Hell Hath No Fury Like A Journalist Scorned
So, let’s try to make some degree of sense of this whole stramash that’s arisen between the gentlemen of the fourth estate and users of social media over the last couple of days, then, shall we? The whole thing has become a little bit of a circus, and it’s providing an increasingly noisy and distracting backdrop to what is becoming engrossing tournament. It all started when a photograph was taken of the England coach Steve Holland holding a piece of paper with what seemed to be their team for tomorrow’s match against Panama visible on it. This was gleefully published and the displeasure over this from manager Gareth Southgate was cheerily disregarded, followed up with op-eds such as this one, tantalisingly positioned behind a registration wall at the Daily Telegraph by Jason Burt called “England’s team leak is embarrassing for all involved, even if the selection decisions are correct.”
It’s a fascinatingly prescient title from Burt, there, because whilst almost everybody agrees that this was a mis-step on the part of Holland, much of the attention given on the subject today has concerned the press themselves and their behaviour in publishing something they weren’t supposed to see, as well as more fundamental aspects of their often fractious relationship with both the England national team and those that consume their product.
So, before I say anything else, let me say this: we know. We do understand that the press has a responsibility to report a story when it is right there in front of them. This wasn’t phone hacking, or even long lens photography, either. But we’ll come back to that. And many of us also understand that the press has no obligation to act as a cheerleader for England (although many do consider the cheerleading of the front pages, who are frequently more complicit in character assassination and baseless speculation than the back pages, to be rank hypocrisy of the first order.) Constructive criticism is important, as is honest reporting. There are others who disagree on this last point, but the mechanics of this specific case aren’t even really what’s being talked about here. What’s being talked about here is part of a wider critique of the press – and especially the tabloid press – over the (un)ethical behaviour of many (mostly tabloid) journalists over a considerable amount of time.
In the past, when the front pages have run their smears on the players, or the manager, or whoever, we have allowed the distinction between the sports pages and news pages to be distinguished. “Oh, it’s not us – we don’t have any control over stories on the front page” is a common defence, and broadly speaking that is usually considered fair enough. This, however, has come from the sports pages, so that defence certainly doesn’t fly in this case.
It may well be unfair, but since the worst traits of some corners of the press were exposed years ago it has become increasingly clear that there is a spectrum of “dark arts” in terms of the ways in which they obtain their information. What we are talking about here is obviously nowhere near phone-hacking on the moral barometer, but it exists at the extreme end of the same scale and it registers, ringing a bell with people, an increasingly large proportion of whom have developed a zero-tolerance attitude towards anything that even reminds them of it, however tangential it may seem.
If we assume all of the above to be roughly correct, then we begin to understand at least the attitude of those who have been openly critical of the press this morning. But what of that press reaction? The best way to describe it would be somewhere between “pearl-clutching” and “holier-than-thou.” The Mirror’s John Cross tweeted some relatively run-of-the-mill “just arrived in…” tweet and followed that up with the unintentionally hilarious “Hope it’s ok to report this without being unpatriotic and giving the opposition an advantage.” He wasn’t the only one, either. Not wishing to be outdone, the same paper’s Ollie Holt tweeted, in response to someone stating that they wouldn’t have published it themselves, “In the Human Stain, Philip Roth used the phrase ‘the ecstasy of sanctimony’. Exhibit number one right here. Well done, Arlo, for trying to make yourself look like a saint and slagging off written journalists who would never break an embargo at the same time. You’re a beauty.”
Take a moment to breath that in.
You might need a moment longer.
This sort of hysterical response to criticism from the public is in itself a part of the problem. There are plenty of preconceptions concerning the self-importance of the press, and the lack of humility on display here alongside such apparently complete tone-deafness will only reinforce them. It would be utterly unsurprising if the waspish comments seen today on Twitter were followed up with a degree of snark in their reports on the forthcoming England match and, quite conceivably, future reports throughout the remainder of England’s involvement in the tournament.
Perhaps the point is that none of this should really matter. Had some football journalists not reacted as defensively as they did to criticism of this (which was substantial, though the question of whether it was “excessive” or not is entirely subjective, of course), it would all have been forgotten by tomorrow afternoon, and it’s hardly even as though the leak contained any great surprises, either. It was about as uncontroversial and unsensational as a leaked photograph of an England team could possibly be. As for the fluff surrounding that wayward piece of paper, well, I’ll say this much… there might be nothing that the press does better than putting itself at the centre of a story.