Friday, 27 June 2014

Andy Coulson - your part in his downfall

Ding! Dong! The witch is, oh… not guilty.  While the Twitter jury (“no-nothing trolls” as The Sun called them) delivered their verdicts on the phone hacking trial long ago, the eleven men and women good and true who actually sat through all 110 days of evidence and who deliberated for a further eight days, disagreed, clearing Rebekah Brooks of all charges.  It was, her alma mater declared, “A GREAT DAY FOR RED TOPS” and up to a point they were right.  However what The Sun conveniently overlooked was the facts that the hacking scandal has so far killed off one red-top, its brother paper the News of the World, and seen Andy Coulson, the former editor of the latter, found guilty.

True to form the media descended on the story like a plague of rats swarming over the rotting corpse of their dead sibling.  What did it mean for David Cameron?  What did it mean for Rupert Murdoch?  What did it mean for the CPS?  Yet the one glaring omission is a genuine appraisal of how the Press, and Rupert Murdoch in particular, got their power in the first place and that, dear reader, is where you come in.

In his incisive analysis of the trial, Nick Davies argued that the trial "was all about power" arguing that “Brooks and Coulson ruined lives. They did it to sell newspapers[…]”  He added: “The singer’s mother suffering depression; the actor stricken by the collapse of her marriage; the DJ in agony over his wife’s affair: none of their pain was anything more than human raw material to be processed and packaged and sold for profit.”  But here’s the thing; what do the papers sell for profit?  What the readers want to read.

Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer’s heartfelt criticism of the Press at her funeral drew applause from the crowds outside Westminster Abbey. But the clapping was quickly drowned out by the sound of everyone rushing to the newsagents to get their 48-page, full-colour funeral souvenir editions.  In the week following the princess’ death while everyone was telling journalists what bastards they were, sales of the papers they were working for shot through the roof.  The Sun and Daily Mirror sold about a million extra copies each on the Monday after her fatal accident alone.  They had to beg German and Swedish papers mills to increase their production to meet the demand of extra copies. The Guardian alone used 500 tonnes of extra paper in the week following the tragedy.  Even in 2002, when Princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell sold his story to the Daily Mirror the paper benefited from a 300,000 day-on-day sales spike.  The journalists might have been the bastards writing the stuff but the readers were the bastards buying it.

Time and again they have demonstrated their anger at the tabloid Press by buying them in huge numbers.  The final edition of the News of the World in 2011 recorded the paper’s highest sale in 13 years.  More than 4.5m people bought a copy (no doubt just so they could burn it, or sell it on eBay).  When the Sun on Sunday was launched a little less than six months later, 3.26m readers headed for the shops and bought a copy to register their disgust, (no doubt so they could check out exactly how disgusted they were meant to be).  It was 0.5m more than were buying the News of the World in the run-up to its closure.

In the intervening period The Leveson Inquiry was set up and tasked with looking at "the culture, practices and ethics of the press”.  Yet the part the readers had to play in that was all but ignored.  The issue was touched on briefly when Ian Hislop gave evidence way back in January 2012 and it’s worth outlining what was said in some detail.  In his written evidence the Private Eye editor argued that “[…] generally speaking, printing the truth sells newspapers and a big story can result in increased circulation [...]".  He clarified what he meant in his oral evidence by suggesting that “[…] if you print things that people don't believe or turn out to be lies, then people don't buy you any more because they don't think you're credible.”

Robert Jay QC, Leveson’s leading counsel countered: “So it's a question of tarnishing the brand, which is a risk all newspapers will be aware of; is that right?  “Yes,” replied Hislop.  “Tarnishing the brand is putting it a bit low.  You want to be the paper that people believe.”  Jay continued to press him: “But if your thesis is right, many papers have thrived by not following that principle.”  To which Hislop replied: “Yes, and again, you'd have to question the readers very carefully when you invite them in.”  He had a rye smile on his face.  He knew full well it was a moot point as no meaningful sample of readers would be invited in to be asked that question or surveyed in any way (after all what could the plebs possibly have to contribute to this exercise in establishment naval gazing).  However, before Jay steered them in a different direction, Hislop had time to suggest the readers be asked “did they think everything they read was true? When they read subsequent reports saying, ‘Oh, no, this is rubbish’, did they feel embarrassed?  Did they think: ‘I shouldn't have bought the News of the World?  Why did I read that bit?  Did I enjoy that?’”

Good questions that no one has really yet answered.  Politicians have cosyed up to Murdoch and his editors because they think a strongly worded editorial or a front page can destroy a career or deliver the keys to Downing Street.  During the 1987 General Election campaign the paper relentlessly attacked Labour leader Neil Kinnock, even printing a “Special Nightmare Edition” three days before polling imagining what a win for the Welshman would be like. 

Five years later it was The Sun “Wot Won It” a second time as the paper again targeted the Labour party, this time asking “the last person to leave Britain to please turn out the lights”. Despite a lead in the polls, Labour lost and Kinnock resigned as leader questioning how the party could ever win in the face of such vitriolic “misinformation and disinformation”.  He didn’t have to wait long to find out.  The Sun almost immediately turned its sights on the Tory party with a series of sleaze stories. How we all laughed at David Mellor being caught shagging about in his Chelsea shirt.  However it’s interesting to note that this attack on Conservative politicians came at the same time the Government was trying to introduce anti-Press privacy legislation.

New Labour could have got involved, but like any responsible citizen confronted by someone else being mugged, they turned a blind eye, not least because the sustained attack on the Tories increased their own chances of gaining long-craved-for power. The party’s new leader Tony Blair wasn’t willing to take any chances. In 1995 he accepted Murdoch’s invitation to address a News Corporation conference on the Australia’s Hayman Island.  “It seems obvious,” Blair said of the meeting in his memoirs, “the country's most powerful newspaper proprietor, whose publications have hitherto been rancorous in their opposition to the Labour party, invites us into the lion's den. You go, don't you?”  As much as you might not like to admit it, Blair had a reasonable point. It's the reason why the leaders of Britain's three main political parties, and Nick Clegg, obligingly allowed themselves to be photographed - no questions asked - with the free edition of The Sun produced on the eve of the World Cup.

But this power is not intrinsic to the papers Murdoch produces, it is bestowed upon him by the readers; the people who flock to the shops in droves to buy those papers while telling everyone they meet on the way that journalists are scum.  While cover price and ad revenue swelled Murdoch’s coffers, each paper sold gave him an intangible but no less important nugget of power that he could store away for future use.  If you own the best selling paper in the land you accumulate a lot of power; if you own a paper no one reads you have no power.

For sure it was Coulson, not the punters, who ordered the phone hacking but he did so to serve up the stories they wanted to read and they kept buying the papers without ever really bothering to ask where those stories were coming from.  And this is the point no one admits.  It’s far easier to blame “The Press” for phone-hacking and all those nasty celeb stories (that the readers love) than to answer Hislop’s questions.  Far easier to demonise a woman because you don’t like the outcome of her trial than to ask whether you thought the stories her papers printed were all true or whether you’re embarrassed that you believed the bits that weren’t or why you kept going back to buy more copies; to give away more power.

Roger Domeneghetti is the author of From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media, available in August from www.ockleybooks.co.uk.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

When Ali met The Pelican

Well, many happy returns from me to Muhammad Ali.  There are many ways to remember the birthday boy: cocky, young rapping poet; outspoken political and cultural icon; or perhaps the greatest heavy weight champion of all time, however skipping around the ring while trying to avoid the kicks of a Japanese wrestler probably isn’t one of them.

Yet that’s where Ali found himself two years after he wrestled with an alligator and handcuffed lightning and just eight months after he outfought the late Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla.

The unlikely match up between Ali and Japanese pro-wrestler Antoni Inoki came about after Ali met the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ichiro Yada, at a reception in New York in 1975 and flippantly asked if there was “no Oriental fighter who will challenge me?” before saying that if there was and they could beat him, he’d give the them $1m.


When Yada returned to Japan, Ali’s remark made headlines in the Sankei Sports Newspaper and Inoki doggedly started pursuing the heavyweight champ to take up his challenge.

At the time Inoki was Japan’s top wrestling star and is now seen as a pioneer of mixed martial arts having taken on opponents from all the major disciplines such as, Akram Pahalwan, whose career he ended with an arm break; Olympic Judo gold medalist Willem Ruska and Kyokushin Kaikan karate practitioner Willie Williams.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

How Olympic heroes exposed the myth of celebrity

So, the Games are almost over.  The BBC’s 24 dedicated channels are almost all obsolete and Sainsbury’s is desperately trying to shift it’s leftover Olympic tat at half it’s original price but still more than double its value.  Above all that, people are beginning to ask the most important question of all: “What did it all mean?”.

The opening ceremony will no doubt be revisited.  Was it left-wing, multi-cultural crap or a vision of a Britain that many of us recognised and more importantly could feel proud of?  I’ll take for the latter, thanks.  And I’ll take the fact that arsewipes like Toby Young, Adrian Burley and Rick Dewsbury found it offensive as a welcome bonus.  Although it’s a shame that outside the Olympic Stadium, away from the prying eyes of the world's media, the British establishment was celebrating the opening of the Games in traditional style by suppressing the ‘dissent’ of 182 people who were simply exercising their legal right to peacefully cycling where they wanted.

God save the Queen. The fascist regime.
Next up was Super Saturday when TeamGB grabbed six golds, three of which came courtesy of the athletes in just 44 scintillating minutes.  At the same time, tucked away on BBC Three (for once just a side-show to the main event) the men’s football team was doing what our footballers seem to do best at tournaments – losing in the quarter-finals.  On penalties.  The contrast was stark and the comparisons all but inevitable and in the world of social media the debate began instantly on Twitter about whether the Olympians had pulled back the curtain to show us that our footballers weren’t so wizard after all.

Monday, 30 July 2012

An open letter to Proctor and Gamble

Hi Guys,
How’s it going?  Enjoying the Olympics?  I think it’s very noble of you to support the International Olympic Committee’s goal of “building a better world through sport”.  That was your reason for getting involved as an Olympic sponsor for the first time, right?  I mean, your decision couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with the $500 million you’ll rake in through extra sales this year alone on the back of that sponsorship, could it?

Most of this is built on your “Thank you mum” campaign which tells us you are a “proud sponsor of mums” and which also brings me to my point:  What about dads?  You’ll have to forgive me, but as a single parent of two little girls it rather pisses me off that so many people’s default opinion seems to be that as a man, my involvement in their lives must be minimal (I assure you it’s anything but) yet your adverts perpetuate that lazy stereotype.

Paula Radcliffe has been one of the stars of your campaign in this country (I know you’re using the same playbook all over the world).  Unfortunately she’s had to withdraw from this Olympics due to injury but she was always an ironic choice for you.  Why?  Well because her father Peter has played a key part in her success.  It was by joining him on his marathon-training runs that she became involved in the sport in the first place and he went on to chair the athletics club of which she is a member.

Victoria Pendleton’s mum Pauline also features in your campaign.  Predictably there’s no mention of her dad Max though, despite the fact it was his interest in cycling which influenced Victoria when she was a youngster.  He used to take her out training, riding ahead of her and making her catch him up thereby laying the foundations which helped her win gold in Beijing four years ago.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Pierre de Coubertin and the Olympic origin myth

We all like a nice origin story, right?  Take The Amazing Spiderman for example, it’s the fourth instalment of the franchise to swing into the cinemas in ten years and just like the first one way back in 2002 it’s a re-hash of how Spidey became Spidey.  Hollywood’s spewed out a bucketful off these stories recently including Batman Begins, Ironman, the Incredible Hulk (twice), Fantastic Four, Thor, Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, Avengers Assemble (shit title, but hey it’s about how the Avengers assembled) and just in case you’ve been living on Krypton next year we’ll have Superman: Man of Steel detailing how the Blue Boy Scout fell to earth and became one of the least reliable journalists around (which is saying something).  Hell, even the Dark Knight Rises is an origin story of sorts (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen it).

Not only do all these films demonstrate a staggering lack of imagination among Hollywood’s film-making fraternity but they also perpetuate the need for simple explanations.  Everyone thinks they know how Peter Parker became Spiderman – he got bitten by a radioactive spider.  Bingo!  Well, it’s a little more complex than that.  Sure the bite gave him his superpowers, but it was seeing his uncle killed by a mugger who Peter had earlier failed to apprehend that taught him that “with great power come great responsibility” and all that teenage angst stuff contributed too.

What’s more there are all the reboots and multi-verse versions, so trying to work out what’s cannon and what’s not is a nightmare.  Was Spidey’s first girlfriend Mary Jane (as per the 2002 film) or Gwen (as per the 2012 version).  Meh, who cares about the details?  When you look you find there’s rarely one simple explanation for anything although that doesn’t stop people from trying (something an academic might call reductionism).

This stuff doesn’t just happen in comic books, it happens in real life too.  Take the Olympics™ for example.  We all know the origin story, don’t we?  Barron Pierre de Coubertin, was the Frenchman with the plan.  In the shadow of his country’s defeat by Prussia in 1871, de Coubertin thought sport was a way of strengthening France militarily before being influenced by the English public school amateur ethos and believing that physical education could have a strong moral influence.

It’s a myth perpetuated by the IOC today in various documents, Press releases and speeches.  Take just one; the Olympic Museum’s book How Well Do You Know the Olympic Games? Which asks “Who created the modern Olympics?” before giving the unequivocal answer “Barron Pierre de Coubertin”.  Similarly, IOC president Jacques Rogge told athletes at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games four years ago that “these Games were created for you by our founder, Pierre de Coubertin”.  Er, sort of but this conveniently glosses over more than 50 years’ work by a host of other people in both Greece and England as well as a long tradition of Olympic games before even that.
The first modern Olympics?

You may well have heard about the Much Wenlock Games.  They’ve gained a certain foothold in Olympic lore, not least because the Games are being held in London this year and one of the mascots is called Wenlock.  However, you have to go a lot further back in English sporting history to find the earliest revival of the Olympics.  It was in the 1600s that wealthy landowner Robert Dover was given permission to hold a multi-sport event on his Gloucestershire estate by James I.  Dover called them the Olimpick Games and they were held every year on the Thursday and Friday of Whit Week before dying and being revived several times over the next few centuries.  No one’s exactly sure when the games were first held but the British Olympic Association plumped for 1612 when bidding for this year’s games.  There’s nothing like a convenient origin myth, hey?

That brings us to Dr William Penny Brookes and the Much Wenlock Games.  Penny Brookes had started the Agricultural Reading Society in the village in 1841 in an attempt to promote intellectualism.  From this group sprung, nine years later, the Wenlock Olympian Class which held its first annual games in 1850 in an attempt “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants” of Wenlock”.  The events had many of the ingredients we can see in today’s Games, including a procession of competitors into the field of play and the games were more than just a quaint country pageant with cash prizes and competitors travelling from all over the country. 

The Olympic games thing was catching on and not just with competitors.  Penny Brookes wasn’t the only one organising them.  In 1862 a chap called John Hulley organised the 1st Grand Olympic Festival in Liverpool which was held at the city’s Mount Vernon Parade Ground in front of 10,000 spectators.  Two years later Hulley was given honorary membership of the Wenlock Olympic Society along with a silver medal as recognition of his services to physical education.  He would organise five more annual festivals with the final two being held in Llandudno in Wales.

These two early British Olympians came together with several like-minded colleagues in 1865 to form the National Olympian Association (NOA).  Hulley was elected chairman and it was agreed that their competitions be international and open to all comers.  The NOA and its motto were absorbed by the National Physical Recreation Society (NPRS) in 1885/1886 which was in turn the founding body of the British Olympic Association in 1905.  Furthermore its articles of foundation were used as the basis of the International Olympic Charter providing clear lines from those British Olympians to what is now considered the modern Olympic movement.

The NOA organised the first international Olympic Games in 1866 at Crystal Palace in front of several thousand spectators.  These were significant because they were the first sporting festival to make use the Olympic title and be open to international competitors.  More than 200 athletes took part in a range of events including track and field, gymnastics, fencing, swimming, boxing and wrestling.  Gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded to competitors who came in the top three places and there was a trophy for the most successful athlete overall.  One of the gold medallists was a certain W G Grace who won the 440-yard hurdle race in a time of one minute 10 seconds.  He took time off from his innings of 224 not out for England against Surrey at the Oval on the same day (a match England would go on to win).  The following year the second international Olympic Games were held at Birmingham’s Portland Road Ground and there would be another four such events around the country before 1883.

So, the creation of the modern Olympics, as with the modern version of many sports and sporting bodies owes a significant debt to Britain.  However, we shouldn’t forget Greece and I’m not just talking about Ancient Greece.  Some considerable time before Penny Brookes and his colleagues were doing their thing, so were a group of Greeks.  It was a journalist called Panagiotis Soutos who first mooted the idea of a revival of the ancient Olympics in a poem called Dialogue of the Dead in 1833.  Two years later he took the idea further by writing to the Greek Minister of the Interior suggesting March 25th – the date of the start of the Greek War of Independence - should be declared a national holiday and that the festivities should include a revival of the Olympic Games.  The games didn’t make it out of the starting blocks but the holiday got the go ahead (well, everyone likes a day off).  Twenty one years later a philanthropist called Evangelis Zappas inspired by Soutos’ ideas wrote to the Greek king offering to pay for the event and after a bit of diplomatic back and forth they were held in 1859.

The games were only open to Greek-speaking competitors but they were a start.  Penny Brookes, who had established contact with the organisers a year earlier offered a £10 prize to the winner of the seven-fold foot race (the longest running event) and in 1881 he wrote to the Greek King proposing the idea of an international Olympic sports festival to be held in Greece on a regular basis.  Zappas died in 1865 but he left a huge financial legacy to pay for both the renovation of Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium and future Olympiad and there were two more in 1870 and 1875 before legal wrangling over his estate put the games into hiatus.  It would not be until 15 years later that Pierre de Coubertin, the ‘father’ of the modern Olympics would actually appear on the modern Olympic scene and it was only after a visit to Penny Brookes in 1890 that he would start talking and writing about reviving the Olympics.

Who's the daddy?
Following that visit and his observation of the Much Wenlock Olympic Games de Coubertin wrote an article Les Jeux Olympiques à Much Wenlock – Une page de l’histoire d l’athlétisme it was the first time that de Coubertin had used the word “Olympic” in his writing.  He wrote to Penny Brookes the following year about his idea for a sports festival but didn’t use the word “Olympic” and it was not until the 1894 congress of the Union des Sociétés Francaises de Sports Athlétiques (the French equivalent of the Amateur Athletics Association) that de Coubertin first called for the revival of the Olympics.

The idea got the thumbs up and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed.  De Coubertin wanted the first of these Olympics to be held in Paris in 1900, however following an impassioned speech by Greek delegate Demetrios Vikelas he was out-voted and the games were awarded to Athens in 1896.  Vikelas, who became the IOC’s first president, did much of the organising also, as de Coubertin focused on another event – his wedding – and most of the cash came from Zappas’ legacy (the legal issues having been resolved).  De Coubertin may have taken the credit but it was Zappas who (posthumously) footed the footed the bill and Vikelas who made sure things happened but that didn’t stop de Coubertin from claiming that he and he alone, was responsible for the idea to revive the Olympics in his 1908 book Une Campagne de Vignt-et-Un Ans.

What is true is that de Coubertin was one of the founding members of the International Olympic Committee however as far as the founder of the modern Olympics?  Well the cigars quite clearly belong elsewhere.  It’s worth remembering that the so-called founder of the modern Olympics was born in 1863.  That’s 30 years after Soutos first suggested a revival of the ancient Olympics and 28 years after he formalised the idea in a letter to the Greek government.  De Coubertin was born 13 years after the Much Wenlock Games had first been held, four years after the first Zappas Olympics were held in Greece and a year after Hurley organised his first Olympic Festival in Liverpool.  De Coubertin was just three when the first international Olympics were help in London and just seven when the first games were held in Greece at the newly-refurbished Panathenaic Stadium.

Does any of this matter?  Well, if you’re talking about Spiderman, no not really but for the Olympics it is a little more important.  Despite what the likes of Jacques Rogge, Lord Coe and David Beckham might tell you the Olympics is a political movement.  There is no way that you can scientifically prove your political movement is the “right one” or the “best one” or even “better” than any other but creation myths along with symbols such as the torch relay (a wholly modern tradition created by the Nazis prior to the 1936 Games) help sell the movement by providing the crucial emotional foundation upon which its ideology is built and perpetuated.

And as we all know, he who controls the past controls the future.

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