manager, had won England’s top league four times, two FA Cups, a League Cup and four Charity Shields, and picked up four manager of the year award. This is a man who has forgotten more about the game than Keevins ever knew. His contention that Dalgish’s caretakership was a disaster is equally erroneous, as he had steadied the ship that year and led us to a League Cup triumph.
Did he make mistakes along the way? Of course. Who but a hopeless hack thinks he hasn’t? Was appointing a rookie, John Barnes, as manager, a mistake? Hell yes, but teams have been making mistakes in managerial appointments since the game began, and only a fool believes in predicting success or failure based on a manager’s experience. Rangers’ appointment of Paul LeGuen was as big a disaster as the appointment of Barnes, and he had a track record to die for. Neil Lennon had no track record at all, yet he could build a dynasty as Celtic Park.
Keevins slagged off Celtic’s signing policy as well. He blames that policy on Dalglish, although Barnes was pretty clear at the time that the signings were his. He wasted money on a number of bad players, but he also signed Stan Petrov. The one Keevins has most fun with, obviously, is the Brazilian who’s second name pretty much summed up what he was on the park. Was Rafael a bad signing? God yes, but the idea Keevins is fit to judge on what makes a bad signing is equally rank; he is the guy who slated Lubo Moravcik without seeing him kick a ball and who gleefully predicted that Samaras was “never a footballer in his life”, notwithstanding the number of caps he’d won, the fact he was a £7 million Premiership player before he was out of his teens and that not one but four Celtic managers all thought he was a class act. This, of course, is just me speaking from a Celtic perspective again, but I bet Rangers fans could tell similar tales.
Keevins’ tendency, even in an article like this, to re-write the parts of history he finds inconvenient is one of a number of reasons this piece is a particularly good example of Scottish journalism at its running worst. It’s interesting, for example, that at one point he says Dalglish moved the press conferences “to keep the support on board.”
He never explains how embarrassing hacks managed to keep the fans happy, but in light of his failure to do so, I’ll remind him, and anyone else who had forgotten, or just chose to ignore, the salient detail at the heart of this extremely odd decision.
The truth is, Dalglish had moved the press conferences, first to Bairds and then to the Celtic Club, after journalists had blatantly lied about what he’d said at an earlier sit-down with them. He was so furious, so incensed, by the version of his statements he’d read in the papers, that he said from now on media conferences would be held where the Celtic fans could hear the truth first hand, rather than the version the press thought should be told. Keevins’ attempt to turn the affair into Celtic’s botched attempt at spin control offers us a tantalising glimpse of the very mentality which caused the then Celtic manager to do what he did. Nothing has changed in their outlook. They still believe it’s their version, no matter how far from the truth, that should stand. Ask Martin O’Neill, who sued them for it repeatedly whilst he was in Scotland.
Aside from the petulant, whiny, self-obsessed tone of the article, there is one thing in it which stands out above all else, and this is what I find most instructive, and the reason I’ve devoted so much time to a sloppy, un-engaging piece of personal propaganda. Keevins ends the article by reminding us that he’d had 30 years “toiling away to no-one’s great notice” in the business by that time. A further twelve years have passed since then. Yet Keevins considers it his “signature tune”. This is what I find most revealing. This is what makes me despair.
Hugh Keevins has had 40 years in front line journalism, as the article makes clear. A career of that length should have been filled with incredible tales and fantastic reports. The stories that he broke, the exclusives he got, those fantastic moments when he scooped the rest of the pack, there should be a hundred tales like that, all more worthy of inclusion in that book. If Keevins chooses to feature a piece of self-aggrandising spite over them, that is an appalling statement on who he is. If, and this is what I suspect is the case, this story really does stand out for him, as the highlight of his career, than his 40 years in the business have been a tragic waste of time, and energy, and not only is he merely going through the motions but he always has been.
If I were him, and that was my best, I would not look back with anything but shame.
If we’ve learned anything from these people, however, it is this; shame is as beyond them as good journalism. I can look back on just one broadcast journalist from this neck of the woods who, on an issue of trustworthiness, paid the ultimate price for getting something wrong, and that guy was Tosh McKinlay, who resigned from Radio Clyde after making a one-off rash statement about Celtic’s transfer budget one year.
Tosh didn’t cry the blues or complain. He had made the strength of his story a credibility issue, and duly went. That is integrity.
On the same show recently, Gordon Dalziel said he would walk down Sauchiehall Street naked if Rangers didn’t beat Stirling Albion. We all know who won that game, and I guess we should be thankful he doesn’t have the class McKinlay showed, or Glasgow’s busiest shopping precinct would have lost a full day’s takings. The following weeks show played an endless loop of the comment, along with Keevins’ bullish prediction that Rangers would go through the season unbeaten. They appeared to find these ludicrous reversals amusing, rather than embarrassing. Such is the complete lack of scruples they display when shown up as the fools they are.
The Rangers Tax Case verdict will be one of the most newsworthy events in the recent history of this land. It will be covered by a media whom the affair has utterly discredited, but like swaggering conquerors they will try and take credit for it. The Rangers Tax Case has brought about a sea change in the way the supporters of many clubs interact with the news. Instead of merely reacting to it, fans began breaking it.
The exploratory research usually done by hacks was taken up by ordinary people with an interest in the truth. Where forums for getting the truth out did not exist, they were created. Discussions leapt from the fans of one club, Celtic, to those of other clubs, ending in a unified campaign of supporter pressure. It is a unique moment for us all, and this has potential way beyond football, although I’m not sure many people believe that, or even fully understand it. This was a group of folks taking the agenda away from vested interests and charting a new course.
The media had very little to do with it, as cowed as they have been, for years, at the feet of whoever was standing on the famous Marble Staircase. They wrote what they thought people wanted to hear, instead of finding out what people needed to know. They swallowed blatant PR spin whole, and did nothing to investigate whether or not it was true. Celtic fan forums broke every major story first, and that includes the one Keith Jackson claims as his own. His “exclusive” that Rangers had mortgaged season tickets was on RTC more than a week before it crawled onto the Daily Record’s front page, and I have long wondered if that’s where Jackson got it. If he actually put a shift into finding it I feel bad for him, because he could have saved a lot of time simply going on Google.
Recently, reports have surfaced about Rangers fans threatening journalists. The NUJ has made a big thing about it, and it’s been given coverage on a lot of the blogs. Unusually, it’s not had a great deal of space in the papers themselves. I find this odd, and unsettling, because to the untrained eye it may look like the reporters of Scotland don’t want to give those stories wide circulation because they are afraid they might be next. If true, this would be a disaster for journalism in this country, the kind of thing which eats away at the entire reason the press exists.
Yet ours are no longer untrained eyes. We look at the little coverage these claims have had in the press and we know there’s something else going on.
Bizarrely, the targets of these threats (and yes, I do believe the threats are real; one only has to check Alex Thomson’s twitter feed for routine examples) are not being rallied around by their colleagues in the manner we would expect, but rather are having their own ethics examined, their own abilities and integrity called into question and their impartiality cast into doubt.
It is bad enough that the atmosphere exists in which these threats can happen. What is far worse is that the media in which these people operate, and which should be giving them all the support in the world, is turning it around so it’s the victims who are on trial. When journalism itself is under attack, the entire profession should be outraged. Every columnist should be screaming for it stop. Every editorial should be raining opprobrium down on the perpetrators, and demanding they are caught, and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
The silence of the Scottish press in the face of this is appalling, yet it is not unexpected. It took a man like Thomson, from outside of here, to come in and break open the can of worms, and reveal the nature of the business in this land to those who live outside it, and might not fully understand it. This award winner, who has covered real stories, dangerous stories, in every part of the world, has had his professionalism and honesty questioned by gutter hacks who have never demonstrated either, and when threats were levelled against him the response of his fellow journalists was to query his account in a way they never dared question Whyte, Murray or even Charles Green, a man who’s relationship with the truth is passing at best.
I recently examined one of Green’s press conferences on this blog, pointing out a number of blatantly inconsistent statements and outright falsehoods in it, and have yet to see the hacks discuss any of what I did. This is what we’re up against; an insular, incestuous media which will grill a visiting journalist who dares to chase a story, but who will not, themselves, take on the responsibility for challenging unconcealed lying to their very faces.
I believe there is an element of the Rangers support which has stepped utterly outside the bounds of normal behaviour, a small minority who brings shame to their club, and to this country. They are a mutation of those who saw nothing wrong with The Famine Song or being up to their knees in fenian blood. I absolutely believe this revolting minority could have been wiped away years ago had they been challenged, and exposed, but the media was not interested in doing it, and so they are partly responsible for what these people have become – a law unto themselves, a reflection of what they believed about their club, a reflection this media helped create.
For it was, and is, the media which helped create the monster at Ibrox, responsible for ten years of financial sleight of hand. They decided long ago to be deaf, blind and stupid when it came to that club, and they then fed, and cultivated, the perception the club was “too big to fail”, and thereby beyond the reach of the rules which govern the game. Incredibly, they then fed the perception that the club itself was the real victim, that the rest of Scottish football had acted scandalously in trying to punish them, and then helped push the line that bias had played a part in that process. In doing it, they have nurtured sick minds, and reinforced the insanity.
Football in this country has survived the travails of the summer, yet it is still in a precarious state, and I blame the media for much of what is wrong.
Noam Chomsky has written at length on the notion that a strong democracy needs a strong and independent media. He has talked many times of the dangers inherent in a press which simply writes what it is told, or looks the other way. “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,” he once said.
All we can ask of the people in our sporting press is that they do their jobs with courage and integrity, and it is not much to ask.
Yet a club has died, the taxpayer has been cheated out of tens of millions and the reputation of the media industry itself has almost been destroyed here because of a culture of fear and favouritism which for too long went unchecked.
Into this enormous breach, where a fearless and crusading press should have been, have stepped dozens of bloggers and citizen journalists who have not simply given the old media a run for its money but left them flailing in the dust.
One of the great minds of American jurisprudence, Supreme Court Chief Justice Louis Brandeis, once famously said “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” He was right.
The FTT verdict will shine a big light on a dark corner of our game, a part of it which was, for too long, left unexplored, like the dark side of the moon. When the sporting press proved utterly untrustworthy at charting that territory, the bloggers stepped up.
They didn’t let us down. I don’t expect them to start now.
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