“I read a column last week where a lady bemoaned the decade of scandals she’s had to cover, as if the news was to blame for the quality of journalism. I don’t know if there’s ever been a more important time to be good at what I do.”
So wrote Aaron Sorkin, whilst he was penning The West Wing.
He put his own thoughts and his own feelings about where journalism was heading onto the page and made them come out of the mouth of a character called Will Sawyer, an investigative journalist who gets put on the “bad beat” of covering the White House.
For many in Washington, it’s the dream job.
For Sawyer, it’s got all the promise of a slow suffocation.
He hates it because it’s not news he’s reporting, it’s gossip.
“I don’t like being a stenographer,” he tells the White House Press Secretary when she asks him why he hates the gig so much, and therein lies the first of our problems, because for many in the journalistic profession now that’s exactly what the job is, and many of them are just fine with that.
We’ll get back to that in a moment.
Before we do, let’s talk about Ivan Pavlov.
He was a Russian born physiologist, who won the Nobel Prize for his experiments in what became known as classical conditioning.
Stripped of all its finesse, he realised that the group of dogs who were his test subjects were so habituated that they would salivate upon seeing the technicians who brought them their food, before the food itself was ever put down for them.
The dogs mentally associated those folks with being fed; their anticipatory centres kicked in on sight.
Our media has become both Pavlov and Pavlov’s dogs. They know part of their audience so well that they understand that audience will salivate whether it’s Kibble in the bowls or a sirloin steak. And those who feed the media know the same about them. Every time King opens his mouth, they slobber over, and print, his every word. Every word they print is wolfed down by a support that simply cannot control its enthusiasm.
The rest of us stand watching it all in bewilderment.
In the meantime, our national sport is circling the drain.
Individual clubs might congratulate themselves on an “improved product” across the boards, but everyone is well aware, on some level, that if this league race looks competitive it’s because we’ve started badly. It’s not that they have all improved in leaps and bounds, it that we’ve gone backwards.
Only Hearts look consistent, and their manager isn’t up to the task of sustaining that over the course of the campaign. He is a rank amateur made to look good by failings elsewhere. His decision to change the formation that took his team to the top of the table for the Ibrox visit was classic Levein; baffling to everyone – his players included – and doomed to fail.
Sevco’s “progress” in Europe has covered a multitude of sins, and looks far better on the surface than it actually is. Their qualification path saw several poor performances which better sides would have punished them for. They snatched a point in Spain against a team that dropped eight first team players for the match, and beat a Rapid Vienna side in freefall.
Celtic’s European performances have been no more inspiring than our domestic form.
We have regressed, and there’s no question of that.
Don’t even get me started on the national team; an unfolding calamity which is going to hammer ever more nails into the coffin of the SFA. The only body capable of changing that equation is the one made up for the clubs; the SPFL, who have just emerged from their own self-inflicted disaster with not a shred of credit or even the integrity to admit how wrong they got it, all of it, from start to finish, with Celtic twisting in the wind and furious.
The people who run our game have never been less up to the job.
Like our political class confronted with Brexit, with environmental cataclysm, with Trump, with Russia, they are rabbits caught in the headlights, too frozen in place to even know where to begin putting things right. Our game is shrinking as bubbles expand elsewhere; they will burst, but the collateral damage will be monumental and we won’t have time to cheer before the shockwave hits us. Those who believe we’ll find some comfort in the ashes are sadly mistaken.
Fundamental shifts need to take place. Changes so enormous that nothing will ever be the same again. Our media knows this, on some level. It has not the first clue how to help those changes along. They are simply not up to the job.
Look at how they reported the increase in the Champions League bounty for this season; UEFA rang the dinner bell and the slobbering started at once. Not one credible outlet pointed out that even had Celtic qualified we’d have been getting crumbs compared to what the clubs with all the money already stood to make.
Massive disparities exist across the sport. Basic fairness has been eradicated in favour of a glitzy side-show designed to distract from the truth; we’re at the bottom of the table and the deck is rigged. The whole thing is a con-job.
The “Champions League” now admits four entries from the “top nations” – which is to say the rich countries who hold all the power. The Group Stages of a tournament which was supposed to be for national league winners has been warped beyond recognition, to the point where a genuine title holder like Celtic has to wade through mud just to get there.
And don’t look to our media holding the clubs or the association’s feet to the fire on that issue or any other. Because they wouldn’t even tackle the con-job which took place right on our own doorstep. They continue to push a narrative which everyone involved knows is fundamentally a lie. Cheating on an industrial scale took place; everyone knows it did. Yet it went unpunished, and we’re told to move on because that’s the way it is.
And so the stains on our sport will never be removed.
It’s into this maelstrom that people like Kris Boyd have now come, taking up space in the newsrooms at a time when those rooms are already emptying of whatever talent was there. Media companies which are focussed more on shareholder profits than “doing the news” have decided that the quality of journalism takes second place to hits and sales and ad revues and so those who do know that this is the most important time to be good have been shipped out and the headline chasers and self-promoters have rolled in … and like Pavlov’s dogs a section of the public drools.
Editors pay these guys whopping salaries and then sit in the boardroom as the circulation figures bomb and complain loudly and bitterly about the impact of social media and bloggers on their bottom line as if we were to blame for the steady decline of their end product.
All we’ve done is pick up the pieces and try to fill the gap in the market … the gap they created. The gap for actual stories, real news, a proper exploration of where we are and where we might be headed. And for that we are despised.
We move forward regardless, determined to go where they no longer will.
Over all of it, hanging like a crematorium cloud, is a single phrase, the death rattle of Scottish journalism; “It’s all about opinions.”
Aaron Sorkin knew exactly what that meant, and although he explored the issue in brief in The West Wing, he didn’t get to cover it in any detail, not until years later, when he put together his other seminal series The Newsroom, his exploration of the American media.
If The West Wing was a liberal fantasy of what the perfect government would look like, The Newsroom was his look at how broadcast journalism would do if it pivoted away from entertainment, stopped taking seriously the opinions of idiots and focussed on delivering the facts.
Where The Newsroom veered away from the sentimentality of The West Wing and its tendency to invoke hope and confidence by giving us happy endings, is in that it understood a few things about the modern audience and was not afraid to say them. Newsnight, the show they built the series around, is not a commercial success. It makes them enemies and in the end it almost destroys the lives of everyone involved with it.
Sorkin knew the problem wasn’t just with the media, it was with us.
We’ve all become Pavlov’s slobbering dogs, we’ve all become conditioned.
We salivate over gossip. We enjoy the titillation of reading about dressing room splits and chaos in the ranks. There is a part of the audience that really does listen to Tom English’s vacuous, shocking, ignorant and ultimately useless interview with Kris Boyd and cares that he can’t remember the names of his own dogs.
There is a part of us that just wants to be fed slop.
But I think it’s a small part. I think we still want to be informed. I know we do, otherwise sites like this would have swirled down the drain years ago. I lament the standard of our journalism not because it talks down to us as some used to accuse it of, but because it doesn’t even have the respect to talk up to us anymore. It panders to our need for instant gratification instead of assaulting us with facts and truth.
It gives us what it thinks we want.
It has stopped giving us the things that we need.
No less a journalist than Robert Peston – one of the most significant TV reporters in recent years, and the author of several outstanding books – has lamented the standard of journalism, and its fixation with gossip.
But he has gone much further than that, and he’s targeted this toxic idea that every opinion is valid, far and away the most dangerous concept in circulation today. And you want to know what makes it so horrible, and pervasive?
Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are conditioned to accept this now because it is coached in the name of “providing balance.”
And we need to snap out of that mind-set fast.
Peston has been particularly critical of the BBC and the role it played in the Brexit referendum.
The Corporation was so obsessed with the idea of giving “equal air-time” to both sides of the debate that it frequently allowed, on the air, people talking the worst kind of garbage, telling the most outrageous lies, pushing the most diabolical fictions.
His most incisive observation deserves to be presented in full
“The problem with the BBC, during the campaign,” he said, “was that it put people on with diametrically opposed views and didn’t give their viewers and listeners any help in assessing which one was the loony and which one was the genius … Impartial journalism is not giving equal airtime to two people one of whom says the world is flat and the other one says the world is round. That is not balanced, impartial journalism … (impartial journalism is) weighing the evidence and saying on the balance of probabilities … this is the truth. It is the role of a journalist to say, ‘we’ve got these two contradictory arguments, I’m now going to advise all of you which is likely to be closer to the truth.’”
Peston knows that there has never been a more receptive audience for those kind of sentiments.
People are sick and tired of being fed lies in the name of “balance” and in the name of “respecting two sides of the argument.” He has identified that for what it is; bias. In this case, bias presents itself in the way the media tends to represent two views, one of which is grounded in fact and the other in fiction, as having equal weight.
And this is rife in Scottish football journalism and in Scottish football discourse itself.
It can found in the “Old Firm” myth, the notion that both clubs are “two sides of the same coin” instead of treating Celtic and whoever is playing out of Ibrox as separate entities and judging them accordingly. It is found in the media’s refusal to confront the contradictions of the Survival Lie and the way it’s been assimilated into the narrative as if it’s a fact. It’s in the Victim Lie and the way nobody ever calls Sevco on this noxious idea that Scottish football did something shameful to them.
At the weekend, BBC journalists lapped up the Boyd interview and talked about how great it was to hear his views.
Willie Miller actually uttered the words “it’s all about opinions”.
They poured honey in the ears of English, and congratulated him on a good interview without any one of them telling him that it was the auditory equivalent of a freak show and that the guy they were talking up is an ignorant loud-mouth who’s “opinions” would be shown up and ripped to pieces in a serious debate with any semi-sentient person.
That interview was a car-crash. That it was ever commissioned in the first place, to lend legitimacy to the views of someone in possession of not one single fact, is a disgrace. That we tolerate this stuff and that English’s peers called it journalism is dangerous.
It is dangerous because it is indicative of a bigger problem. It is dangerous because it exactly the kind of thing that allowed men like Farage and Johnson to lead us out of Europe on the basis of bullshit arguments and appeals to ignorance, fear and hate. It is dangerous because it puts climate change deniers on the same platform as serious scientists and thus degrades the evidence of the latter by elevating the unsubstantiated opinions of the former.
And we all suffer for that. We all pay the price.
We cannot do anything about the standards in wider journalism; I have dabbled in political writing and I’m good at it, but I don’t kid myself that I’ll change the world. But I think we, all of us, can make a difference in the game here, in our own corner of the universe.
And it may be naïve, but we can hope that what we do will spill over into that larger debate.
It’s why we cannot let things go on as they are.
We cannot allow people like Boyd to pretend to be doing anything more than representing their own biases.
Sorkin’s Newsroom opens with a memorable scene in which Will McAvoy, the anchor, attends a symposium where he’s asked “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” He is poked and prodded until he answers, and when he does he tells the stunned audience that it isn’t, and then spends the next few minutes hammering stats at them to prove it.
We know Scottish football is not the greatest in the world, all of us do, but we have a media which acts like the problems don’t exist and so we never find solutions for them.
But our refs are human like everyone else, and that means they have their own set of biases and can be motivated by them. Our governing bodies are made up of people like us, which means they can be bullied, bought, scared off or won over with appeals to vanity or self-interest and thus are greedy, selfish, vain, ignorant, weak and prejudiced just like the rest of us. We have clubs which struggle to survive and so couldn’t focus on the big picture even if they wanted to. We have fans who are locked into tribalism and as long as they are they cannot come together … and all of this is fixable, all of this can be overcome, but it cannot be tackled until it’s acknowledged.
It used to be the media’s job to look at that bigger picture, to talk about these issues, to acknowledge bias and tackle it instead of promoting it.
Good journalism does not lend equal weight to every opinion, because not every opinion has equal weight.
It’s high time we all – journalists and readers alike – stopped treating them as if they did.
If this game is going to be made better, that’s where it has to start.
This is an amended piece; the original wrongly had Peston working for the BBC. He was at ITV, of course. Thanks for the folks who pointed that out, and keep it up.
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