Don’t get me wrong, I wanted John Terry to lose the England captaincy. I felt it was the right decision and have said so on this site. Nor do I particularly like the man. I don’t know him, and so withhold any personal criticisms or unfounded judgements on him, but I don’t feel any instinctive sympathy with his current plight, despite being a generally sympathetic sort of person.
However that doesn’t mean that I approve of the media furore that preceded his dismissal, nor the hand washing of responsibility that is currently doing the rounds now the cluster bomb shrapnel has settled. One of the main reasons that I, and others put forward for his dismissal, and one that Capello most likely took on board too, was that this whole sorry affair wasn’t going away. That the English media are a uniquely vicious breed, adept in character assassination and well versed in leading the flaming touch mob down any alley they please. Most surreally, this plain fact has even been widely reported within the media itself, as every football columnist from Dorset to Dundee was quick to congratulate Don Fabio for quelling the media hysteria whilst absolving themselves of any part in it. This caused the almost Monty Pytho-esque situation of those supposedly behind the thing that would cause the distraction, claiming they weren’t behind it, but they knew it existed, and were glad steps were taken to stop it getting out of hand, despite no one apparently actually being behind it, because they were actually all against it apparently. Which created a sort of bizarre chicken egg situation that I’m still struggling to get my head around as I type this.
The English press, and specifically the tabloids, have ruined nicer types than JT and with far more venom in the past. If the only upshot of this whole thing is that they’ve got it out of their system before the World Cup then we might finally be spared an English football tournament without a pantomime villan.
There’s always been a leaning towards negative caricatures in the press, and an awareness of their powers of persuasion, but it wasn’t really until Graham Taylor appeared on the front page of the Sun with his face super imposed on a Turnip that their influence on the footballing world really dawned on them. Taylor’s reputation never recovered. He may well of been sacked anyway after failing to reach World Cup 94, but the media witch-hunt that followed his substitution of Gary Linker gave no chance of a reprieve.
From then on the papers sought to find a vilan for every bad occasion. Gareth Southgate was lambasted for a bit after Euro 96 but it wasn’t until David Beckham was sent off during World Cup 98 that they bared their teeth viciously again. A simple, all be it rather silly act of petulance, caused outrage in fleet street as the Mirror ran with the headline “10 Heroic Lions and One Stupid Boy”, giving Beckham a 0 in it’s match ratings and slating his reputation. The Sun, Mail et all leaped on the bandwagon producing Public Enemy dartboards with Beckham’s face in the bullseye whilst actual criminals filled up the outer scores. An effigy was hung of him in a London pub and on Manchester United’s first away game of the following season, stones were thrown at the team coach by angry fans wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “You let your team down, you let yourself down, you let your country down”. England had officially gone stark raving mad. Would any of this happened without the media hysteria? Almost certainly not, and most definitely not to that level.
But they didn’t destroy Beckham, as they had Taylor. To his immense credit the lad fought back, becoming England’s best player and working his way up to captain. The fans mood changed, and, aware of this, the media then swung a violent 180 and declared him a demi god. They praised his triumph over adversary, an adversary they had caused, and some even took credit for it’s inspiration. Ostensibly all that had happened was a young player was sent off in a match, and then grew up to be a much better player as he got older. Happens quite a lot I’d imagine. But no, this was an epic journey of discovery, a stirring tale of redemption, beginning the fateful night he let his country down and vowed to make amends. Not, for example, the fateful day 2 years earlier when he’d scored from the half way line, or won PFA young player of the year, that wasn’t when it really started you see, cos the media had nothing to do with that bit.
This narrative was such a success that they continue it constantly. They build up and tear down and then when one strong individual throws it back in their faces, they claim the credit for it. Phil Neville and David Seaman, intially cast in the role after tournaments in 2000 and 2002 weren’t big enough. They weren’t important, arrogant or pretty enough, so the stories died. When Cristiano Ronaldo was targeted for a rather pathetically innocuous wink picked up the TV camera’s, their nostrils flared and they smelt real blood again, seizing on a trivial incident, ignoring reports of Wayne Rooney’s acknowledgement of blame and pleas for calm, and riled up the public again in moral indignation at the stupidest possible thing. Even now, despite Ronaldo’s own tale of redemption (which wasn’t as good selling wise since he wasn’t English basically) The Sun still pathetically refer to him as “The Winker” in any article they publish whilst columnists in the same paper absolve themselves of any blame for the witch hunt. Trial and redemption, it works, it sells, why stop now?
So if England do Triumph in South Africa, the stage is set for another glorious tale of triumph over adversary. They’ll gush over Terry’s bravery in action and strong will to overcome the vicious attacks on his character whilst simultaneously referring to him as “Sex Cheat John Terry”. And it won’t stop there, because we still buy it. Terry probably deserves comeuppance for his behaviour, but who are they, and who are we to give it to him. He deserves it from his family and friends, not from the readers of Heat magazine. And while it’s easier to say this business reflects badly on our media, it’s truer to say it reflects badly on all of us. They may sucker us in and play on our primitive responses, but we buy it. We buy it droves, and shame on us for it, myself included, because it’s really all quite ridiculous isn’t it?