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“Most toxic affair in football history”? – Or most toxic media coverage? March 31, 2012

Posted by dissident93 in Censored, Media Criticism, Racism.
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100+ Guardian articles on Suarez story

This is off-topic for me. But when a newspaper publishes over 100 articles on a story without mentioning certain key facts – and censors a comment which does mention these facts – I’m inclined to write about it. Particularly as the deleted comment was mine.

With charges of racial abuse, it’s crucial that reporters get the facts right and not resort to conjecture. Sadly, this wasn’t the case with the Guardian on the Suarez-Evra story.

I don’t want to rehash the details (the background, regarding media failures, has already been provided in two incisive articles from @NewsFrames) – but to address the responses from journalists. Many people complained about the Guardian’s coverage of the Suarez case. The Guardian’s “Readers’ editor”, Chris Elliott, eventually responded to complaints in an ‘Open Door’ article. Elliott’s first two paragraphs frame the issue – with all the subtlety of a large shovel – in terms of irrational fan loyalty. He then replies directly to just one complaint:

I think it is entirely reasonable to use the word “findings” when describing the commission’s outcome. The independent regulatory commission was properly constituted, acting within clear parameters that were clearly explained in an exhaustive report. The dictionary definition of findings is conclusions reached following an inquiry. (Chris Elliott, Guardian, 15/1/12)

An unsatisfactory reply. The complaint (which is quoted in Elliott’s article) had been about the Guardian’s misleading statement, that Suarez “was found to have used the word ‘negro’ or ‘negros’ seven times”. (Variations on this claim were printed in several Guardian articles). Regardless of dictionary definitions of “findings”, a responsible newspaper would have informed readers that there was no evidence for this “seven times” claim (the FA commission’s “findings” included uncorroborated allegations). The Guardian failed to inform readers of this crucial point in every instance.

Elliott’s article concludes with this paragraph:

Re-reading the complaints made me think that what the readers – who were very open about their allegiance – really wanted to do was argue with the findings of the commission and they expected the Guardian to do the same. The report is based on the balance of probabilities and the commission’s members have gone out of their way to explain in minute detail how they reached their decision. (Chris Elliott, Guardian, 15/1/12)

There are two problems with this. First, the complaint which Elliott quotes is not asking the Guardian to “argue” anything, but to inform readers of certain crucial facts, so they are not misled with a partial account of the report’s findings. Second, the “minute detail” merely reveals that the commission’s decision was based on a lack of direct evidence. The “balance of probabilities” rule requires strong evidence in serious cases such as this – a point acknowledged in paragraphs 76, 79 & 80 of the FA commission’s report (but ignored in over 100 Guardian articles):

80. The FA accepts that the Charge against Mr Suarez is serious, as do we. It is for this reason that we have reminded ourselves that a greater burden of evidence is required to prove the Charge against Mr Suarez.
(FA commission’s report)

Toxic hyperbole

Ian Prior (Guardian Sports Editor) wrote of the Suarez affair that it was “possibly the most toxic affair in the history of English football. It deserves every inch it gets and more”. He added that “Every escalation that has fuelled this story has come from Liverpool or the FA investigation”.

Let’s be charitable for a moment, and assume this isn’t just an editor being defensive over the Guardian’s tabloidesque coverage. Perhaps Prior really believes, for example, that Liverpool players wearing T-shirts (with a picture of Suarez) represents a toxic “escalation” in itself, without the Guardian interpreting it for us, running a series of articles about it, raising it to the status of “news” by collating the outraged opinions of a small handful of blogger-tweeters (whilst ignoring the views of those who thought it was about as newsworthy as the Pope wearing a funny hat).

The implication of Ian Prior’s remarks is, of course, that the events themselves were toxic – not the media circus. But, subtract the media spectacle (eg over 100 Guardian articles – I stopped counting after I got to 120) and what bare facts are we left with? Here are perhaps the most crucial ones, which – tellingly – were not mentioned anywhere in the Guardian’s remarkably voluminous coverage:

  • There was no direct evidence or witnesses of Suarez making the alleged racial remarks.
  • Evra changed his allegation of what was said (“n***er” to “negro”), and the number of times it was said.
  • The FA’s language experts said that Suarez’s account of his use of the word “negro” (Spanish) “would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (FA panel’s report, paragraph 190)

The Guardian’s hyperbole (“shameful“, “beyond the pale, pigheaded, etc) was aimed largely at the reactions by Liverpool to the FA ruling (eg the statements and T-shirts supporting Suarez). But these reactions stem from an honourable stance:- namely, the right to question a questionable verdict (ie one based on no direct evidence) – and/or to support a person you believe to be innocent. In most cases, the Guardian – supposedly a “liberal” newspaper – would actively support such a basic right.

Presumably Guardian editors and writers – and anti-racism campaigners given space by the Guardian – can tell the difference, if pressed, between supporting someone accused of an offense, and condoning the offense itself. At least I hope they can.

Sadly, the illiberal reasoning applied by the Guardian to the Suarez case seems widespread. Thus, Ian Prior quotes Garth Crooks (speaking at the Guardian Open Weekend):  “there was an acceptance in football media that racism wasn’t as important as other matters … we are now in danger of returning to that, with complaints of too much coverage for Suarez or Terry affairs”.

The implication of such “logic” is pretty chilling: whatever valid reasons you may have for criticising such media coverage (and there are many), you’d better shut up, because some people might infer that you aren’t taking racism seriously enough. It’s an insidious and counterproductive form of reasoning. Bad logic will not help the fight against racism.

Update

Ian Prior (Guardian Sports Editor) appears to have read the above – he writes that my piece is “loaded” with “bad logic”. Ian, if you’d like to provide some examples of where you think my logic is at fault – rather than hiding behind 140-character Twitter assertions – you can contact me here.

Update #2 (3/4/12): It seems Ian’s not up to the challenge of backing up his own assertions. He tweets that “life’s too short” – although it’s apparently not too short for him (as Guardian Sports Editor) to publish over 100 articles on the Suarez case.

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