It is nearly three years since Arsene Wenger first coined the term ‘Sky Sports Justice’ following the Carling Cup final with Chelsea. That day, in case you’ve forgotten, Adebayor was sent off for slapping Wayne Bridge, when that was in fact Eboue’s action. The press machine went into overdrive, focusing heavily on the ‘brawl’, and Eboue in particular, and as a result both clubs were disproportionately fined, with Eboue banned (Adebayor’s ban was not rescinded). Drogba, meanwhile, slapped Cesc away from the main cluster of players, but Sky refused to show it in their coverage, and no charge was brought. It was one of the clearest cases of media-driven action (and lack of) we’ve seen.
Since then, it has become worrying prevalent. We are now in the age of 24 hour news coverage, Sky Sports News running stories on a loop while the written press pick their targets, going after them online and each morning. Phone-ins give voices to those who read the Sun’s agenda-filled stories and wish to emphasise and embellish them, and suddenly fiction becomes fact. A minor incident becomes the disgrace of the century, and an individual finds himself the victim of a bloodthirsty witchhunt. It is all rather unedifying.
Moreover, it is a tough subject for a manager to broach – challenging the power that the media have over the football authorities can and will turn them against you, which only increases the focus on those incidents in which your players could be seen to be in the wrong. For example, any Arsenal fan can tell you that the Daily Mail has become the anti-Arsenal rag, with a constant stream of stories mocking everything that goes on at the Emirates, irrespective of whether there is any shred of truth in the words they print. With every story they twist reality to make us seem like the bad guys.
That isn’t a complaint, incidentally – I’m sure fans of other clubs can find columnists and even entire papers that continually paint them in a bad light. Much like political affiliation, they like to appeal to a subset of the country’s readership by taking a consistent line on the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’. They pick their targets, and stick to them. If their numbers dwindle, they switch. It is classic marketing, but so many are gullible enough to soak in every last word.
Sometimes they even announce their change – witness the Sun’s recent political declaration of support for the Conservative party over Labour, a complete about turn after a decade of allegiance. Now every story comes from the opposite angle. Do all the columnists and reporters back the switch? Of course not – they’re just doing their job. It is the same in sport.
If the media are effectively only doing their job, the same cannot be said of the authorities who should be strong enough to act independently of public furore.
First, of course, we had the Eduardo farce. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I believe it was a dive and I would like to see divers punished. But, and this is a big but, UEFA charged him and found him guilty based entirely on the media outrage sparked by the Scottish FA. FIFA’s rule is clear – if there is any contact it cannot be deemed a dive. UEFA were attempting to pacify the outcry with a scapegoat, but had to back down when they realised the punishment would never stick, and that they were only giving themselves a massive headache going forward.
Had the press not focused on the dive, the charge would never even have been brought. Was FC Zurich’s Alphonse hauled before judge and jury for his dive against Real Madrid on the first day of the group stage? Of course not. It was the first in a string of examples that exposed UEFA’s hypocrisy.
More recently, we had Henry’s handball. More instinctive than a dive, it was blown out of all proportion because of the magnitude of the event, and the timing. No other handball incident (Scharner and Defoe, to name two who transgressed in the weeks after the furore) even got a mention. The hypocrisy is staggering, yet once against the press triumphed, Henry today being forced to attend a disciplinary hearing.
Not only did he face sanction, but he was found guilty before the trial. Sepp Blatter said:
“This is a matter of the disciplinary committee but it was blatant unfair playing and was shown all around the world, but I don’t know what the outcome will be.”
Henry escaped a ban, but it was made abundantly clear that it was due only to a lack of legal options. You can be sure that had laws not been set firmly in stone, FIFA would have found a way to suspend him, effectively giving the press carte blanche to vilify individuals and get them taken to task for offences no worse than we see week in week out.
Worrying times, indeed. But all it takes to fix this problem is for FIFA and UEFA to be strong and communicate. Resist the hype machine, and explain clearly why fair decisions are taken.
But instead, they pander, and show themselves up as weak-minded in the process, presenting the media with an opportunity to influence by carefully selected stories to fit their agendas. They no longer report the news, they create it.