Monday, 24 May 2010

Daily Mail misinterprets public opinion in World Cup row.

Ah, the traditional British tabloid kiss-and-tell story.

Every other week sordid revelations of a celebrity’s ( and I use that term loosely) private life is splashed over the front pages of a Sunday newspaper. All in the name of the free press.

I can’t say I am a fan of these stories, but a lot of people clearly are and I do agree to an extent that those in positions of power duly have a responsibility to behave in a proper manner. Investigative journalism can help uncover crime and corruption, as well as those who publically display and profit from one image, yet offer a different one away from public view.

But all too often in my opinion the ‘public interest’ argument is trotted out by newspapers to defend their invasion of privacy in order to sell extra copies.

Take the Lord Triesman fiasco. The Daily Mail, a conservative newspaper, was always going to go after someone like Triesman, a labour peer. But their decision to run a story featuring comments made by him during a private dinner (though they called it a meeting) with a friend and former aide Melissa Jacobs, who, unknown to him, was recording it, appears a mistake.

Jacobs sold her story to the Mail for £75,000, with the publicist Max Clifford representing her. Alarm bells about her motives should be ringing already. One of Triesman’s stand-out remarks was allegations that the Spanish and Russian football associations were considering bribing referees at this summer's World Cup, in return for votes in the 2018 bidding process. Pretty serious accusations I admit.

The story inevitably led to the 66-year-old's departure, but defending himself in a statement he felt he was a victim of “Entrapment” by a friend which was an “unpleasant experience both for my family and me.”

The article also implied that Triesman had shared an “intimate relationship” with Jacobs. He vigorously denied the allegations, saying that their friendship had been “grossly exaggerated”.

Meanwhile the FA franticly began a damage limitation exercise, swiftly apologising to the Spanish and Russian FAs as well as swiftly removing the labour peer from his position.

Now I am not going to defend Triesman’s comments. They were ill-advised to say the least. Such comments are very foolish, especially for someone in his position, and so he s not entirely blameless in this sorry tale.

But is shouldn’t be forgotten that these comments were made in private to a close and trusted friend, and he had no idea it was being recorded. The Mail’s line in the story was that Triesman’s was now responsible for England’s faltering bid for the World Cup, accusing him of a ‘serious lapse of judgement’ for making such claims regardless of whether they were in private or not.

The Press Complaints Commission code of practice (which are voluntary by the way) states that the press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices;. But while it needs to be pointed out that the paper was not involved in the recording of the conversation, they ran the story when it was offered to them. The defence on this is whether the story is in the public interest which is defined by but not restricted to: Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety, protecting public health and safety or preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

You have to ask yourself then – is this in the public interest?

It’s very hard to prove that it its. After all any journalist worth his salt would have listened to his startling claims regarding corruption and looked into it further – that is the big story to come out of all this. If, as expected, the claims are baseless, then they are simply the mutterings, however irresponsible, of a man, in private, to a woman he was looking to impress.

Was he taking the allegations further? Probably not? Where they the views of the FA, certainly not.

It’s a non story. I defy anyone to deny they have made exaggerated or ill-advised claims in a private setting. In that context Triesman's comments are hardly a matter of public interest.

So why therefore did the paper run the story? Well, everyone loves a kiss-and-tell story don’t they? Everyone loves to see the downfall of those in power and hear their sordid revelations over their Sunday lunch. And that is how the story played out, with even transcriptions of affectionate text messages sent by Triesman to Jacobs printed.

This was a cheap an smutty attempt to sell extra copies, disguised under the ruse of ‘pubic interest’. But in doing so the Mail has scored untold damage on England’s World Cup bid (the revelations did after all come just days after England submitted their bid book to FIFA)

This surely outweighs any benefit revealing a 66-year-old love sick man's inner private thoughts would bring?

Judging by the nature and sheer number of vitriolic comments on the papers website they have grossly mis-judged the public mood, with the majority of the English public angry at the paper, not Triesman, and hold them responsible for hurting England’s chances of hosting the World Cup.

It does seem ironic that for such a patriotic publication their cheap quest for sales could cost England the World Cup, and so billion of pounds of investment and thousands of jobs. Not to mention the feel good factor of having the World’s greatest tournament on our shores. Is the story still in the public interest now?

Gary Lineker, one of the ambassadors of the 2018 bid, has quit his position as a columnist in the wake of the scandal; with his publicist Jon Holmes saying it was “crass judgment” on the part of the Mail. I’m inclined to agree.

Again I feel it is important to point out that the press should be independent and therefore shouldn’t cover things up in order to protect England’s bid. If the bid committee are seeking to win the World Cup by illegal means the press have a right to bring them to account - They still have a vital role in uncovering corruption and ensuring fair play.

But conversely they shouldn’t obtain stories using dubious methods and then proceed make sensationalist mountains out of molehills in order to create headlines and sell papers, with dis-regard for the consequences of their actions. The FA have enough faults as it is without their own press working against them.

England’s bid team believe they can recover from this PR disaster and prove to the FIFA committee that England is deserving of the World Cup in 2018. But with the British press the way they are, I’m not holding my breath.

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