Monday, 30 January 2012

Masal Bugduv, media myths and Anfield racism

It’s funny how life doesn’t always turn out quite how you’d like.  Take teenage football sensation Masal Bugduv for example.  As recently as 2009 the then 16-year-old Moldovan international was number 30 on The Times’ list of Football’s Top 50 Rising Stars and was being lined up for a move to the Premier League having attracted interest from the likes of Arsenal, Sunderland and Manchester City.  Yet where is he now?

I’ll tell you: nowhere.  You see, Masal Bugduv doesn’t exist.  I know the first question on your mind will be ‘how pissed off must players number 31 to 50 be knowing they’d been bested by someone who is no more real than the tooth fairy?’ but the second, equally troubling, question is how the hell did a non-existent player become real in the minds of the mainstream media?

Bugduv was the end-product of an elaborate hoax.  Over the period of around six months in late 2008 the hoaxer (or hoaxers) used fan message boards to develop the narrative of Bugduv’s talent and the supposed growing interest from English clubs and fake AP news stories were even created quoting a fictional Moldovan newspaper Mo Thon (that should have been a fairly loud alarm bell to any journalist bothering to check as in Irish Mo Thon means ‘My Arse’).

Some of these early posts did elicit scepticism with one comment simply and correctly stating: “There is no such player as Masal Bugduv”.  Despite this in September 2008 mentioned the attention Bugduv was getting in their preview of the forthcoming Latvia-Moldova match.

A couple of months later another fake AP report detailed Bugduv’s goal-scoring contribution for Moldova against Lithuania (the actual scorer was Igor Bugaiov, but, y’know they all sound the same don’t they?).  And, in January of the following year, Bugduv made it into When Saturday Comes’ ‘Euro View’ column.

There's only no Masal Bugduv
In the same month he also made the Times list but then Neil McDonnell (writing as Fredorrarci) did some digging and debunked the whole Bugduv myth eliciting a list change from The Times along with a brief correction. 

“Well, that’s the trouble with blogs”, some of you will be thinking.  “You can read any old shit on them”.  True, but the same also goes for most newspapers – they’ve been printing any old shit for years and they haven’t needed help from bloggers to do so.

In 2006 the Press Association (PA) put out a story about an England fan called Paul Hucker who had insured himself against emotional trauma ahead of the up-and-coming World Cup in Germany.  “I find when it goes to penalty shoot-outs it gets very difficult and I wanted to insure myself against psychological trauma,” said Mr Hucker.

Only he hadn’t.  It was a story manufactured on behalf of an insurance company.  As Nick Davis (the man who doggedly broke the phone-hacking story) showed in his book Flat Earth News two minutes on Google was enough to debunk Huckergate, not least because Hucker (who was in fact a marketing director) had peddled exactly the same story to The Sun before the 2002 World Cup.

However within a day of PA releasing the 2006 version it was, in various formats, in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, the Hull Daily Mail, the Liverpool Daily Echo, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Scotsman, the Guardian, The Times, Yahoo, the BBC, ITV, Sky and various radio stations as well as the news agencies AP and UPI.

Within two days it was running in Australia, America, Malaysia, Zambia, South Africa, the Maldivies, India, Finland, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Romania, Holland and China but strangely not Moldova. Funny that... Any one of the media outlets who used the story could have quickly and easily checked it first, yet none of them did.

Spectacular success for the insurance company concerned but a fairly damning indictment of the way the media works these days where one bad apple can so quickly poison the barrel.  Of course, you might say it’s easy for me to take pot shots from the moral high ground, so I’ll offer up a bit of first-hand experience.

Grinning former-PM Tony Blair’s been accused of lying about lots of things over the years but one of the most persistent allegations was that he claimed that, as a youngster, he ‘sat’ on the Gallowgate End at St James’ Park (or whatever it’s called these days) and watched Jackie Milburn play, despite the facts seating wasn’t introduced until the early Nineties and Milburn retired while Blair was a youngster living Australia.  Only that story’s a myth, started in error by the Sunday Sun – a paper I used to work for.

As so often the whiff of falsehood was masked by a powerful, but manufactured burst from the air freshner of truth: (a) Blair’s a lying twat (b) football fandom was part of his early carefully-manufactured attempt to create an everyman image for himself (remember the headed keepie-ups with Kevin Keegan?). So, a+b=Blair lying about himself watching Milburn right? Er, wrong.

In reality one of our reporters misheard a Radio Five Live interview with Blair and inserted what he thought he’d heard into a match report.  The myth mushroomed from there and dogged Blair for much of his time as PM, being used as an example of the way he played fast and lose with the truth.  Thank God he wasn’t falsely accused of something serious, like say, lying about the reasons he decided to prosecute a costly and bloody war.  (The paper came clean in an interview with Blair in 2008 - it’s on YouTube if you can stand looking at the smug bastard for that long.)

These examples would be laughable but for the fact that reality and the media’s version of it are so often at odds.  And that brings us to the weekend’s game at Anfield.  Some booing of Patrice Evra was to be expected, football is a tribal game (that’s part of its appeal) and other players have been booed in the past and will be booed in the future but, if my Twitter timeline was anything to go by, I was not alone in thinking that the ferocity and persistence of what Evra faced, particularly in the context of what had gone before, crossed a line from the "friendly banter” Kenny Dalglish described it as to implicit racism.

There's only one lying bastard
There were also repeated chants of “there’s only one lying bastard” from the Kop.  I doubt those were directed at Luis Suarez sat in the stands, despite the fact the report by the FA's independent commission into the allegations against Suarez stated that Evra was “a credible witness” and that Suarez’s evidence “was unreliable in relation to matters of critical importance,” branded his claim that he was trying to be conciliatory as “simply incredible” and also suggested that he tried to change his evidence to fit with testimony from the expert witnesses.

The fact that Evra can be branded a “lying bastard” at all comes in the main from Liverpool's statement on the matter in December which made reference to Evra's "prior unfounded accusations".

This implicit suggestion that Evra has falsely accused someone of racism before is yet another myth.  Four years ago, Evra clashed with a Chelsea groundsman who was subsequently charged with improper conduct and using abusive language aggravated by reference to nationality and/or race.  Significantly Evra did not make the racism allegation.  He said he had not heard the alleged abuse, it was Manchester United assistant manager Mike Phelan who claimed racist remarks had been directed towards Evra.

Equally significantly, the groundsman was found not guilty on a technicality – an independent commission determined the FA had no jurisdiction over him as Chelsea had failed to inform that particular member of staff that he was subject to FA rules.

Very soon Liverpool's shitty, unfounded insinuation became the Press Association's shitty, unfounded 'fact'. In their story about Liverpool's statement they said: "The mention of 'prior unfounded accusations' is a reference to racism allegations Evra made against Chelsea groundsman Sam Bethell in 2008 which were not proven." Hey! Why let the truth muddy the water?

Given how quickly the Paul Hucker story travelled the world thanks to PA, it doesn't take a genius to figure out how fast and how far the myth that Evra is "a lying bastard" will have spread. I wonder if PA's false claim is actionable...

Back to the weekend and Steven Gerrard said he thought the Liverpool fans were "superb" while Dalglish,  when asked if he was disappointed that Evra had been booed angrily replied: "Are you winding me up?  Why would I be disappointed for Evra? Have you ever played football? No. I've been booed.  I can not even believe you asked that question.  The media have played their part in trying to maintain dignity and respect and concentrate on the football today and that's what the players did and that's what the fans did. The fans are entitled to support their team. I've got no problem with that and if there's a bit of banter between the teams, that's brilliant. I don't think there was anything untoward."

Which is strange, because in December the Liverpool manager called for the FA to act against Wigan after their fans booed Suarez on the day the racism verdict was announced.  "It's all well and good telling players to control themselves. I think the FA better start controlling crowds," Dalglish told Sky.

Now, if a man found guilty of racist abuse should be afforded “protection” from the “antagonism of crowds” then surely the victim of that racist abuse should also be afforded protection from much worse antagonism? Or maybe the Wigan fans were just engaging in "friendly banter", eh, Kenny?

The media had ample opportunity to press Dalglish on his inconsistency but chose not to.  Individual journalists might think that what’s happening is wrong but en masse the issue was largely bypassed and this is in part due to the uneven balance of power between clubs and the media.  Want that exclusive interview?  Want access to the players?  Want to be in the Press box for the next game?  Then don’t ask the difficult questions, right?

Sunday's backpages mainly focused on the Anton Ferdinand-John Terry non-handshake and whether that left the FA's Respect initiative in tatters. Few seemed to be asking whether the behaviour of Liverpool fans and Dalglish and Gerrard's praise of it also damaged that Respect initiative. 

ITV in particular should hang their heads in shame.  Having framed their whole coverage of the match within the Evra-Suarez narrative (complete with shots of Suarez in the stand with his daughter, and of Suarez celebrating the goals) they then shat themselves into silence on the issue of the abuse Evra received.

Adrian Chiles strayed dangerously close to criticising the Liverpool fans when he asked Gareth Southgate whether what Evra was subjected to really was “friendly banter” or perhaps at least “unfriendly banter”.  Southgate dodged the issue by suggesting they were there to focus on the game and that was the issue dealt with.

But then what else should we have expected?  Also in the studio acting as a so-called ‘pundit’ was Paul Ince who during the half-time ‘analysis’ of the QPR v Chelsea game proffered the opinion that it was a shame to see an English player like Daniel Sturridge go to ground under the challenge of Clint Hill.  That was something foreign players have brought to the game, he claimed.  That bit of implicit racism went un-admonished as well.

Over on Soccer Saturday Jeff Stelling was telling us that Liverpool had had no problems on the pitch against Manchester United or “inside the ground”.  The abuse of Evra again went unmentioned as did the pictures of a Liverpool fan directing monkey gestures towards the Manchester United captain (as you probably know, an arrest has since been made).

The message from the weekend is clear: Nothing happened (or, to put it another way, if you're the victim of racist abuse and you report that abuse and are vindicated for doing so when your abuser is found guilty you will be subject to further, greater abuse and the media will pretty much stay quiet because they don’t want to upset the people who give them their stories).

Dealing with the reality of what happened would have led to some rather more complex, uncomfortable and difficult-to-answer questions like: is British (or English) society really as tolerant as we like to think?  Did the way Liverpool, and in particular Kenny Dalglish, handle the Suarez situation facilitate (and in the minds of the Liverpool fans at least) legitimise the abuse of Evra?  And do the media and the football authorities tacitly work together to create false but mutually beneficial narratives?

Unfortunately we don’t seem to do complex in this country; we don’t like to bother too much with the facts.  So, Moldovan teen sensation Masul Bugduv is going to sign for Arsenal, Tony Blair lied about watching Jackie Milburn play, the abuse of Evra was just "friendly banter" and, of course, two plus two equals five.

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Anonymous said...

So it's ok for the head of the black player's to say don't shake a white man's hand ? Can you imagine the furore if it had been the other way round ? Furthermore it seems deliberately stamping on someone's face (Balotteli and Parker) is worth less than hurting someone's feelings (Suarez and Evra) Sticks and stones and all that.

Calum said...

Really good piece, somewhat vindicated by the above comment. 'The head of the black player's'? I'm pretty sure that no such body exists and is unlikely, therefore, to have a head.
2+2 does = 5, though, I read a book about it.

Masal said...

Thank you! for good.