Monday, June 27, 2011

The illusion of the soccer journalist as 'expert'

Reading Jamie Cutteridge's fascinating EFW interview with Mirror soccer scribe Oliver Holt, you're reminded how the Internet is slowly ebbing away at the authoritative "aura" of the full-time print journalist.

Holt you'll remember received a lot of attention for the way he dealt with Rio Ferdinand's direct Twitter message, in which the Manchester United defender called him a "fat prick" in making reference to the latter's famous missed drugs test in the 03-04 season. Holt quickly posted Ferdinand's insult on Twitter and was immediately lambasted by all quarters for some sort of Twitter "breach of privacy."

I remember when it happened, there was this immediate sense from everyone that Holt "should know better." But reading the interview, you see he's just this guy who writes about football for the Mirror, not some all-knowing sage with a clear sense of the "rules" when it comes to sportswriting. Holt's remarks defending his actions are remarkably banal:
I talked to a lot of people about it afterwards and, confidentiality is a two-way street, if I send an abusive letter to you, have I got the right to expect you to keep that confidential? For one thing, he didn’t ask me to keep it confidential, but has he got that right to expect him to keep it confidential? If I’d done that I wouldn’t expect it to be kept private, apart from anything else, I just don’t see what confidence there was to break.
More remarkable is how, later on in the interview, he admits he sees Twitter as a way to keep himself honest, and to help him know when he may have made an analytical mistake in a column based on fan reaction:
If you tweet something about a player, for example, I said something, when England were playing Switzerland, about what a nightmare game Johan Djourou was  having, and how it highlighted the need for Arsenal to strengthen at the back. I had a lot of tweets from Arsenal fans saying ‘don’t be so ignorant, he had a fantastic season for us.’ Or ‘ He’s one of the reasons we had a good defensive record.’ I saw arsenal play as much as anyone I saw last season, but probably a maximum of 10 times. So I thought, ok, obviously I got that wrong. So it keeps you abreast of things, it’s a source of information as well as a tool for communication.
This seems to me a stunning thing for an established sports journo to admit, even though, to be honest, anyone not 100% invested in a particular club, i.e. a full-time soccer journalist, is bound to make analytical errors now and again (unless their name is Michael Cox). 

Moreover, Holt admits he writes for a tabloid paper, and while he denies being deliberately provocative, he says he wouldn't get far with what he calls a "on one hand this..." type of piece. I've been "doing" football writing for awhile now, and that's the one thing you come to get. It's not always about having the biggest football brain. Sometimes that can kill you as a sports writer. 

In fact, with football, as in all sports, words themselves aren't even necessary. Sport is self-evident, naked. Most run to the sports section to have their prejudices confirmed or denied. Confirmed, they feel affinity with the writer and will gladly come back again for more. Denied, they'll spin off in a rage, write some nasty things on Twitter, and then go back for more. Let's call this journalistic "Winterism," or "Molinarism" for our Canadian readers. 

The idea that "expertise" must come into it is a misperception. That Holt is glad to be done with it is refreshing, to say the least. Sportswriting that gets in the paper is about keeping readers.


Michael said...

I probably make as many errors as anyone, but thanks!

Josef said...

well,you got one thing right: Zonal marking is 100% error.