FAKERY, fakery, fakery. One moment, Blue Peter are fixing a couple of competitions to get themselves out of a bit of a scrape; the next, you’re wondering if anything you see or read is real any more. It’s all Thomas Kohnstamm’s fault.
Kohnstamm is a travel writer who claimed earlier this week that he had written a guide to Colombia without having been there. (He has since claimed he was quoted out of context, which is roughly as far from a denial as San Francisco is from Bogota.)
If only Jean Baudrillard had lived to see this. The French philosopher – who once famously argued that the first Gulf War did not take place because it wasn’t, strictly speaking, a war – would have seen all of his theories of hyperreality coming true.
Can we distinguish the real from the fantasy any more? Is a travel guide to a country written by a bloke who has never been there actually a valid piece of journalism? And where does this all fit in to a sports blog?
Well, I have something in common with Kohnstamm. (No, I’ve never sold drugs to supplement my income.) I too have written reports about events I haven’t attended.
It goes on all the time in sports journalism. Sometimes, it’s not only perfectly legitimate, but also necessary. For instance, one of my jobs at a newspaper I used to work for was to compile the local league cricket round-ups. There was no way I could be at six or seven matches simultaneously, so instead I would spend a Sunday afternoon ringing round club secretaries to get scorecards and details of any major incidents from each match.
Thatr’s not fakery. Proper fakery involves explicitly attempting to deceive people into thinking you have been to cover a sporting event when you haven’t.
I should make it clear at this point – for the benefit of present and potential employers – that when I am asked to cover a sporting event, I do go to it.
(I admit that, very early on in my journalistic career, I did once review a film I hadn’t seen. Yet even this confession is not quite up there with the story – possibly apochryphal – of a journalist who made up an entire pop concert review, including set list and costume changes. Now that takes guts.)
But there have been times when I have had to write reports of sporting events I haven’t seen. In the interests of self-protection, I’m not going to own up to every act of cheating (make that “using my initiative”) that I’ve ever committed, any more than I would expect you to own up to every time you have told a lie, broken the speed limit or stolen stationery from your office.
However, there are three instances of fakery I am prepared to admit to.
1) A few years ago, I was sub-editing for a newspaper which was covering an important cup tie, which was due to finish moments before our deadline. Unfortunately, due to a clerical mix-up, the reporter who was supposed to be covering the match had not been told about it. With deadline approaching, I ended up writing a 300-word report solely from the live text commentary on the BBC Sport website. That’s right; the one where 80 per cent of the updates consist of throw-ins.
2) After being stuck in the office longer than anticipated, I once turned up for a non-league match at Altrincham’s Moss Lane 25 minutes late – and had to telephone through the first part of my report at half-time. So I asked the only other reporter in the press box if I could copy his notes, including his description of the first goal, which I had missed.
(A colleague of mine tells a wonderful story of a journalist who got stuck in snow on the way to a Newcastle game in the 1960s. He finally got to the game at half-time, and asked a friend in the press box if anything had happened. “Wyn Davies hit the bar after five minutes, nothing else really,” came the reply. Armed with this precious nugget of information, the reporter immediately picked up the phone and dictated a 500-word report on the first half off the top of his head.)
3) I was on sub-editing duty again, with another tight deadline, but this time with responsibility for covering a rugby league game. This time, I had no reporter, no feed from the Press Association, no radio or television coverage and no BBC live text commentary. All I had to go on was a live update of try scorers from Sky’s website, and around 350 words to fill. The report which I wrote contained enough waffle to fill a waffle house. (“The crowd roared and the tension grew as both sides pushed for victory in an enthralling finish to the match.”) And yet the paper did not receive a single reader complaint. So either the readers were satisfied with the report, or nobody read it. I’d prefer to think it was the former.
Of course, some of Kohnstamm’s antics could never happen in sports journalism. Talking about his travel writing, he claimed that he had sex with a waitress on the table of a restaurant in South America (after it had closed for the night) and then reviewed the place by saying: “The table service is friendly.”
You couldn’t do that in a press box for four reasons: 1) There isn’t enough space. 2) It’s usually too cold. 3) The company is never worth it. 4) Even discounting 1, 2 and 3, there’s always a chance you’ll be interrupted by a tap on the shoulder from a fellow reporter asking: “Did you see whose cross it was for the equaliser?”