Vested Interests versus Investigative Journalism

30 04 2013

Last night I watched a BBC programme called “The Editors” because I knew that David Bond,  the BBC’ News’ Sports editor, would be answering his self-penned question; Has something gone seriously wrong with football?” The programme’s misleading adverts meant that I thought he’d have an hour to highlight issues that have been ignored by the media. I was looking forward opinions, expertise and experience of one of the BBC’s top journalists.

From what I saw (not all of the show I must add) The Editors consists of several short pieces that only provide slightly more detail than the ordinary news. I didn’t quite know what Bond was hoping to achieve with his piece but he didn’t get to the heart of the matter, or even scratch the surface for that matter, so watching his piece was quite frustrating. Mind you I should have realised that it was going to be like this; I read the article that Bond wrote on the BBC website – “Has the evolution of the beautiful game been for better or worse?” – a few hours before.

As soon as I read the title I already had an answer; “The evolution of the beautiful game has been for better and worse with the emphasis on the latter” There are more world-class players in England’s top division now but you have to pay extortionate amounts to watch them. Here’s the article;

Has the evolution of the beautiful game been for better or worse?

English football has never been more popular, more powerful or more wealthy.

In the space of just two decades the Premier League has transformed the way the game is played, watched and run in this country.

Run-down grounds have been turned into shiny, all-seater stadiums with megastores and restaurants serving three-course meals and fine wines.

More women and children are going to games and, apart from Millwall’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley two weeks ago, crowd trouble inside stadiums is extremely rare.

I remember when things were very different. In the 1980s, when I started watching football, most grounds were clapped out old relics. All fenced-in terraces and stands with corrugated roofs. The atmosphere could often be sinister and forbidding.

The experience of watching a game in this country is now, happily, unrecognisable from those days. The Hillsborough disaster forced the game to change and fans now enjoy a much more comfortable and enjoyable experience.

And yet there is still a nagging sense that something has been lost. That in the rush to cash in on the economic boom of the 1990s clubs left their core audience behind.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been working on a film for BBC News: The Editors programme on how the national game has changed.

I met parents and children at a junior football game in Bracknell. I got up at the crack of dawn to travel from Manchester to Wembley with 10 bus loads of Man City fans bound for their club’s FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea. And I went to Germany’s industrial heartland to see the head of Borussia Dortmund, one of the powerhouses of the resurgent Bundesliga.

Everyone I spoke to was full of admiration for what the Premier League and English football had achieved in recent times. But all said they had concerns – whether it was over ticket prices, players failing in their role as role models or owners exploiting supporters.

Hans Joachim Watzke, the chief executive of Dortmund, says clubs like his ensure fans feel a part of the club by involving them as members. Thanks to the 50 plus one rule, no one businessman or company can take control of German clubs. He believes the English ownership model leads to fans being treated as clients and has killed the romance of the game.

Other people I spoke to during my filming for the programme talked of a disconnect between the very top of the game and the grassroots.

As players have got richer and richer so there is a perception, it seems, that they are out of touch with the people who help pay their wages.

As the playing talent has got richer – earning on average £1m a year in the Premier League – so ticket prices have gone up again and again to help pay the bills for such talent.

Even as television has poured unprecedented amounts of money into the game – the next round of three-year TV deals could break through the £5bn barrier for the first time – ticket prices have continued to rise. In fact since the start of the Premier League in 1992 tickets have gone up several times the rate of inflation.

This has led to a shift in the demographics of football’s supporter base with many fans from the game’s traditional working class heartland now priced out. With so many live games on TV, lots of supporters choose to watch in the pub or at home instead of paying for a season ticket.

The Premier League argues that if ticket pricing was such an issue then crowds would have fallen. Instead, it points out the opposite is true with attendances rising by 60% since 1992. Grounds in the old First Division were only 70% full at the time of the Premier League breakaway. Now the number is almost 95%.

The League says that its member clubs “price according to demand”, an unfettered free market approach which ensures they can maximise revenue and profits which in turn can be spent on improving facilities and on developing and buying new talent. They also insist that cheaper or subsidised tickets would only lead to an explosion in touting which would rob the clubs of valuable income and leave genuine fans paying even more money.

But by allowing the market alone to decide the cost of watching football there is undoubtedly a risk that clubs will alienate their traditional fanbase and a younger generation of supporters will be lost.

What’s more, treating fans purely as consumers fails to take into account the special connection they have with their club. Or the fact that a supporter of one club can’t simply walk down the road and follow another team if they aren’t happy with the prices or the team on offer.

This is where treating football as any other product falls down. There is something different about being a fan of a club. It comes with an emotional attachment that is quite simply different to going to watch a concert or a film.

These arguments are well rehearsed. And it is, of course, a giant leap to blame all of English football’s problems on the business model which drives the game. Economics can’t be held responsible for players who bite their opponents, for example.

But the media money has brought with it intense levels of scrutiny for all those involved in the sport. Set against that level of attention and expectation is it any wonder so many come up short?

The smallest of incidents can be horribly distorted – a side effect of being the most popular sport in the age of social media and 24-hour news.

And yet for all its popularity, there is a sense that football has lost touch. It was a sentiment best summed up by a judge, Justice Leonard, at the end of the Harry Redknapp tax evasion trial last year.

“Football,” he said, “is a sport which has become so commercial, it may be thought by some to have rather lost its way.”

English football’s journey from the dark old days of the 70s and 80s has unquestionably brought great progress. But not all the changes have been for the better.

David Bond’s film on how English football has changed will be shown on BBC News: The Editors on BBC One, Monday 29 April at 23:15 BST.

There’s nothing wrong with parts of the article because at some point there’s an implication that something is obviously wrong with this situation;

“The League says that its member clubs “price according to demand”, an unfettered free market approach which ensures they can maximise revenue and profits which in turn can be spent on improving facilities and on developing and buying new talent. They also insist that cheaper or subsidised tickets would only lead to an explosion in touting which would rob the clubs of valuable income and leave genuine fans paying even more money.”

I had to read the last sentence – “They also insist that cheaper or subsidised tickets would only lead to an explosion in touting which would rob the clubs of valuable income and leave genuine fans paying even more money.” – several times just to make sure I fully understood the enormity of the point. The powers that be actually expect us to accept a weasel answer like that.

While parts of the article were fine I didn’t like its general thrust. Firstly he labelled fans as football’s “core audience” then he employed trite clichés;

Statement 1 – “treating fans purely as consumers fails to take into account the special connection they have with their club. Or the fact that a supporter of one club can’t simply walk down the road and follow another team if they aren’t happy with the prices or the team on offer…….”

Statement 2 – “…….In the 1980s, when I started watching football, most grounds were clapped out old relics. All fenced-in terraces and stands with corrugated roofs. The atmosphere could often be sinister and forbidding.”

Statement 1 is not only a cliché, it’s plainly wrong, Football has always created feelings of connection to a club or a stadium but football wasn’t always as partisan as it is now. For example, a member of my Dad’s old quiz team was a Liverpool fan from Wallasey but he would also go and watch Everton if Everton were at home and Liverpool were away.

Bond stated the following with absolute certainty;

“….Or THE FACT that a supporter of one club can’t simply walk down the road and follow another team if they aren’t happy with the prices or the team on offer”

Fans may not change their minds on products like a grocery shopper but they can change their minds about their clubs given the right circumstances, for example alienated Manchester United formed FC United;

How does he explain the creation AFC Wimbledon, or the Cardiff fans that have refused to countenance the re-brand? What about any fans that doesn’t feel part of “their” clubs’ any more? People shape history as much as history shapes people and fans are not merely willing dupes ready for exploitation, they know when things aren’t to their liking.

Was Statement 2 his actual experience, or the experience of most fans, or is it just another of contemporary society’s clichéd remembrances? While there was undoubtedly a bit more “aggro” in the 1980s, can we say that the atmosphere was “sinister and forbidding” in every ground at all times? It’s also odd that he picked “stands with corrugated roofs” as some kind of signifier of football decrepitude when most of the “fantastic new grounds” are clad in corrugated metal sheets.

There is another false idea in the article; football “comes with an emotional attachment that is quite simply different to going to watch a concert or a film.” Football is no more special than anything else and I say this as a football fan.

People can become engrossed in anything, they can emotional about anything if they’re interested enough in it, whether this is watching soap operas, collecting first editions or visiting art galleries. Who’s to say that these interests are less worthy than a football fan’s interests? Would the person that finds a first edition after a twenty year search feel less joy than the football fan that’s just seen his club win a semi-final?

To say that a football fan has more emotional attachment to his interest than a film buff or a massive music fan is to misunderstand the relationships people have with film and music. A lot of people hear their most cherished piece of music, close their eyes and bask in a favourite memory. When a person really likes a band their attachment to their music is not a simple logical decision, it’s an emotional decision. If you do think people elicit emotional responses from films then seek out the thoughts of Mark Kermode and Phillp French.

The worst thing about Bond’s work is the way his views are packaged. Outwardly he seeks to challenge the status quo by highlighting problems – “players are out of touch with the people who help pay their wages” …….” a disconnect between the very top of the game and the grassroots”. – but all he does is justify the existence of the problems that besiege modern football.

In both the film and the article Bond employs the “football was dying on its feet in the 1980s” thesis. By meekly accepting subtext of this thesis  – “Football stopped being horrible when Sky’s money arrived” – Bond is stating that we have to accept present day football as it is and not challenge it – “Don’t dare criticise the transformative power of Sky’s money for it is a pancea!!!”

In other words, Bond seeks to attack the status quo by using precisely the same argument that vested interests like Sky use to justify their behaviour.

Bond totally submits to the viewpoint of the vested interests’, despite talking of a “disconnect between the very top of the game and the grassroots”  he managed to interview members of “The Prawn Sandwich Brigade” without challenging the principle of paying £1000s of pounds for football-based hospitality. By stating that football fans have some kind of quasi-religious attachment to their club he prostrates himself before the logic of Sky TV, where “Football is the most important thing ever!”

In fact Bond not only submits to the viewpoint of the vested interests, he explicitly shifts the blame for alienation of fans away from them ;

“And it is, of course, a giant leap to blame all of English football’s problems on the business model which drives the game. Economics can’t be held responsible for players who bite their opponents, for example.”

How can an inquisitive journalist fail to make the connection between the alienation of people from football and the impact of vested interests?

Bond should have spent more time asking basic questions such as; Why did a media corporation want to get involved in football in the first place? Why is that media corporation willing to inject obscene amounts of money in to the sport? Does the media corporation employ forensic coverage in the press and on 24 hour news channels to create spectacle and therefore demand for its product?

Beware fluff masquerading as hard-hitting journalism.

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