The Hodgson Affair: Traditional Media vs Social Media
The biggest surprise is that anyone of us are surprised at all. Never mind getting his feet behind the desk, Roy Hodgson had not even been shown where the toilets and tea making facilities were before Fleet Street had rounded on England’s new manager, rushing to make unflattering comparisons with birds of prey and to ridicule his speech impediment. What we are seeing is the tabloid press lay down the groundwork – in record quick time – for the inevitable cruel character assassination that will follow any disappointing performances or results from Hodgson’s England in the months to come. It took two years before Graham Taylor was likened to a turnip – Hodgson is being ridiculed for physical characteristics within two days.
But what is concerning further for the new boss, and anyone who wishes to see him given the chance he undoubtedly deserves, is that it is far from just hysterical tabloid hacks who wish to stick the boot into this appointment. Scour the broadsheet, television and radio analysis of the week’s events and in many cases you’ll find similar scorn directed at the FA for making this choice. Or, more pertinently, for not making the choice they wanted.
In this regard, there is one article which succinctly sums it all up. Nothing encapsulates the laughable mystification, indignation and disingenuous media attempts to ‘speak for the nation’ like Paul Merson’s spluttering polemic posted on the Sky Sports website within hours of Hodgson’s first press conference. If one needed ever to provide someone with a glaring example of how the ‘jobs for the boys’ culture of championing friends within the footballing family degrades the level of coverage of our national game, then one need look no further than this particular piece. To pick apart each bit of inaccuracy, hypocrisy or outright idiocy would be far too lengthy, so let’s just focus on a few key lowlights and what they represent about the media as a whole.
Firstly, the statement that “the whole country – and I mean the whole country – wanted Harry Redknapp.” The extra emphasis on the whole country suggests that he does in fact believe this to be a literal matter of the view of 100% vs the view of 0% (plus the four suits who have taken ‘no notice of the whole country’.) This is not restricted to Merse alone – since Fabio Capello’s exit, newspapers have consistently prefixed Harry Redknapp’s name with the words ‘fan’s favourite’, and if you were to believe much of the media coverage then every England fan currently has their head in their hands, unable to articulate their feelings of disbelief and outrage. This, however, is based on little more than the desires of the press, as well as those of a portion of their readership. To glance just merely at social media, fans forums or online polls, or to interact with most fans in the pub or at work, is to dismiss out of hand any portrayal of a landslide opinion in favour of the Tottenham manager.
Merson’s unwitting success at highlighting all that is wrong with media coverage of the England team is perhaps at its most obvious when he attempts to outline Redknapp’s credentials for the job, vis-à-vis Hodgson. His first and primary piece of reasoning is that “he’s brilliant with the press and you need to be able to have a laugh with the journalists.” The fact that he considers it entirely natural to prioritise such concerns over anything to do with coaching a football team is depressingly predictable.
Although it won’t be admitted, this is precisely the reason that coverage of the Hodgson appointment by writers and reporters has been so decidedly frosty – while he may not be particularly unpopular, he is equally not a close friend of the media establishment, and with him in charge they can kiss goodbye to the exclusive team news and increased access to Team England that they felt they would have obtained from Harry. Capello had no real appetite for kowtowing to the fourth estate, and it wasn’t long before he was characterised as a donkey; Hodgson is suffering similar indignity simply for not being that certain someone else who would.
Then there is the hypocritical element – offering support for Hodgson for having a difficult job while making his job increasingly more difficult. Again, a symptom of the media coverage as a whole but crystallised perfectly by Merson: “Every time he makes a decision, people will be asking if it’s what Harry would have done”; “there will be so much pressure on them it’s ridiculous … If they don’t win the first friendly 3-0 or 4-0 there will be uproar!”; “I feel sorry for Hodgson as he’s in a no-win situation.” To work these sentences into an article lambasting the FA for having made the wrong choice without him being in the job for yet a day, on the basis of little more than a personal preference for a friend, is akin to a burglar posting a letter of sympathy through someone’s letterbox a few days ahead of breaking through their window.
This line of tact occurs as the media in fact have very little reason to pick on the likeable Hodgson on either a personal or coaching level, so instead must offer faux-sympathy for the barrage of negative coverage they have waiting in the locker, displaying a wilful ignorance to the self-fulfilling nature of such prophecies. Worse still, it is almost always cowardly dressed up, as displayed by Merson, as being ‘the fans’ who are going to impatiently and petulantly turn on the boss and not the headline writers.
Journalist Ian McGarry took to Twitter to defend The Sun’s ‘Bwing on the Euwos’ front page from Gary Neville’s criticisms and offered his thoughts on the appointment, stating that “the only way to survive in this job is to win matches. If he does then everyone [is] happy.” Aside from the fact that Fabio Capello has the highest win rate of any England manager in history and was still lambasted by Fleet Street, this tweet is essentially an admission that the only way in which Hodgson can escape a barracking from his colleagues is by meeting whatever expectations they have of England in Poland and Ukraine. While most of the fans who these journalists claim to speak on behalf have entirely realistic expectations of the tournament, whereby anything beyond progress from the group will be seen as an achievement, there is a clear indication that the press will not be as understanding.
So Paul Merson and the media at large are ‘gutted’ and ‘devastated’ for Harry Redknapp. For some, it is ‘shoddy’, ‘demeaning’ and ‘appalling’ that he wasn’t offered an interview,despite the fact that no one outside of the media ever said that he would be. For others, the Twitter silence of England’s footballers is ‘defeaning’. But despite the current climate of negativity, all is not bleak for Roy. With the onset of social media, there is now more opportunity than ever for there to be a ‘backlash’ against such coverage – ‘I Support Roy’ trended on Twitter; Messrs Merson and McGarry both received a barrage of complaints about their self-appointed role as spokesman for the nation; and The Sun’s distasteful headline was widely condemned.
Indeed, the media can in fact be seen to be responding to these trends as over 24 hours the coverage grew in understanding. The Mirror, perhaps realising that blindly supporting a columnist of their fiercest rivals would be unwise, have offered sympathy for the FA’s choice. Meanwhile, less mainstream outlets such as Football365 and the excellent Zonal Marking have offered more cerebral analyses of the whole affair.
Ultimately, in a post-social media mid-Leveson society, where like never before media is distrusted and people have access to a wide range of opinions, we are seeing the power of red top and general media hysteria diminishing. This is one reason why Hodgson is not, in fact, in the ‘no-win situation’ that Merson speaks of. Supporting England nowadays comes with very little expectation – should the results not instantly gratify the FA’s choice this summer, most will understand and it is increasingly unlikely that they will be swayed by the cruel caricatures of the tabloids.
Certainly among those fans that I know, few will be desperate to compare and contrast such fortunes to a hypothetical Redknapp regime. Further still, there is one obvious way in which this could clearly be a ‘win’ situation – Bobby Robson was able to turn around the media view of him through a glorious failure at Italia 90. In the extremely unlikely event that Hodgson could replicate this, or even take us to a glory itself, then our sports media may be forced to swallow their words and become the tolerable and understanding force for good that we all desire. We can but dream.