When reporting scandal and gossip the newspapers need to be careful about preaching fron the moral high ground, writes Nick Miller
Journalists often see themselves as fearless crusaders for the truth, holding those in power to account. So they have a sense of entitlement when it comes to access and information from football clubs. Managers and players are expected to reveal all, and if they show any reticence or attempt to keep any information to themselves, it is implied that they have something to hide. To pick a rather tame example, if a manager chooses not to answer a question about a rumoured transfer, he will be reported as being "coy" or "refusing to rule out a move for…".
Arsène Wenger made a significant comment at a spicy press conference just after Cesc Fàbregas was sold. Asked whether he would sign Juan Mata as a replacement, Wenger said: "We will not do [a deal for] Mata. I don't have to give a reason." In the febrile atmosphere of the transfer window, most people concentrated on the first bit and ignored the second, but it raised an interesting point – why should he have to justify his decisions to journalists?
Of course, the standard line that journalists use in this instance is that "the fans" want to know, as if the only purpose of the press is to altruistically keep everyone informed – rather than to shift more papers/get more hits. But it can be argued that the fourth estate does not in fact deserve the access they desire.
On the first day of the Football League season, many reporters were locked out of grounds because of a dispute over how games were covered online. Clubs objected to the use of photographs and, of all things, Twitter, which was ludicrous, largely because their primary concern seemed to be protection of their own coverage through subscription websites. However, while media complaints were sometimes sensible and eloquently explained, it would be much easier to sympathise with the press if they didn't routinely abuse the access they're given.
Open up your morning newspaper and you'll probably find half a dozen instances of the words of managers/players being misrepresented, taken out of context, sensationalised or just plain made-up. Being surprised that those in football don't always welcome reporters with open arms is a bit like going to someone's house, treading dirt into the carpets, throwing red wine up the wall and then expecting to be invited back.
A classic case recently was the Carlos Tévez transfer saga. Earlier in the summer Tévez told an Argentinean chat show that he would never return to Manchester after the end of his contract. Of course, most of the media then casually forgot the last six words of that statement, giving the impression that Tévez was on strike and expressing faux shock when he did show up at City. But the player had already said he wanted to leave, so there was no reason to mislead when there was already a perfectly good "line" to run with.
The round of injunctions taken out earlier this year by footballers to "gag" papers from reporting on their private lives inspired hand-wringing columns about the freedom of the press, but this seemed to miss the point. If the press waste their freedom on trying to tell us who Ryan Giggs is spending his leisure time with, they really don't deserve it. It might not be ideal, but it's perfectly understandable that football clubs don't want co-operate with a group of people who are often so duplicitous. It would be unfair to assume that all journalists are like this, but they cannot be overly surprised when they are not welcomed in.
Of course, problems arise when access is denied on a whim (Alex Ferguson and Ken Bates being the obvious culprits). There is an obvious danger that clubs, or football's governing bodies, could abuse the power they have and block access when there is serious wrong-doing afoot, such as vote-rigging or bribery. However, this is rarely the case.
The central problem is that we take football far too seriously. For 95 per cent of the time football journalists are not pursuing the public interest trying to uncover corruption and genuinely important social issues – they're trying to find out who Manchester City are buying next. And, as a society, we can probably get by without knowing that.
From WSC 296 October 2011