Cruel intentions

The Mail on Sunday recklessly puts England's World Cup bid at risk and the press leap on a half-hearted scandal, forcing Lord Triesman to resign as FA chairman

Should you be held publicly accountable for every remark you’ve ever made during casual conversation? Yes, according to the Mail on Sunday, only in their world such remarks are “serious allegations” and having dinner with a former mistress constitutes a “meeting”. And having somehow reached those conclusions they unleashed yet another quintessentially English media scandal about nothing in particular.

This was a curious scandal from day one. FA chief Lord Triesman accuses Spain and Russia of bid to bribe World Cup referees, was the headline in the MoS on May 16. It implies at least some sort of public statement, rather than a secretly taped private conversation acquired for a reported sum of £75,000. Dubious ethical practices in the newspaper business should surprise no one at this point, but the peculiar bit was that the MoS, with its long-established nationalistic outlook, would publish a story that could do only do damage to England’s World Cup bid.

Hiding behind the pretence of public interest was always out of the question, considering the nature of the recording, and so the MoS attempted to shift the focus of the story with the next day’s headline: The woman who could cost England the 2018 World Cup: FA chief quits after “mistress” tapes him accusing Spain and Russia of trying to bribe referees. Clearly, this was all the fault of Melissa Jacobs, not the publication that paid a five-figure sum for her recording and splashed it on its front page.

One of the few early voices of dissent came from Patrick Barclay of the Times. Appearing on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement the day the story broke, he said “I find this intensely depressing, I think it’s a despicable piece of journalism,” before pointing out the folly of treating private conversation as a public announcement.

Nonetheless, the general mood was summed up by the Observer’s Paul Hayward on the very same show: “However you feel about private conversations being taped and run onto the pages of newspapers in this manner, all that’s not going to count in the end.” In almost perfect unison the nation’s media dutifully reported the story and its possible implications, but, apart from the half-hearted attempt by the Sun to coin the nickname “Lord Treason”, the reports seemed to lack the usual fervour of a full-blown scandal. Triesman quits over World Cup “bribery” claims was the headline in the Guardian, while the Sun went with Triesman quits in bribes storm.

The story got plenty of coverage, but it was the question of whether or not the MoS should have run with the story that became the topic of national debate. Comments under the story on the paper’s website were overwhelmingly critical, while a poll on TalkSport’s website showed that 84 per cent of listeners felt it was wrong to publish.

Whether disturbed by the unethical aspects of the story or simply angry that a paper would wilfully harm England’s World Cup bid, the MoS seemed to have annoyed people from all corners of opinion. Including their own, as it turned out, with Gary Lineker resigning as a columnist for the paper. “I was shocked and very angry when I saw the story. It also made me feel a little sick. The Mail on Sunday has made a gross error in judgement in treating Lord Triesman like this,” he told the press.

So why did the MoS publish the story? The BBC’s sports editor David Bond revealed on his blog that the story had initially been offered to and turned down by another paper, believed by Roy Greenslade of the Guardian to be the News of the World. A story so unsavoury and filled with potential backlash that the News of the World wouldn’t touch it. What on earth were the MoS editors thinking?

As far back as September 11, 2009, the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel wrote a full column dedicated solely to explaining why he, with all the maturity of a seasoned broadsheet journalist, refers to Lord Triesman as Lord Pleased Man. “It is because in the world of sports administration it is almost impossible to find a figure quite as delighted with himself and his intellect as the gentleman at the helm of English football,” Samuel explained.

Still, no publication on the planet would risk its reputation and a possible boycott to take down someone who simply got on the wrong side of one of their columnists, but a brief search of the first MoS article reveals a more poignant clue. The word “Labour” is used a full nine times. You might wonder how Lord Triesman’s New Labour connections are extraordinarily relevant to an article on a former civil servant who “could cost England the 2018 World Cup”, but then all is fair in love and war. And elections.

With most newspapers bound by industry norms, it was left to more maverick voices to write what was surely on most thinking people’s minds. Enter Football365’s John Nicholson: “The Mail is a hateful organ which claims to patriotically speak for England and English values, but this is rubbish. Any paper that had the best interests of the country at heart would not be running a story like this. It achieves nothing except to make something which would be an entirely positive [sic] for the country, less likely. It’s typical of the bitter angry killjoy attitude of the paper and it deserves to be boycotted by all England fans.” Indeed.

From WSC 281 July 2010