Time for Leveson-esque inquiry into football reporting?

The Leveson inquiry, investigating claims of unethical journalism from certain sectors of the UK industry, is an undoubtedly positive investigation in to phone hacking and other forms of gutter journalism. On its official website the Leveson inquiry describes itself as investigating the ‘culture, practice and ethics of the press.’ A worthy cause, however what seems to have been forgotten in all of this is any form of investigation in to the sporting side of journalism. Where phone hacking has directly affected the private life of an individual sportsman then issues may have been raised but any sort of examination of the ethics of sports journalism doesn’t appear to be taking place any time soon. The question however is: should there be?

Is the general consensus that because journalism regarding sport is essentially reporting on something that is ‘just a game’ then there can be little that is unethical about its reporting? Because if that is the common feeling then it is hard not to disagree. We also have to consider the degree of responsibility which we as sporting fans, particularly football fans, should shoulder considering that the media generally just responds to the demands of is punters, in other words us.

Culture

To generalise about any phenomenon is wrong, there will always be exceptions to every rule, but then again there will always be the actions and movements of the large groups that need to be addressed. In football journalism, the culture of a lack of truth is something that regularly alarms me. Is there any other section of a paper where quite so much of the news is fabricated? I’m talking about the transfer news and the club gossip, the squabbling between boards, between players and between coaches that provide so much content for football writers. This culture of inventing news has developed to the point whereby I only believe about half of what I read in papers and on the Internet. Sure, some of those stories are true, club ‘a’ may well be interested in player ‘x’ but for every truthful story there are clearly ten that are nothing more than the figment of an individual’s imagination. I understand that this situation exists because it is what people like to read about however I would rather read half the amount and know it was true than read the amount I do and doubt every word.

Practice

There is perhaps less to say on the actual practicing of sports journalism. One factor that could make a difference however is that newspapers should have to confirm their sources. This would prevent much of the falsehood from ever reaching the printing stage. I’m not saying that sources should be publicly ousted, if that happened then those sources would never offer any help ever again. Perhaps though the clubs and players themselves should be allowed to inquire as to the identity of sources that leaked stories about them. You could argue as well however that the press offices of clubs and players are overly protective when it comes to what you can and can’t talk to their players about. If clubs were more lenient with the subjects journalists were allowed to write about then they wouldn’t have to seek out sources from within the club in any underhand way.

Ethics

The argument that being in the spotlight and having your life scrutinised is just part of the job if you are a sportsman is one that I do understand. With any position of privilege comes responsibility, however that doesn’t give us the right to harass sportsmen, or to encourage hatred towards them by stoking the fires between rivals and twisting their words to incense fans. Barely a week goes by without the press calling for some manager’s head in football. This is fine if that manager genuinely deserves it but the simple fact that the following week the same press will be praising that person suggests that they don’t. Clearly freedom of press means  unconditional freedom so I’m not saying that certain subjects should be off limits. What I am saying is that incidents such as the death of Gary Speed have shown us that all sportsmen, no matter how famous and successful they seem, are human, all are susceptible to the same human pitfalls that we all are and most will be affected by negative press. Gary Speed showed that footballers, no matter how rich, all have their own problems and if his death has taught us anything it is that journalists should think twice before slandering somebody’s name, you can’t know what kind of mental state that person might be in, and an article is never worth a life. There cannot be limits on the freedom of press but that doesn’t mean that we as individuals should not place moral limits on ourselves as writers.

The point is that ultimately despite appearing to be about a ‘less serious’ subject matter the consequences of the actions of journalists in sport is no less serious than it is in any other sector. The difference is that it appears that sports journalists are allowed to get away with more. Why is it not ok to dig deep in to the private life of a normal celebrity yet when sports journalists create imaginary stories that endanger the career of a sportsman then that is fine. Only recently with Wayne Rooney we saw stories about how he was unhappy at Old Trafford, didn’t get on with Ferguson and wanted to leave. He rejected those claims, as did his manager. He also played the next game and scored two goals. The likely conclusion? That the story was fabricated, so why are there not more complaints about issues like this?

Follow me on Twitter @H_Mackay

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