The Media, Liverpool FC & You

The Media, Liverpool FC & You
March 7, 2010 Paul Tomkins

This is an abridged (half original length, with sections removed) version of a piece published on here five weeks ago for members, the full version of which is still available here for subscribers.

In any walk of life, if you don’t have the facts straight, you will almost certainly jump to incorrect conclusions.

If you think that the atomic bomb has only ever killed a handful of people, you might not fear it so much or debate its deployment; what’s the fuss? If you are taken in by the Holocaust deniers, you might be more sympathetic towards the Nazis.

The truth, however, is that the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were truly devastating. The facts, however, tell us that six million Jews were put to death by Hitler and his regime.

What next? People will be saying that evolution didn’t happen, despite millions of years’ worth of fossils and the generational fact-lines of DNA … Oh

If you do not have your facts straight, you don’t have an opinion; you just have hot air. An opinion without the facts is like a pop song without the words and music.

Sometimes it’s better to say nothing than offer an opinion; no opinion is better than a wrong one. But in modern media life, an opinion on everything is a must.

I don’t know how the combustion engine works; I just know that it does. I could offer my opinion on how I think it works, but what use would it be? And if the engine in my car goes wrong, shouldn’t I let my mechanic, who not only knows what he’s doing but can actually examine at close quarters and analyse it, be left to judge why? (Okay, so he’ll also charge me for 37 unnecessary extra adjustments, but you get my point.)

And this is the brick wall I hit my head against time and time again with critics of Rafa Benítez; or, for that matter, any Liverpool manager who is expected to achieve the success of the past when there is no longer even a remotely level playing field.

It’s the same with some of his methods; too many ‘opinions‘ on them are formed via impressions (and 2nd or 3rd hand information), rather than facts. If you don’t try to grasp the full picture, you’re dealing in scraps of information. Look only at the top left section of the Mona Lisa, and it isn’t a portrait but a landscape.

Some fans say “but why worry about what the media says? Ignore it”. Yet it puts even greater pressure on the team and its manager, by overreacting and creating an atmosphere of intolerance and impatience; that in turn leads to fans believing the hysteria, which, in turn, leads to those fans contacting the media, to vent their spleens and regurgitate the same untruths they’ve been told by that very source. The media then print these comments, or air them on phone-in shows – even use them of evidence of the fans turning against the manager – and a cycle of negativity is complete.

Therefore, what follows is a look at how we receive that information, and the motives of those feeding it to us.

Note: some of the following is borne from discussions on The Tomkins Times, and therefore includes ideas I have learned from subscribers to the site – for which I’m eternally grateful. Unlike a lot of other forums, it is designed as a way to learn from one another and share ideas, not to bicker, knee-jerk and abuse.

The Media Has Its Agenda

And it’s not to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is to make money, and in order to do that it needs to be exciting, titillating, eye-catching, outrageous. Some journalists – the good guys – want to tell the truth, uncover great stories. But the beast, as a whole, is far more complex and self-serving.

Headlines bear increasingly little resemblance to stories, as sub-editors go to work in twisting one aspect of the story to grab attention. Real news is secondary to trivial nonsense.

“The media follow established narratives. Once there is a storyline arcing through the media others like to pick it up and continue with it.”

The Canadian journalist Dan Gardner (author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear), speaking on Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe.

The example Gardner gave was of pre-9/11 terrorism in America. The Oklahoma bombing in 1995 was a massive world news story. The threat posed by white, right-wing extremist terrorists is no different today than it was then. But when an American suicide bomber blew himself up at a NFL stadium in 2005, it was barely reported; contrast that with the fuss made over the Christmas Day incident, when Farouk Abdulmutallab only succeeded in blowing up his own pants.

To fit into the narrative, terrorism in America now needs to be Islamic. Both incidents were of a similar nature – a young man trying to blow up himself and others – but one was a global mega-story, the other a mere footnote.

Think of a minor example of this in our weekly football lives: Liverpool’s zonal marking. Liverpool defend countless set-pieces successfully –– no news. Liverpool concede a goal at a set-piece –– zonal marking! The narrative that zonal marking is some bizarre foreign tomfoolery is established; we’re English! –– we go ‘man to man’, Mano-a-mano.

The major narrative in the UK press this season has been that Rafa Benítez is not good enough. Any time there’s a bad result, there’s a rush of articles about what he’s done wrong. A whole host of clichés and myths are used to back up this assertion.

Of course, some of the individual criticisms may be valid, and managers cannot help but make mistakes (which are obviously more highlighted at an especially news-worthy club).

But just recently I’ve gone through dozens of critiques of the manager and found some glaring factual inaccuracies. No journalist can be expected to get every last detail of their argument correct, and some small mistakes are to be expected. But many of these errors are lazy, and wilfully neglectful. They go to form a tidal wave of ‘opinion’ that sweeps people up in its wake.

Just recently, I’ve seen major-outlet pieces that:

• Criticise Benítez for buying Djibril Cissé. He didn’t. Clearly.

• Criticise Benítez for choosing to dispose of Peter Crouch. (Crouch refused to sign a new deal, and was nearing the end of his contract; therefore the only option was to sell while a fee could still be received.) The same applies to Sami Hyypia, who was offered a one-year deal and a coaching role.

• Say that Benítez should have kept Alonso, even though the player wanted to leave, with Real Madrid relentlessly pursuing him and offering a massive fee. What I found incredible, by contrast, was that David Moyes, having sold his best defender under similar circumstances, was widely praised for ridding his club of a want-away star – even though Everton were suffering horrible results for the first half of the season. Moyes was brave; Benítez foolish.

• Wonder why Benítez didn’t give Robbie Keane the same amount of playing time he enjoys at Spurs. (Where, incidentally, he actually played far less football; this is not a ‘stat’, it is a pure minute-based fact. He also spent more time on the left-wing, and scored fewer goals from open play. He takes a decent penalty, mind. Has Harry Redknapp been criticised for leaving him out, in the way that Rafa was? Or for paying £16m for a player, only to loan him out 12 months later?)

• Suggest that selling Bellamy left the Reds short of cover for Fernando Torres, when, in fact, Bellamy was sold in order to help finance the purchase of the Spaniard. Which is a bit like saying you should have kept your old house when your bought your new one, just in case; shame the mortgage wouldn’t cover such wanton largesse.

• Argue that Torres was a nailed-on ‘no-brainer’ of a signing; meanwhile, many others have claimed that he will leave Liverpool due to the current failures (which they put down to Benítez). In response to this, I’ve even seen comments from the public swearing blind that Benítez has ‘ruined’ Torres.

Torres, however, had never scored more than 13 goals from open play in a season before moving to Liverpool; in his first year he scored 24 in the league, and 33 in total. Torres – not that anyone takes a blind bit of notice – has only this month said that Benítez is a ‘genius’ whose perfectionism and incredibly detailed advice has helped him make massive improvements. (FourFourTwo, February 2010 edition.)

• Say that Benítez hasn’t bought one excellent player in the £3m-£10m price range. (Alan Hansen is the author of this one.) Pepe Reina cost £6m. So we don’t even need to debate the merits of Benayoun, Agger, Garcia, Crouch, and various others. If we can’t agree that Pepe Reina is one of the best-ever Liverpool signings, then we might as well close this whole club down now.

• Argue that Benayoun doesn’t get enough playing time. Until his recent injury, the Israeli had featured in as many games as any other Liverpool player, and at the time of entering the winter, no-one had started more matches for the Reds this season.

These are just some brief examples of very recent pieces where the opinion was often rendered worthless – to someone with knowledge – because it was at odds with reality. If you believe all of the above falsehoods, then yes, you may well have a dim view of Rafa Benítez.

Then there are the grey areas: opinion that’s not based on fact, but looks like it is. Tactics tend to fit into this category, as you could label 4-5-1 as negative, even if the midfield was Platini, Maradona, Gullit, Cruyff and Zidane.

Football Fans Are Conspiracy Theorists

Conspiracy theories exist only in a vacuum from evidence. In the face of this, what I say to anyone who offers their views on why things might not be going as well as expected is – ‘prove it?’ I take on the role of defence lawyer: you show me the evidence. Instead, I tend to get theory, hearsay and prejudice in reply.

If, for example, a serious injury list is not contributing to poor results, tell me why?

Any time you can’t prove something, you can run off at the mouth and feel justified.

Myth-busting is a Noble Pastime

Ben Goldacre is a scientist who also works as a journalist. He writes for the Guardian, has appeared on BBC4‘s Newswipe, and is the author of the highly-praised book, “Bad Science“.

He exposes the media for what it is: if not quite full of shit, to put it bluntly, then fairly manure-heavy. In Bad Science he lists countless examples of stories falsified by the media to suit an agenda; and of science journalists who hate what they are forced to write, because they know it’s non-science nonsense, but who know that if they don’t, someone else will. And that person will get paid instead.

Goldacre’s job with the NHS means that he can write to get his point across, rather than to pay the bills. “No-one can say to me,” he told a recent issue of Word Magazine, “you have to write this really stupid, soul-destroyingly pointless feature article about something you massively disagree with.”

“A lot of people who write these ridiculous stories in the press,” he continues, “their only defence when you meet them socially is, ‘you know, well, I’ve got to make a living’.”

They know it’s claptrap; the point is, so should you. Even though everyone says never believe what you read in the papers, people clearly do. At times, every last word.

I once did an hour-long interview with a journalist from a weekly newspaper, in relation to the release of one of my books. Everything was omitted apart from one single sentence, which was taken out of context. The journalist later apologised, saying that the editor had to cut it down for space for something else. But what was printed was only half of an either/or scenario. Ludicrous.

Then there was my meeting with Rafa Benítez in October 2009, which was only reported with any respect for what actually took place by Ian Herbert of the Independent. In the few mentions it received in other papers, the purpose of the meeting, and my attitude towards it, was heavily distorted. Fortunately, most people who read the papers haven’t had to experience being on the other end of bad reporting; if they had, they might wake up.

And some people are so stupid, thanks to newspapers rallying the masses, they go out and attack paediatricians – doctors for children – instead of paedophiles. Certain newspapers pander to a mob mentality.

Ignorance can be wilful, or it can be natural; after all, we can’t know everything, or even be remotely expected to. Personally, I try to arm myself with as many facts as possible, to avoid being ignorant of the issues at hand. I watch games, read books, undertake research and analysis, listen to what managers say, and keep an open mind (in that there is never one right or wrong way to do things).

However, there will always be aspects of a manager’s job that no-one but he himself, and his closest staff members, will be aware of: injuries, budgetary constraints, attitudes in training, issues in the players’ personal lives or with his general confidence, and myriad other details that affect, in some way or other, each and every performance.

In this sense, I am aware of my ignorance. I am also aware that my own ideas about football have never been tested in the real arena, where things can go wrong through no fault of your own. Therefore, I write with respect when analysing the methods of top managers, not with the delusions that I know better.

But the problem with truly ignorant people is that, paradoxically, they think they know best. Goldacre gives a wonderful explanation of the Kruger-Dunning Effect, which deals with this very phenomenon.

“…one of my favourite psychology papers: ‘How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments‘ by Justin Kruger and David Dunning. They noted that people who are incompetent suffer a dual burden: not only are they incompetent, but they may also be too incompetent to assay their own incompetence, because the skills which underlie an ability to make a correct judgement are the same as the skills required to recognise a correct judgement.”

In other words, ignorant and incompetent people cannot recognise skill in others, and have an inflated idea of their own ability, because they have no way of knowing that they don’t know better! These are the people that say “fucking hell, I could do that job. How hard can it be?”

Joe Public and the Comments Box

For me, this is one of the worst aspects of the modern news media. Internet forums are bad enough in that they allow ignorance a place to flourish, but at least they’re cordoned off; and you usually get people trying to enlighten the community in response.

But now, either on the internet or television, we cannot move without hearing from A N Other, John Doe or Joe Public. Slap-bang in the middle of the item is some garbled nonsense; such as this gem on the official Liverpool’s site, after Liverpool beat Bolton 2-0:

-edmund- 30th Jan 2010 18:01 “Always drop LUCAS on the BENCH and we’ll get 3 points…it’s that simple…”

Dunning-Kruger, anyone?

The Media Is Biased Against Liverpool

Only, it’s not.

A few weeks back I read an interesting piece on the BBC 606 forum by a guy called “Paul Tomkins”. It started with some familiar stats, used in another one of my pieces. However, this one was only written by someone purporting to be me. The piece spoke of the “anti-Liverpool media”, and this is an argument I object to. It’s too vague.

The media is simply in the hunt for stories. And big clubs struggling are a story.

This also means that any big club that isn’t ‘fully’ struggling will still be portrayed as such; it’s only a story if it’s exaggerated. The media isn’t concerned with the long term; it needs readers today, viewers this hour.

Few big teams lose sleep over going out of the FA Cup anymore; losing to Reading, much the same as happened at Burnley in 2005, was portrayed as a disaster of epic proportions. It wasn’t. In the case of Reading, my main worry was how it would affect the league form.

That doesn’t mean, however, that individuals within the media aren’t biased against Liverpool; just as some are biased towards Liverpool.

Okay, But the Media is Biased against Benítez

To my mind, there is definitely some pretty heavy bias in the media against Rafa Benítez – just not from the media as a blanket whole. I am not alone in this thought; even fans of other clubs have asked me what the hell he’s done to deserve the way he’s treated.

A full article on this can be found here.

Get Your Facts Straight

My critics often accuse me of spin/PR, but what I do is often in reaction to the media, to counter what I can almost always prove to be myths, that have been spouted in newspapers or on TV, either through ignorance or bias.

I write for the official Liverpool site, and as such I have to be careful about what I say on that platform; certain criticisms will not get past the Press Office in the way that they can be aired on the TV station or on their forums (or now, even at the end of my pieces, by one of their forum users). I once had a comment about Peter Crouch lacking pace removed; yes, it can get that bizarre. But that’s their right. I understand how what I say could look like ‘official’ comment.

However, I am certainly not putting a ‘spin’ on anything; I haven’t defended the Americans in the slightest since Klinsmann-gate and the debt being placed on the club, and there are players I haven’t had any good things to say about, either.

If you believe what you’ve read by someone who was ill-informed, then of course my take will look like spin. But I back up my arguments. I can’t guarantee that I’ll always be right, but I can guarantee a strong foundation of knowledge as a starting point. I just simply won’t play the ‘I know better’ game.

People accuse me of being rose-tinted, but my overall view of the club is more realistic than theirs. My view is that too much cannot be expected in the current climate, just as Everton are no longer expected to challenge for the title when their last triumph was only three years prior to the Reds’.

Indeed, Everton aren’t even expected to be in the top six. Why? Because they are a big-name club that have fallen behind the rest in terms of finances.

Regardless of what people think, I am offering my honest opinion even if, at times, it has to be watered down a little (on the official site at least). I’ve always figured that a slightly diluted sensible argument reaching a massive audience is better than no argument at all; the alternative is my undiluted argument on The Tomkins Times, which reaches fewer people. But it’s also a great platform for me to have.

I believe that rather than spin, I un-spin; or untangle, to use a word actually in the dictionary. I am not free of biases and prejudices, but I do my best to be aware of them, and to admit them.

Essential viewing:

Charlie Brooker, Newswipe, BBC4. Deals with the banalities, hypocrisies and downright jaw-dropping stupidity of some news reporting.

The Daily Show with John Stewart. Comedy Central in the US, and More4 over here in the UK. Brilliant satire of the news media (particularly the laughable Fox News), and includes contributions from the brilliant British comedian John Oliver (a Liverpool fan, to boot).

Essential Further Reading:

Jonathan Wilson: “Inverting the Pyramid” and Guardian columns. Before you criticise them, at least get a basic understanding of tactics. Learn to realise that ‘formations are neutral’ – i.e. it’s not 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 that’s attack-minded or defensive, it’s the players and how they perform within it. Understand how the search for space is the holy grail. Realise that football develops and evolves, and doesn’t stay rooted in the ‘glory days’.

Nick Davies, “Flat Earth News”. So damning, most news outlets hated it upon publication. Did the unspeakable: broke ranks and ‘told it’ how journalism really is.

Why England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. I can’t stress enough how important this book is for understanding a correlation between spending (particularly on wages) and success, and how unrealistic expectations are to blame for much of the rubbish that is written about a team.

Journalists whose work I recommend:

Obviously, it doesn’t mean I agree with every word they write, but these journalists certainly win my approval based on their overall output.

Tony Barrett, Oliver Kay and Tony Evans (all The Times).

Brian Reade, Daily Mirror

Rory Smith, The Telegraph

Gabriele Marcotti, The Times and BBC Radio

Dominic King, The Liverpool Echo

Ian Herbert, The Independent

Dion Fanning, The Irish Independent

David Conn – Guardian columnist who specialises in football finances.

Guillem Balague

(That doesn’t mean that there aren’t others I may have overlooked. Some are decent enough, but change their tune like the weather; and after all, it’s one thing seeing the error of your ways and converting, and another to keep flip-flopping on an issue, acting like you’re 100% right each time.)

Bloggers I recommend, along with some other football books worth reading, can be found here.