07 August, 2011

"Comment is free but the facts are sacred"

This blogging is hard work. I think that I have a form of writer’s block! Actually, that’s not true (you may be pleased to know – or not, depending upon your interest in my blogs!). It’s just that in the past few days I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time gazing at the lap top screen and the words are whizzing round my head but not necessarily in the right order!. Let me explain.

The Arnold Town
programme cover
One of my pleasures since I retired is writing. Indeed, the more I do it the more I am convinced that I should have set out on a career of writing all those years ago - I do love it and dearly wish that I had some real talent. Whether anyone reads what I write is to me pretty unimportant although it’s tremendously satisfying when I do get a response of some kind – even when it’s criticism. Apart from my weekly blog I write a number of other things. Two or three times a year I write the programme notes for my wife’s choir concerts -  a task I thoroughly enjoy doing and from which I learn huge amounts about musicians, composers, and particular pieces of music. And throughout the football season I write the programme for my local football club – Arnold Town - this requires eight or nine pages of football associated stuff each week. And finally, I put together a Club Newsletter each month so a lot of time is spent planning this, gathering items for inclusion and producing it. Well, putting all this together, everything has come at once this week -  a choir concert is in the offing, the football season is just beginning in England and the next edition of my Newsletter is due – hence, a long time spent in front of the lap top!

While doing all this, however, I have become aware of something that I hadn’t really thought of before and which - although the example I am going to quote is isolated - reflects, I believe, a wider and for me a worrying, trend.

When I write my notes for the football programme I write a number of articles – profiles of the players, a specific introduction to the particular game to be played, information about the club, upcoming events, a commentary about the recent results and success (or otherwise!) of the team. One of the major articles that I write I have entitled “Whisteblower” – and I write some commentary about something in the footballing news of the moment. Generally, but not always, these articles are rather grumpy pieces about the modern game. Indeed, the sub heading to the article is “A look at the current football news from a grumpy old man”. Much of it is tongue in cheek but intended (as indeed  it does) to generate a bit of light hearted comment and debate amongst the supporters as they watch the game! Well, this week I was considering how the reporting of football (indeed sport in general) has changed over the years and I copy below my article – if you are not interested in football you may as well stop reading now:-


The hacking scandal and the trials of  News International  has focused attention on the media and newspaper industry as never before. You will have your own opinions – for me, as a life time Guardian reader of 52 years, I have a quiet glow! But Rupert Murdoch apart it is also a timely reminder how our media -  and especially newspapers - has changed in the past half century.

I am often reminded of this when I flick through a book that my wife bought for me as a birthday present a couple of years ago. It’s a wonderful book of all the many press cuttings and photocopied pages related to  football games and the  history of particular teams – it provides all the match reports in national newspapers and the like dating from the early years of the last century. My book is, of course, all about my boyhood team, Preston North End but similar books are available for other professional teams.
A typical page from my newspaper reports
 of Preston North end games over the years.
These pages are from 1953 reports in
the Daily Mirror - a once great newspaper.

As I flick through it, look at the photographs and read the match reports of games that I was often at from the 50s onwards and read about games that took place before I was even born I am always intrigued at how reporting has changed. These are reports as they appeared in the Mirror, the Express, the Telegraph, the Sunday Pictorial and all the other papers – right up to the present day. The adverts too are still there, so I can see now, as I look now at my book, not only page 16 of the  Daily Mirror’s   report for Feb. 3rd 1958 of Preston’s  game against  Birmingham  but also adverts for Sherman’s Football Pools, a ‘Swiss Master’ watch which would have cost me 7/6, a  nurses shower proof cape (ex-government  stock) for 9/3 or a pack of ‘Carnation Corn Caps’ which would have soothed my feet for 1/1! But back to the football. The match report for that game – which Preston won 8-0 (and, as the table at the bottom of the page shows, kept Preston at the top of the table) is headlined ‘Preston’s artists massacre Birmingham’. I can still remember this game – it’s not often the Preston ever scored eight goals – so you tend to remember such things! And as I read the report I can relate to what it is saying. I was there.
Corn Caps in 1958!

And here’s the thing. It is remarkable how reporting of football and other sports events has changed. The reports of old are so factual, concerned with what actually happened, not filled with the hype and other stuff that we tend to get today. Today, it’s all about personalities, managerial outbursts, views of the game by so called ‘experts’ rather than a description of the game itself. So often these days, I read reports on games and haven’t a clue what actually happened. I might see a headline that says Rooney scores a ‘wonder goal’ but can find no-where in the report any actual description of the goal, what happened, who he beat, where he shot from etc.
Finney in the Birmingham game

But not in years past. The report on the Birmingham game describes Finney’s goals – just as I remember them. His second is described thus: “Receiving a pass from Frank O’Farrell near the half way line, Finney shook off Trevor Smith, Birmingham’s young England centre half. He dribbled on like lightening down the left wing (he did indeed – within feet of where I was standing!), changing his pace twice to waltz around two more Birmingham defenders. Then - twenty yards out – he stopped. And with as much deliberation as if he had been taking a penalty, cracked in a low, grass cutting shot which England keeper Gil Merrick hardly saw. The ball flew low and hard just inside Merrick’s right hand upright with the Keeper hardly moving” And it didn’t only describe and report on Finney’s goals in such detail but also on the other seven goals, including two hat tricks by Sammy Taylor and Tommy Thompson. Plus there was huge detail about other performances: “But for the brilliance of Merrick, Preston’s eight goals might have been doubled. He dived, punched, saved and tipped over shots which should have left him helpless”. Now that’s reporting – not just hype, opinion and punditry. It’s telling people what actually happened.  It is facts backed up by the view of the person who saw the event -  which is after all the function of newspapers – no more no less. And, importantly it is accurate – I can still remember that goal exactly and the descriptions of the other goals and Merrick’s goalkeeping heroics are spot on.
The great Gil Merrick performing
his heroics at Preston

Sadly this is no longer the case. Near the end of the book a full page copy of the Mirror report of the Derby v Preston FA Cup game in 2007 is printed. Preston ran out 1-4 winners at Pride Park. The headline says ‘Rams to the Slaughter’ so not a dissimilar headline to that of half a century before. But there the similarity ends. Despite  being a full page report and despite five goals being scored the only reference to what actually happened is: “After 14 minutes Andy Todd dithered in possession. Brown robbed him and delivered the ball for Hawley to steer home. Preston’s second came when County’s back four went walk about allowing Simon Whalley to stroke in a low shot into the corner. In stoppage time Hawley curled a superb 20 yarder past Lewis Price”. Having read the report I was no wiser as to who were the more skilful  team, which goals were scored with the head (if any), who else played well or badly, what happened  when the defence went walk about’ etc. etc. The whole of the rest of the page is filled with  transfer talk, comments from the two managers, comments about the ownership of Derby County and bizarre and not very “insightful” comments such as ‘Derby County have had more owners that one of Arfur Daley’s old bangers’ and  “Derby misfired miserably just like one of Arfur’s old bangers”.
Arfur Daley - TV's lovable rogue -
but you wouldn't buy
 a used car from him!

This is what reporting has been reduced to today. With  the overkill of live sport on TV there is less place for simple high quality factual reporting telling just how goals were scored, how players played and the like. With TV we can all see what happened so reporters have become analysers, moulders of opinion and the facts of the game are now unimportant. Football (indeed all sports reporting) is now  concerned of the celebrity and the star rather than what they did on the field of play – and in a sporting way, that’s just why Rupert Murdoch’s empire is in such trouble – he and his empire became too concerned with people, scandal, tale telling and opinion rather than facts and the simple reporting of news.

If you have read my article to the end you will see what I am driving at. You may disagree. Perhaps if you are reading this in the USA you may be unfamiliar with English football colloquialisms or the names and situations that I describe – but I wouldn’t mind betting that you have a similar situation in your country and in relation to your sports!
Newsreader Robert Dougall

The trouble is that if this was only restricted to sport it wouldn’t matter too much but my feeling is that the same style has permeated the main sections of newspapers and the media generally. I once remember many years ago one of the BBC TV new readers, Robert Dougall, getting into tremendous trouble because on reading an item of news he shook his head rather sadly – thus showing his disapproval of the  events that he was reporting. I could sympathise exactly with his feelings – but as a news reader it was not his position to show his approval or disapproval. He simply had to factually report the news.  As the great Guardian editor of  CP Scott famously said – and still says on the front of every edition of the Guardian – “Comment is free but the facts are sacred.” Of course, have the facts from every side but they remain facts not trite, uniformed opinions of journalists. Today as we watch the TV news we see and hear newsreaders clearly influencing opinion by the emphasis of their words and the changes in  voice tone as they report. There is a place in a newspaper or magazine for opinion – it is usually called the editorial, or their might be sections devoted to journalists and others expressing their view on some matter or other, but in the reporting of the news it is facts that are required. And, going back to my football reports, when I read a report I want to know what happened at the game, who played well who didn’t and how the goals were scored.
C.P. Scott - the great Guardian editor

Sadly, I believe this simple truth has been forgotten by much of the media. It explains very well the spot that the Murdoch empire find itself in; in their quest to sell papers and influence opinion they have turned a number of their journals into nothing more than the purveyors of tittle-tattle and scurrilous gossip – rather like the quote in the football article about “Arfur Daley’s old bangers”. Even more sadly, many people cannot tell the difference between fact and opinion – and that is a real danger to society. Most worrying, however - at least for me - is that the articles in my football book are largely articles in the popular press - not the broadsheets. The very papers, indeed, that have been read everyday by most of the population - the Mirror, the Express, the Mail and the like - the "tabloids". In days past these papers required something of their readers - they made some kind of intellectual demand and expressed their views/news in literate terms. Read the report of Finney's goal above if you don't believe me. As such they were important organs in the spreading of literacy, comprehension and understanding as well as the news of the day. The quality of writing, use of English or development of ideas, however, in today's "tabloids" is lamentable - shallow, prejudiced, limited in vocabulary and lacking in any significant worth. The same trend is clearly identifiable on TV and radio when "presenters" (what an awful term!) trivialise and dumb down rather than report "hard" news.  When this is what much of our society is exposed to on a daily basis then we should indeed be worried  - for a society that finds it difficult to express itself or to understand more complicated ideas will soon become a society that does not wish to understand. Indeed, perhaps we have already reached that stage with the sort of stuff that is published on a daily basis in organs like the Sun or the now defunct News of the World -  when  readers only want to read tittle-tattle, celebrity goings on and scandal.

1 comment:

  1. As usual Tony, well said! In the US the Supreme Court has defined the media as both the watchdogs of our society and the free marketplace of ideas. I feel that they no longer do either well. My heros of journalism were Woodward & Bernstein, Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings. I am hard pressed these days to find a newspaper, magazine, blog or other news outlet that does not fill most of its space with sound bites and one liners, not to mention the news of which reality star is dating who. It saddens me. Even the news outlets that I turn to (NPR & BBC) have their moments where I see them slide.