15 March ~ Every football fan in the English-speaking world knows Bill Shankly's (probably ironic) quote about football being "far more important" than life or death. The main reason is that every football writer has, at some time, quoted it in full as though it's a universal truth, not an off-the-cuff witticism. Looking at the websites of Britain's premier broadsheet newspapers at the weekend, you wondered how many editors have it framed above their desks, causing them to take it literally on a daily basis.

Sport used to know its place in the news cycle, and was firmly held on the back pages unless there was an exceptional result, achievement or tragedy. You knew something extraordinary had happened when sports news dominated or even fought for space on the front page. Now, both in print and (especially) on the internet, we are asked to accept, for example, that live online coverage of an FA Cup sixth-round tie between Manchester United and Arsenal deserves a prominent place alongside Japan's deadly, devastating tsunami and the ensuing nuclear plant explosions.

Here's how the websites of the four major UK broadsheets looked on Saturday afternoon. In the Guardian, the main headline was about a Japanese town "missing" 10,000 people. But just below it, and higher up the page than the latest news from north Africa (Libya rebels appeal for air strikes) was the link to Manchester United v Arsenal Live! The impending civil war in the Ivory Coast had disappeared off the front page completely. In the Telegraph, the top headline read: Nuclear disaster feared in Japan after power plant explosion. Just down from that story and to the right: Man Utd v Arsenal: Live.

In the Independent, the main story was Japan earthquake: huge explosion at nuclear plant. Directly below, above all other news in big block capitals: LIVE FOOTBALL SCORES AND RESULTS. LIVE was marked out in red. The Times proclaimed Thousands lost to Japan earthquake and tsunami, and just below, in among the equally crucial Stephen Fry and Caitlin Moran columns, was the link to FA Cup Live, and the exhortation to Follow the action with our match-tracking service.

Now it's clear why the links to sports events are given such prominence – it's because they're very popular with readers. By Saturday night, the Man Utd v Arsenal story on the Guardian's front page boasted 671 comments (God help anyone who read them all, let alone contributed). Yet to juxtapose a news story about mass tragedy with a mere sporting event sends the perverted message that the two are at least as important as each other. And it gives the reader the excuse to turn away from the one story that is harrowing, and escape instead to another that should be entertainment, but which thanks to minute-by-minute coverage is being treated as breaking news of breathtaking significance. If you think I'm exaggerating, explain the 671 comments in the space of a few hours – a staggering number for any online story.

I often read and genuinely enjoy rolling in-game coverage, but what is wrong with a single Sport or Football link at the top of the main page to take me there? Sports headlines should be demoted to the lower reaches of the page alongside arts, entertainment and lifestyle columnists. It only takes a fleeting scroll or one slight finger movement to get me there. That would remove the perception that we should be treating war, earthquakes, revolutions and environmental catastrophes with the same heed and concern as the recent blips in form of England's top two football teams that have apparently vexed so many over the past week or two. When football's a matter of life and death, then it can become front-page news. Mostly, though, it's much less important than that. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (18)
Comment by gintsr 2011-03-15 12:49:08

But maybe Shankly was right and it wasn't an off-the-cuff witticism?
At least, I would like it.

Death is normal way of life and if it's not Torino'49(/), Pakhtakor'7x or something like that I can't see why call off any game.

Comment by rbrunning 2011-03-15 12:51:46

I find it hard to believe I've just read this. I enjoy your well researched articles and even bought your book of short stories Ian, but this seems like mere spleen venting.

I agree with the sentiment but feel that that is all it is. Not really sure why this article has been posted WSC?

Comment by jameswba 2011-03-15 13:33:20

Well I'm struggling to believe or understand the above two comments. As for the first, the author says nothing about calling games off. He is simply suggesting that football is given exposure in the media out of all proportion to its importance and that last weekend gave a clear illustration of that.

The second comment might well be a wind-up and thus not worth spending time on. Still, the event that truly made many football fans of my generation aware that the game is indeed less important than 'life and death' and that words such as tragic, disaster etc etc should not be used casually in connection with it was Hillsborough. WSC played an important role in reporting on that and, whatever else you might think of it, has done a good job of keeping the importance of the game itself in some sort of perspective ever since. Given that, I'd say the article is wholly appropriate, a timely reminder that real life and death is more significant than whether Arsenal win a trophy this season and does indeed belong on WSC.

Yes, there are things in the article you could debate. You might argue, for example, that all news events are over-exposed these days and that, in proportional terms, football isn't actually covered that much more than it was 20 years ago. I wouldn't argue that with any great passion, though I did notice today that the Guardian's Cheltenham Races blog is highlighted right next to the news from Japan. Perhaps it's not only football(??)

Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-03-15 14:39:42

Don't start me off Iain. You know what makes my blood boil? When the hacks report on something that is going to happen soon, then they report on it a second time when it actually happens, then they report on it AGAIN to confirm whether it did in fact happen - or not. OK, its a good way of filling the hours on a quiet news day, but it also has the effect of sucking all the here-and-now immediacy out of a story. By the time they actually report that something has happened - well, so what? We all knew that was coming anyway. Maybe sometimes the newsbringers just have to face the facts - there isn't any news. I blame it all on the "rolling news" syndrome.

The problem with rolling news is its so difficult trying to work out what is forecast news, what is actual news, and what is simply a confirmation of previously forecast news. Are they just different versions of the same story? Or are they all completely different stories? It all gets so confusing. As an example, can somebody clarify for me: how many nuclear explosions have there been in Japan now? Is it three, or thirty?

And, far more importantly... exactly how many games is it that Charlton have lost in a row now? ;-)

Comment by MoeTheBarman 2011-03-15 14:54:51

"I did notice today that the Guardian's Cheltenham Races blog is highlighted right next to the news from Japan. Perhaps it's not only football(??)"

You're right, it's celebrity crap, bingo, holidays for £10 and whatever the current hype is too - they all get billing alongside 'real' stories, NOT just football.

The media knows it's business and customers. Unless you're Japanese, no one actually cares about what has happened. We might be fascinated, horrified, shocked and saddened by what's happened but once ManU v Arsenal kicked off, that's all we were interested in. The entire group of islands could have become the new Atlantis and everyone drowned but the game would have kicked off just the same. No event, no matter how tragic, has ever stopped life continuing in the rest of the world. You read the story, you watch the footage, you say 'thank fuck it wasn't me' and have your coffee and head off to the match.

Thus No media outlet is going to commit professional suicide by demoting the advert/link to the biggest sporting event of the weekend to where it can't be seen as we will just head to a competitor's site to catch it. Want to read about Japan, click here; want to follow the game, click here. They're just offering the choice they know people want.

Comment by reddybrek 2011-03-15 15:25:13

I think it was watching ITN News when I saw a montage of cars being swept away followed by Rooney’s contorted face…it did seem in bad taste but football does go on like some sick religion. Far easier to lose ourselves in infantile football related fantasies than the horrors of the world. Maybe there is something fundamentally missing in most football fans outlook on the world. What about people who played or watched football during World Wars? Talk about self delusion in the face of global massacre, although probably exactly what most of the contributors here (me included) would do in such a situation.

I read a story about how the J-League is being suspended on the BBC site, probably the most trivial & pointless article ever written. I’m sure that there’ll be football related charity / heart warming stories that seem to surface out of every catastrophe so don’t beat yourself up about it too much.

Comment by Coral 2011-03-15 15:50:07

"how many nuclear explosions have there been in Japan now?"

None, Nuclear reactors cannot create a nuclear explosion.

Comment by innocent bystander 2011-03-15 16:12:25

I do agree with the article as it does not seem right to place football alongside more important things, such as the situation in Japan and North Africa. These things matter more and on a larger scale; football doesn't.

Comment by Mr Beast 2011-03-15 16:34:18

Like jameswba I'm struggling to believe or understand some comments. Particularly this beauty.

"Unless you're Japanese, no one actually cares about what has happened....once ManU v Arsenal kicked off, that's all we were interested in"

Nice sense of perspective moe.

Comment by MoeTheBarman 2011-03-15 16:49:37

I'm not saying it's right or wrong Mr Beast, just how it is. If you can find anyone who turned the telly off and sat in quiet contemplation over the problems in Japan instead of watching that game then I'll say someone cares. You also cut the bit out of the quote that described our/my reactions to what happened which is a tad selective...

Comment by Mr Beast 2011-03-15 17:06:51

Your quote is still there moe. I did you a favour by not using your full stop after "no one actually cares about what has happened."

Comment by jameswba 2011-03-15 17:28:31

To mediate in this a bit, since you both said you agreed with me, Moe does make at least one valid point - that 'the media knows its business and customers' and that's why it gives prominence to football, racing, celebrity crap, bingo etc next to things of genuine importance such as the disaster in Japan.

I also believe that the online papers these days use the number of 'hits' particular types of stories get as a guide to deciding how much prominence to give them. As such they're pandering, in a pretty cheap way, to what the customer seems to want. In the past, papers like the Guardian might have tried to set, rather than follow, the agenda by, as the author says, putting real stories on the front and relative trivialities, such as sport, at the back. Not sure I completely believe that but you could certainly argue it.

Where I do disagree with you Moe, is in your use of 'we', as if to suggest that all of us, whoever 'we' are, were only interested in Man Utd v Arsenal on Saturday.

Comment by Coral 2011-03-15 17:44:04

As galling as it is I have to agree with Moe, galling because I would like to say I didn't carry on as normal. I too was upset to read of the news in Japan, but six hours later I was dancing at a wedding with my tie around my head. The next day I watched the horrible events unfold for an hour or so before switching over to Sky Sports News to see Soccer Saturday. In some ways I wish it did have more of an impact but I think sport is that release from an otherwise often depressing world. Sport is never serious, but it is important.

Comment by shadsworth cloud 2011-03-15 19:05:20

with stoke city reaching an FA Cup semi final for the first time since 1972, i was reminded that the last occasion was amatch at Hillsborough where stoke lost to arsenal by way of a goal claimed to have been offside. no freeze frame replays in those days.
but the match was billed in the potteries as the Hillsborough disaster for many years. A local pub had a plaque with a photo which (supposedly) proved the goal was offside.
That was until there was a REAL Hillsborough disaster and you suddenly realised, hey, it IS only a game.
The plaque was quietly removed

Comment by Bomber57 2011-03-16 09:39:59

Dear shadsworth cloud, you are making a poor joke out of this. The said 'Offside' took place in a replay at Goodison not Hillsborough, I know I was at all four semi finals in 71/72 v Arsenal {both went to replay}. So you are talking through your astracan coat ! I assume & hope you are not a Stokie, if so shame on you ! Excellent article by the way Ian/WSC

Comment by Hugh Fatbastard 2011-03-16 12:53:47

I think the point in the article is spot on. The question is whether the media conforms to society's demands or shapes them.

Do I want to watch the match because the link is there or is the link there because I want to watch the match.

Either way we'll watch it, because it's on now and we don't want to miss it.

The Tsunami disaster will still be here when we get back.

Comment by ian.64 2011-03-16 13:30:16

I think the article is a pertinent one and needed to be expressed, although I also take Moe's point that commercial aspects of putting prominence to big games figure a great deal (let's face it, look at any tabloid or broadsheet and the back pages devoted to the top clubs may make people think that they've become unofficial newsletters for their fans), but I suggest the 'matter of life and death' element manifests in other ways as well. The over-stressing of importance to games that are big affairs but are made to seem like monolithic turning points for the existence of mankind, for instance, or the so-called dramas and twists of contract talks that are suddenly transformed into crappy blow-ups that make you think casualties are involved when they reach boiling point. Even simple, offhand things like the idiot ads for games such as Man Utd v Chelsea that have this ridiculous choral backing and 'if their lives depended on it' narration, can influence people into thinking 'yes, this is important, it is crucial, it is of the greatest essence!'.

No, it bloody isn't. It's a game. That's it. It has no more bearing on the advancement of mankind than my underpants.

At work, I once said that Shankly's 'life or death' quotation was, tongue-in-cheek or not, one of the most dumbest thing ever said. A Liverpool fan near me contested this and said it wasn't and was true. The urge to slap him was a mighty one.

Comment by Why on Earth... 2011-03-16 14:05:17

"Unless you're Japanese, no one actually cares about what has happened."

I wonder if Moe would consider speaking for his fucking self.

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