As you may know, I’m a big fan of The Times. They do excellent features about all sorts of things I’m interested in, not least sport. But they’re not perfect, as they admitted this week with their 600 word apology for the story about the supposed Qatar ‘Dream Football League’, where the top clubs in Europe would decamp to the desert every other summer for a kickaround in the sand, pocketing £175m each for the pleasure.
That story turned out to be a load of tosh, to put it politely. And everyone laughed so hard that they thought it best to explain themselves. Up stepped Football Editor Tony Evans with a serious look on his slightly jowly middle-aged face, to explain WHAT WENT WRONG. How did Times journo Oliver Kay get taken in, and how did no one else spot that the story had all the substance of a Joey Barton thesis?
Except Tony didn’t really explain it very well.
It turned out that Ollie Kay had got friendly with a contact who was apparently connected to the PSG Qatari owners. The contact provided various bits of info, some of which turned out to be true, and Kay grew more trusting. As Evans points out, it’s very easy to say why didn’t Kay do even the most basic check to see if the source was who or what he said, but apparently to ask that question ‘is to misunderstand the world of football’. Is it, Tony? Is it really? Maybe I misunderstand the world of journalism, but isn’t the basic premise to find stuff out and check things? I’m not sure why this principle has to be thrown aside in the case of football.
‘It’s not unusual for football journalists to have a contact whose past looks murky under close scrutiny’, says Tony. No doubt, but that is a different matter entirely. Murky past does not equate to made up story. ‘Every story needs checking,’ says Tony. Yes, we know. Tell Ollie.
Tony then spends 150 words or so telling us that on the face of it, given that Qatar is very rich and prone to grand gestures, the story was plausible. Okayyy. So Ollie then got on the blower to various top European clubs to ask if they knew about the ‘DFL’ and were in on the deal. There were two kinds of answers: ‘We’ve never heard of it’, or ‘We’ve heard of it, but we don’t think it will happen and we don’t think we’d be involved anyway’. Even though this was off the record and no one was going to be named, not a single club said they would be involved. But that didn’t put Ollie off! The Times ran the story on the basis that because it was possible and no one actually laughed when asked questions about it, that was good enough evidence.
As Tony himself says, ‘here is where The Times made a massive mistake’. He doesn’t actually say who, apart from Ollie, made the massive mistake; we are left to imagine.
I suppose we should say ‘fair play’ for bothering to write a full apology, rather than a single paragraph tucked away in the corner, but reading it leaves me very unsatisfied with the whole explanation. All this ‘we missed it because football is full of chancers’ stuff. And no explanation of why they think someone fed them the story in the first place. Surely they must have a theory about that? Did the mysterious contact spend months feeding Oliver Kay genuine information solely to then feed him this duff story for a laugh once his guard was down? It’s not even April the first yet. What exactly is the point?
So thanks Tony, but your 600 words is mostly stating the obvious (‘We were duped’; ‘We should have checked’), when I want answers as to why this happened, not just a rather vague go at how.
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