In the world of football, it’s a sad truth that for every shimmy by Ronaldinho on the field, there’s a deceitful twist by an agent somewhere squeezing out a bung; for every stepover by Ronaldo, there’s a corrupt businessman trying to make a fast buck out of the beautiful game; for every unexpected pass by Riquelme, there’s a Fifa executive funnelling money where it shouldn’t go.
It’s no wonder that David Conn’s 2005 book, exploring the at times putrid underbelly of English football, had a question mark at the end of its title, The Beautiful Game?
In it, Conn excavated the way fans have been robbed time and again in the so-called golden era for English football since Italia ’90 relegitimised football culturally and the Premiership brought unprecedented hype and Murdoch’s mountains of cold, hard cash to the top of the English football pyramid. He’s followed this up with his recent columns in the Guardian.
So what is the state of investigative football journalism today, given it seems to be more greatly needed than ever? Who better to ask than David Conn himself?
In The Beautiful Game?, Conn explains the truth and myths surrounding Hillsborough, explores the crises at the likes of York City and Sheffield Wednesday, and excoriates the “myopic” and “self-serving” F.A. for letting the rich get richer at the expense of the game as a whole, following the breakaway of the Premier League in 1992.
Thinking about this book, and recent subjects we’ve discussed here such as the work of Andrew Jennings on Fifa and corruption in English Football, I emailed David Conn to ask him about the state of investigative football journalism.
One thing on my mind was that when I wrote about Alisher Usmanov’s background here — as one of the first to do so, following Craig Murray’s revelations — I had seen a disturbing willingness of the football media to swallow the Uzbeki billionaire’s PR lines at face-value. It was only when this site, and others, received bullying legal threats from Usmanov’s lawyers, Schillings of London, that the media woke up to the story — and they still managed to get it wrong again and again.
So, the gist of my questions to David were to ask why the football media often seems to parrot PR, despite the investigative examples set by himself, Jennings and Tom Bower. His answer, as he thinks it would, did indeed surprise me. “People do ask why there is not more investigative journalism on football, but my answer might surprise you: I think there is a great deal compared to any other time in football’s history,” he wrote.
He went on to make four points explaining this answer, which are worth quoting in full.
I could turn your observation “apart from Tom Bower and Andrew Jennings” around; for me it shows how healthy a situation it is. They are two very senior investigative journalists who for many years would have shown no inclination to look into football, but now have written major books on the subject. Panorama, too, until relatively recently, thought football a trivial subject, not worthy of its resources, but now, as you know, sees it as a major cultural and financial subject deserving of investigation. I think when I wrote my own first book, The Football Business, the perception of the game was changing and so I was quite early to investigate the serious issues, mainly the way the new money had been distributed, which I saw were unfolding then.
There is a slight exaggeration at times of what “investigative” reporting is. Bower and Jennings stand out because they have written books requiring sustained research, but there is a lot more excellent daily news reporting by journalists on issues such as finance, club ownership, football politics, “bungs” etc which simply did not happen even a few years ago. You say there is too much parroting of the party line, eg on the Glazers, but the News of the World did a 2 page splash recently based on the Manchester United Supporters Trust’s calculation that the Glazer debt has gone up substantially because interest rates have increased. I don’t think Manchester United were very happy about it – and the NoW is a Murdoch paper.
There is, though, a balance to be struck and the press, I agree, is generally favourable to football and covers it as a great, thriving, popular sport, which it is. Most readers are much more interested in reading about the matches, players and managers, than the finances. There is also the need to have access to the clubs to cover matches etc, and so there is a balance of power, too, between the game itself and the media. It’s a judgment about whether that balance is struck well, but I think there is more critical appraisal of serious issues, and money, than ever before.
For evidence of this, I would point you to the Hillsborough Disaster. Throughout the 1980s, many major football clubs, like Sheffield Wednesday, were in breach of the regulations governing safety at grounds, putting supporters’ lives in danger. This was a huge scandal, the greatest in football’s history and the most disastrous, which resulted in 96 people dying at Hillsborough, yet there was no “investigative journalism,” into these issues at all beforehand, no exposure of it, nobody digging. Even after 56 people died in the fire at Bradford City in 1985, revealing an appalling approach to safety by the club, the issue did not develop into a subject for sustained journalism, and Hillsborough happened 4 years later. Coverage generally was more limited, and tended to focus on the matches, and be favourable to the clubs, with very little scrutiny of owners or their business records, or the clubs’ finances. There is hugely more coverage now, and with it, perhaps, more “investigative” journalism than people sometimes think.