Michael Stewart Calls The Media Out
When even the BBC News political editor Laura Kuenssberg walked out of a ‘Downing Street’ briefing on prime minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans (such as they are), you knew ‘Downing Street’ had crossed a line. And when BBC Scotland football pundit Michael Stewart called out recent press coverage involving Rangers’ Colombian striker Alfredo Morelos as “completely unfounded” and media manipulation, you knew multiple lines had been crossed.
The analogy isn’t exact. Kuenssberg has often been a perceptibly pro-Boris Johnson voice in the crazy world of political journalistic lobbying. In contrast, Stewart has often been a voice of relative reason in the crazy world of Scottish football punditry. Nonetheless, Stewart’s words on BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Sportsound’ show on Monday evening resonated as loudly as Kuenssberg’s walkout.
Stewart’s outburst stemmed from three media stories in six days. At just after three pm on January 29th, the Daily Record “newspaper” website reported on Morelos’s involvement “in a dramatic chase” the night before “after discovering a suspicious man concealed underneath his car,” the article’s sub-headline adding that he was “acting strangely.” So far, so daft. The concept of a man “concealed underneath” a car “acting normally” has yet to permeate even Glasgow football’s insanity bubble.
However, matters soon got serious. Police Scotland Detective Inspector Kenny McDonald referenced “a man allegedly tampering with a car in a secured car park.” But although he concluded that “at this time no criminality has been established,” the Record website ran a story six hours later, which stated via headline that Morelos had “sabotage fears” which sparked the “police probe” on his “Lamborghini supercar.”
“Sabotage” re-appeared in the story’s opening line (although “£20m-rated striker” also appeared, so…). While the second line said Morelos had found the man “trying to access the underside of the car.” The second-last line reminded readers of Rangers claims that Morelos, “who has set up a children’s charity” in his Colombian village, had been “’singled out’ for abuse.” And the last line was a quote from a poster on a major Rangers fansite which gifted readers the parting thought that “hating a player is one thing, tampering with a car could kill him.”
Last Friday, Police Scotland announced that a 29 year-old man had been “arrested and charged with a breach of the peace.” But by then, the social media narrative had long-defined the incident as “attempted murder,” (which would breach anyone’s peace), even before the police had “established” any “criminality.”
This narrative was undoubtedly fuelled by the quoted the aforementioned forum post being promoted from last line to headline when the story appeared in the actual paper. But this forum thread from which it was extracted established severe criminality, specified the crime, named four suspected accessories to it and had done all this half-an-hour before the Record’s first “exclusive” story on the incident.
Site administrator Mark Dingwall posted that the car was “attacked/tampered with. Within minutes, this was “only a wee bit of attempted murder, ffs.” Then it was “the result of scum like” (former Celtic strikers John) “Hartson” (Chris) “Sutton” and (Scottish Sun journo Bill) “Leckie, whipping” Celtic fans “into a frenzy.” Then someone “got an email saying his brakes were cut.” While “info” was “coming from someone as close to this as you can get.” And “Leckie, (Michael) Stewart, Hartson and Sutton were complicit” in “creating the narrative around Alfie that leads to morons acting in this way.”
All this pre-empted the Record’s “exclusive.” And by teatime, the “media-complicit, attempted murder” narratives were mainstream. “Since stepping foot in Scotland,” freelance sports hack Derek Clark began tweeting, already coining his own phrases, Morelos had suffered “vile abuse” on the pitch, “the streets” and “from aspects of the media.” And “today someone is said to have tampered with his brakes…that’s attempted murder.” There was, however, (and you knew this was coming) one tiny flaw in this narrative. It was bollocks.
The Record’s sister paper, the Sunday Mail, explained, via front-page headline, that Morelos’s “Wife Hired Detective to Track” him. One sub-headline noted that Morelos had “chased down partner’s sleuth in his flip-flops,” which evoked an image I’ll not forget in a hurry. And the story said the private dick (an “army veteran” so possibly NOT a Celtic fan) was “asked to launch surveillance” on Morelos’s car “by his pregnant wife Yesenia,” who “gave him access” to it “minutes before Morelos found him crouching behind its bumper.”
The private investigator had dobbed himself into the police to “give his side of the story,” after “being concerned” about the brake-tampering rumours (although the Mail overlooked its sister’s own part in publicising and promoting said rumours). And the “special reconnaissance” unit member was “understood” to have been “preparing to place a tracking device on the £100,000 Italian supercar.
Thus was the “attempted murder” line completely dismantled, though not before the supposedly “complicit” media figures had received all sorts of social media abuse. For instance, Sutton and Hartson were told on twitter that their “hatred and fear of Morelos” had “led to some absolute scumbags trying to murder a young footballer because of the team he plays for.”
Given all of the above, it was no surprise that, on Monday, Sky Sports ran an interview with Morelos, his first proper interview since joining Rangers in 2017. Yet, the interview somehow overlooked the above shenanigans entirely, focussing instead on the abuse Morelos has received from fans of other clubs. Such abuse was a major media fixation after December’s Celtic/Rangers match, where it and Morelos’s own behaviour after he was sent-off was part of the depressing ‘whataboutery’ which follows all such encounters. So the interview seemed oddly-timed.
Badly-timed, too. Had it appeared in the immediate aftermath of the match, when the Scottish Premiership’s winter break had started and there was no top-flight football on which to report, it would surely have been of greater help in tracking down the then-alleged racist abusers among Celtic fans. Nonetheless, the interview elbowed the car-tampering story out of Monday’s media narrative. And Stewart smelt a proverbial rat.
Discussing the interview on “Sportsound,” Stewart wondered “why today?” and added: “ It was filmed on Friday. Last week, there was a story about somebody tampering with the brakes of (Morelos’s) sports car. Who fed the Daily Record that line? Because it certainly wasn’t the police. And what does it do? I get messages saying that I’m complicit in attempted murder. Utter garbage. The Sunday Mail (say) that wasn’t strictly true. (They), perhaps, leaked that back to whoever leaked (it) in the first place. And (the) interview set up on Friday and released today gets everybody talking about something else.”
Then he pivoted onto a media manipulation bee that had clearly been in his bonnet for a while: “Rangers has a guy in charge of their PR. Jim Traynor. He’s a dangerous character. He’s a bully. He did an interview with Rangers TV last February about ‘looking for balance and accuracy.’ This is the guy that sent emails to Craig Whyte to OK articles he was going to write about him. How is it balanced and accurate to give editorial clearance to somebody you’re writing about? This guy is creating division for his own personal gain. Because he is sub-contracted to deal with these things.”
Sportsound presenter Kenny McIntyre protested that Traynor was “not here to defend himself” and that it wasn’t “our view,” without defining who “our” was. He continued: “Michael, that’s a strong…he’ll feel he’s standing up for his club and a lot of Rangers fans will be happy he’s doing that. It’s your personal opinion that he’s got too much power at Rangers. A lot of Rangers fans will disagree.”
“They probably will,” Stewart acknowledged. “But I think Rangers fans and the club are being done a disservice here. Because the wider picture is that out in the big world their reputation is being (damaged) by the actions of James Traynor. OK, some of the supporters will lap it all up. But they need to recognise that.”
There followed a concerted but failed effort to suggest that Stewart implicated Traynor in planting the brake-tampering story. The discussion hauled in irrelevancies such as Scooby Doo, the Truman Show, Leigh Griffiths, polarised narratives and the nuclear arms race of whataboutery. But when Stewart asked: “What’s in the headlines today?” his point was proven for him.
“Alfredo Morelos talking about how he’s victimised in Scottish football,” came the reply. “Not about the story leaked to the press about his car being tampered with, that was completely unfounded?” Stewart asked. The subsequent silence spoke of journalists who had just realised they’d been media-manipulated and/or rumbled by Stewart.
Sportsound cravenly apologised to Traynor on Tuesday: “We did not adhere to our editorial values and standards and we have reminded those concerned of their responsibility to follow our guidelines while working for the BBC,” McIntyre parroted. It was “not fair and balanced and he did not have the opportunity to respond.” As if no-one can be criticised unless they are in the room. It would be refreshing if someone could call that bollocks, without a pair of testicles having to be in the room.
There was more. The Morelos interview’s sub-titles did not match what he said. Sky Sports were given the subtitles and…no-one checked their veracity. This let Rangers conduits such as the Telegraph newspaper’s Scottish football correspondent Roddy Forsyth link Morelos’s complaints about “racist words” to Celtic fans at December’s Glasgow derby. You’d wonder how they thought they could get away with such unprofessionalism. Except they didn’t.
Alicante’s Celtic Supporters Club spotted this instantly. Celtic itself issued a statement revealing that they’d asked Sky Sports to investigate “an interview…which accused Celtic supporters of racist behaviour,” after “translations provided” to them showed “inconsistencies between the words spoken…and the subtitles.” And Sky deleted the interview after, we were told with epic chutzpah, “Record Sport” told them of “the glaring inaccuracies in their big exclusive.”
Of course, the Record clearly knows about “glaring inaccuracies” in “big exclusives.” They said Stewart’s claims that they ran “a story” about brake-tampering were “inaccurate” as it was “published by another paper.” Well…yes. The Record merely repeated it on-line, before making it a newspaper headline…and running a story on Morelos’s “sabotage fears.”. But Stewart was unfazed. He tweeted his appreciation of the “support” he’d received from an “incredible variety of people.” He promised to “keep saying it as I see it.” And he helpfully retweeted it…in (accurate) Spanish.
Yet another dismal week for UK political and Scottish football journalism, then. Apart from those who walked out on ‘Downing Street.’ And apart from Michael Stewart.