Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The forgotten TV election debates of 1959

"I’m not particularly attracted by [televised] confrontations of personality. If you aren’t careful, you know, we’ll have a… what’s it called… Top of the Pops contest. Even though I dare say I would win it, I’m not very attracted by this as you then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a script writer. I’d rather have our old ways and put our policies firmly in front of the people.”

Swap “X Factor” for “Top of the Pops” and that could be David Cameron laying out his reasons for wanting to give the leadership debates the swerve ahead of the forthcoming General Election.  In fact it was one of his predecessors, Alec Douglas-Home laying out his reasons for not wanting to have televised debates to Robin Day in 1963.

It’s easy - but wrong - to think that since the first series of US Presidential debates in 1960, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, such debates have been a regular occurrence in America.  In fact they didn’t happen again until 1976 with first Lyndon Johnson (1964) and then Nixon (1968 and 1972) doing more or less exactly what Cameron is doing now and refusing to debate by invoking the Federal Commission’s equal-time provision which meant that all candidates, including those from fringe parties had to take part. (The provision had been suspended for a year in 1960.) Even in 1980 President Jimmy Carter refused to take part in the first debate due to the inclusion of independent candidate John Anderson.  The debate went ahead anyway. Carter was effectively empty-chaired. His main opponent Ronald Regan did show up and the rest, as they say, is history.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Stevie G and the Media Memory Hole

Robbie Savage has spoken and you, you pleb, must listen.

As the news broke that Steven Gerrard is set to leave Liverpool at the end of the season (a story that can pretty much be summed up by the headline: “MAN HANDS IN NOTICE”) Savage declared on Match of the Day that Gerrard was the club’s greatest ever midfielder and was a close runner up to Kenny Dalglish for the accolade of the club’s greatest ever player.

It wasn’t long before Sky Sports news and just about every other media organisation was going one further and asking whether Gerrard was himself the club’s greatest ever player before all giving pretty much the same answer: yes.

Clearly with one Champions League, one UEFA Cup, two FA Cups and three League Cups to his name, Gerrard has been a great servant for Liverpool.  Yet despite this, Savage and Sky Sports seemed to think it unnecessary to have a discussion about the merits of any other candidates, make any attempt to look at anyone else’s good points or (whisper it) Gerrard’s bad points.  There wasn't even any attempt to define the terms of the debate; what exactly makes a player great?  What makes the greatest player greater than the rest?

Think about it for a minute: Is Gerrard Liverpool’s most capped player? No, that’s Jamie Carragher.

Is Gerrard Liverpool’s highest goalscorer? No, that’s Ian Rush.

Is Gerrard Liverpool’s most decorated player?  No, that’s Phil Neal, who helped the club win eight League titles and four European cups.

Is Gerrard even Liverpool’s best midfielder?  Possibly. Possibly not.  I think a strong case could be made for Graeme Souness, who was an integral part of a team that won five League titles and three European Cups or Ray Kennedy, a more Gerrard-type player than Souness, who also won five League titles and three European Cups plus a UEFA Cup to boot.  (Come to think of it, it would be quite entertaining to see Savage justify his selection to Souness in person.)

Some might argue that Souness and Kennedy played in a great team while Gerrard didn't.  But surely Gerrard's greatness can't be determined by the quality of his team mates?  Perhaps Gerrard would have won more had he played for Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s, but then again perhaps he wouldn't have been able to force his way past the likes of Souness and Kennedy and into the team.  Perhaps Souness would have won less if he'd played for Liverpool during the last 17 years, but perhaps he would have proved an even greater inspiration than Gerrard; perhaps he wouldn't have let it slip. We'll never know and we can agree or disagree but a debate along these lines would surely be more interesting than the vacuous coronation of Gerrard being served up by the media at the moment.

Instead, we're left to wonder by what criteria Gerrard has been named Liverpool’s greatest ever player if not simply the fact he is the club’s most high-profile player in the Premier League era.

It seems likely that all those trinkets and baubles picked up by the likes of Neal and Souness and Kennedy don’t count because they happened back in the olden days; an anachronistic era when the likes of Nottingham Forest could come third in the Second Division one season, top the First Division the season after that and then go on to win the European Cup in the following two.

I mean how easy must it have been to win stuff back then?  Well, I don’t know about you but a competition in which every entrant has a genuine chance of winning strikes me as much more competitive than one in which two or three dominate and the rest are just grateful to make up the numbers and bank the TV cash.  But I digress.

When you think about the history of English football – the sport’s key moments – more often than not you’re actually thinking about the history of televised football. What came before is forgotten, or overlooked, because it’s harder to see. This has reached its apogee with the Premier League’s Year Zero approach to the record books.  We’re regularly reminded that Liverpool has NEVER WON THE PREMIER LEAGUE, which conveniently overlooks the fact that they managed to win the title 18 times before the Premier League was created.

This determination of Sky's to rewrite history has its roots in the 1953 FA Cup Final.  Wrongly claimed by many to be the first Cup Final to be broadcast on television, The Matthews Final, as it became known, was the first Cup Final to be seen by what could be considered a mass audience after transmitters were erected across the country  and TV ownership rose dramatically in preparation for the broadcast of Elizabeth II's coronation. The match was also the first time a televised football match had a ‘story’ constructed around it, focusing the viewers’ attentions on the actions of one individual to the near exclusion of all others, something to which we’re now accustomed.

Had the match happened in any previous season I doubt I’d be writing about it now and I doubt you would have heard of it.  Take by way of comparison the 1935 final; what do you know about that game? It was a six-goal thriller which saw West Brom fall behind to Sheffield Wednesday as early as the second minute before pulling the game back to 2-2 with 20 minutes to play. However The Owls ran out winners thanks to a brace in the last five minutes of normal time from Ellis Rimmer, who scored in every round of the competition. I doubt few but the oldest or most ardent fans from the blue-and-white half of The Steel City can tell you much about The Rimmer Final (as I have just named it). Instead it’s one of many footnotes from the FA Cup’s pre-television history.

The 1953 Cup Final was however an altogether different affair. It was widely considered to be 38-year-old Stanley Matthews’ last chance to ensure his career wouldn’t end trophyless. He’d already been on the losing side in two FA Cup Finals, the most recent in 1951. In a preview of that game, Geoffrey Green of The Times christened the match ‘The Matthews Final’ but instead Newcastle’s Jackie Milburn stole the show. So, two years later when Matthews got another shot at Wembley glory and was successful the story had already been written. Green triumphantly dusted off his moniker ending his match report: “Nothing like that had ever happened before. I doubt it will ever happen again. That was the ‘Matthews Final’”.

In a sense he was right, nothing like that had happened before. Without the all-important broadcast the final would probably have little more significance today than the The Rimmer Final just 17 years earlier. Yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that while Matthews finally got his winner’s medal it was in large part thanks to three goals from Stan Mortensen, but why let the first and, as I type, only FA Cup Final hat-trick at Wembley get in the way of a pre-determined narrative?

Similarly why let the achievements of Liverpool's pre-Premier League players get in the way of a desire to crown Gerrard the club's greatest ever player? By overlooking all those who came before Gerrard at Anfield, and who in more than a few cases achieved much more, Sky are subtly reinforcing their insidious notion that football only meaningfully began in 1992 with the creation of the Premier League and their coverage of it.  It is the Matthews Final writ large; what came before is out of sight, out of mind and not important.

Roger Domeneghetti is the author of From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football's Journey Through the English Media. Available in all formats from www.ockleybooks.co.uk

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.