England rules the waves

Not since the Hart Family was blown up by the producers of Family Affairs (oh don’t tell me you haven’t got a clue what I mean) has there been a soap opera storyline quite like that blurting from the top floor offices of the Football Association?. This is archetypal “shower scene/was it all a dream” stuff, now that we know that West Brom manager Roy Hodgson has been approached to take the poisoned chalice/Titanic-like helm/leader of the Opposition type role which is the England manager position.

Parts of the sports press have had their hearts and minds set on a particular kind of England and English football for as long as they’ve been copy and pasting press releases into their pieces. The name “Roy Hodgson” tends not to pass across their keyboards surrounded by positive adjectives. In the pursuit for an English manager to take on the English role (“We gotta have a man who can speak to our BOYS AND LIONS!!!111”), there is a tendency to look over the ‘wrong kind’ of Englishman. None of this foreign muck any more, we’ve tried and failed too many times….over…about forty-five years……and we’re not about to start turning around that particular boat now by looking past candidates who have been walking through the streets of central London wearing neon-lit arrows attached to their shoulders with the slogan “Well, it’s obvious, innit” flashing away.

On the way to the big twist ending so liked of the daily drama scribes are two men who would be  the perennial bad boys of Albert Street or Costa del Eldorado.  Hodgson is the nice but dull character with the story arc taking in successive promotions at a small firm of travel agents before an embarrassing event at Heathrow Airport cuts him down to size at the expense of the show’s bad boy rival, namely one Harry Redknapp, and audiences soon fill their boots with the daily exploits of the rough and ready  businessman (NOT a wheeler-dealer).  Having his wicked way with the girls at the factory or contacts at an industrial estate, Redknapp becomes the loveable rogue in the shape of Mike Baldwin, loved and hated for being rough and ready and eager to sniff out a bargain rather than doing things by the book.

The England job has always had the air of farce about it, not least because, as with coverage of soap operas and reality TV, the press have muddled up reality and hype into a bundle of breathless farce. “Hodgson verses Redknapp” is perfect for tabloid sports writers, because it can be boiled down to “English verses Foreign” or even “Honesty (perceived) verses Dishonest (perceived)”.  As with soap opera actors, characters are given nicknames and are subjected to pantomime boos (“TURNIP!” “FABIO THE FLOP!”). There is no reality in the hyper-real sports reporting bubble.

Following the tabloid led execution of Fabio Capello (successful manager around the world until he came up against the Collective England for the English Corps. of tabloid sports writers), the ‘papers have been rallying around the establishment choice. Redknapp has been the industry favourite for years, to the extent that it appeared nobody else would be considered. His Spurs side were riding high enough in the league for his supporters to use that alone as evidence for suitability in the run-up to this year’s European Championships. Yes the FA has midhandled the Capello resignation and subsequent selection process to such a degree that we could be entering the competition without a manger in charge at all, but at least there’s ‘Arry proving his worth every week!

Consequently, and it can only BE consequently, Spurs have plummeted like the proverbial since the New Year, doubtlessly because like all people who have been promised a new job sometime down the line concentration levels do seem to wander. That Hodgson was perceived to have failed at Liverpool made the press all the more eager to big up ‘their man’. All the international club and country experience Hodgson has enjoyed could only have been responsible for not quite ‘getting’ what a club side like Liverpool really wanted from a manager, and our ‘Arry can seek out the no-nonsense English way of doing things like no other. “We want an Englishman for England” was just code for wanting ‘one of ours’, wide-boy accent an’ all, to follow the considered, complicated tastes of Sven and Capello.

Point-by-point, it’s the West Brom manager who has the more trophies and achievements as well a world-wise experience. Back-page journos always want conflict, within and beyond any dressing room bust-ups and the like, which is partly how the contrived rivalry has been fostered over so many years. Tabloids have brought down people at a finger-click, and will do so with Roy at their whim, as and when it’s seen that Redknapp would have made better/more credible/logical choices in his position.

The press bring down their enemies in the end – fictitious television baddies and political wannabes alike. Whether they will do the same to Hodgson before, during or after the forthcoming European Championship depends on what kind of storyline twist they fancy attempting for their own entertainment. There will be no real war of words between the two favoured candidates in front of the cameras, of course. Each instalment will be more breathless and contrived than the last, leading to a summer showdown with Poland/Ukraine as a suitable backdrop. Nothing ever gets resolved in soap opera land because it suits the television companies to keep characters living, dying, marrying and divorcing month after month – it suits both front and back pages if the same happens with ‘Arry and Roy. If you think television drama is the loser with the popularity of soaps, you wait to see what happens to football at the end of all this….

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Lifestyles of the Censored and Redacted

Some of you may recall the time Jack Straw found himself embroiled in an unusual tabloid newspaper scandal. He had taken his son – William Straw – to a police station to ‘shop him in’ for selling cannabis. A court ruling blocked newspapers in England and Wales from reporting the story. The press in Scotland could report the story without any problem, though this meant national broadcasters could not review the Scottish papers for fear of breaking the law. With the Internet very different to how it is today, such a story limped on, impeded by the strength of the legal system blocking an industry’s ability to print the news.

Fast-forward to today, and the Straw incident seems to much innocent and forgiving. We now live in the age of the “super injunction” whilst the so-called “hyper injunction” is already in use in some jurisdictions. The two well known early examples involve John Terry, and the Guardian newspapers remarkable Trafigura story. In both cases, media outlets were initially unable to report what had been blocked, or why it had been blocked, or who was involved on either side of the case. The Guardian’s front page at the time resembled a Kafka post-it note. “Somebody rang, can’t say who, or why, or their number, or for whom they’d called.”

The details from the legal document are worth summarising here –

Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, produced an extraordinary legal document, whereby they persuaded a judge to not just suppress a confidential and potentially embarrassing document, but also to deny anyone even mentioning the existence of the court proceedings and court order.

This week, Conservative MP and author Louise Bagshawe found herself brought into the latest injunction farce, during recording of the BBC programme Have I Got News For You. During the “odd one out” round (featuring Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D), Bagshawe mentioned a footballer “whose name definitely does not rhyme with….” and the sound was cut. (Memories of the “Are you a friend of Peter Mandleson” episodes, of course).

In these very contemporary cases, the injunctions have only just managed to hold. Bloggers and tweeters have navigated themselves around the blocks like speed-skaters. It took only a number of Google searches to find the name of Trafigura (though remember that the legal block had initially forbid even Hansard from printing related questions, wrapping ties around freedoms within and beyond Parliament). The current injunction relating to “a family-man footballer whose name rhymes with such-and-such” is all the more bewildering because the person with whom he shaked up can have her name and face and womanly bits flashed all over the tabloids (Imogen Thomas, and no, I hadn’t heard of her either) whilst the footballer has the ”freedom” to live in anonymity.

Keyboard warriors have been tip-toeing around the legal injunctions in an act of defiance ever since they were first used. Identifying the footballer (well, footballers) is not difficult at all, just as identifying Trafigura was child’s play. This does not mean the courts are powerless against the First Twitter Corps. To coin a phrase, there’s many things we don’t know we don’t know.

The mood music is not melodic. The press is losing its fight against institutions and companies who can afford not to care. We tend to question the “might of the press” and rightly criticise the tabloid media’s moral high-ground and grandstanding. It’s easy to mock the morals of the redtops – chain up the pedos and look at this cheeky up-skirt pap shot. How far away from the press do we stand in the fight between privacy and press freedom? Can any celebrity – usually men – demand and expect privacy on their own terms?

We feed and fear the beast, the core problem in this entire issue. Investigative journalism still brings in the stories for the quality presses and tabloids alike – the “he is shagging her” breadcrumbs may make the headlines for being under injunctions, chances are the real scandals will never be uncovered. Beyond the locked doors and along the corridors sings the silent truths hidden and locked away. Our press may not always be moral, but they are free; injunctions of the strength, breadth and depth as we see today are compromising that freedom. Lawyers over-riding Parliament is one thing (and is sometimes greeted with pleasure and applause). But journalists?

It is very dangerous for the might of a lawyers hand to flatten both Parliament and the Press. It is not uncomfortable ground to inhabit – the whistle blowers and freedom-fighters and investigators at the heart of truth as much as Parliamentarians. This is much more than “[][][][][][][][][][] and [][][][][][][][][] have conducted a private affair.” At the core of this is covering up as much light as corporations can afford (and that’s a lit, enough to exhaust Professor Brian Cox of all his superlatives and metaphor). Choosing sides in arguments is not always easy. It’s difficult when the only right and moral choice includes tabloid journalists and Members of Parliament. Enemies closer and all that…

Revenge is not Justice

Following the imprisonment of Roy Whiting for the murder of Sarah Payne, a friend and I had something of a disagreement over what was already being labelled “Sarah’s Law”; that is, the right for parents to know if a pedophile was living in their area. Subsequently, trails of this law have been reported as being successful, but I still feel rather uneasy. There will always be the potential for ill-informed or plain wrong information being used to seek ‘justice’ on people who may be nothing more than elderly men living on their own, or indeed something far more tragically comedic.

I am reminded of the disagreement with the current coverage of the re-arrest of Jon Venebles, and the inevitable media coverage.

Earlier this month, 27 year old Jon Venebles was returned to prison following an undisclosed breach of his control order. Seventeen years ago, Venebles and Robert Thompson – aged just 10 – abducted and killed three-years old James Bulger, in a case etched on the collective mind of the nation.

In a statement to the House of Commons I agree with Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said it would not be in “the interests of justice” to release information about Venebles’ return to detention. Quite rightly, Straw has reminded the country about the importance of putting the rule of law above both the mob rule of tabloid hysteria, and the often all-too heavy hand of simple assumption. Make no mistake; I remember the case as vividly as anyone did at the time, and understand why Bulger’s mother feels so emotional about “doors slamming in her face”, as she told television reporters today. Venebles must receive a suitable punishment for his latest reported crime.

Ultimately, the contentious nature of ‘justice’ runs up against the scrum of ‘revenge’ in cases like this. I despair at the reactionary tabloid press, running rumours and ‘exclusives’ about possible reasons for Venebles’ re-imprisonment as though they were simply dealing with the latest reason for Pete Doherty being arrested or John Terry being seen without his wife. No killer, however notorious, can be regarded with any taste as ‘celebrities’. Inevitably the logic of tabloid newspapers appears to bend and curve when dealing with such ‘easier targets’.

If the tabloids get their approach to this story wrong, by splashing rumour and incomplete truth all over the front pages for days on end, all a good lawyer needs to do is prove the impossibility of a fair trail for Venebles to walk free.

“Revenge” is not justice. The death penalty, so often called upon in these circumstances, is simply a form of “revenge”, barely more civilised than blood lust. Maybe this sounds like “tabloid logic”, but I cannot see that killing criminals has made the United States of America any less dangerous for its citizens. The decent rule of justice has already been proven this month; Venebles committed an act against his control order, and is now back in prison. Should be hang for his first crime, or this reported second?

I am not naive enough to believe that tomorrow’s newspapers will U-turn on the exhaustive, breathless crusade for ‘the truth’, as though the full details of Venebles’ latest crime will satisfy readers as the conclusion of a soap story line. I trust that Jack Straw will maintain this measured and mature handling of the situation.

Sometimes “man is the measure of all things”. How we, as a nation, handle this story in the coming weeks could well be the measure of us all.