ACTUALLY, before I start on about the poppy fiasco and the unwanted side-effects of media campaigning: a confession. If there is to be an award for the least successful newspaper campaign of 2011, it should probably go to me.
There it is, in huge letters, on the back page of the Manchester Evening News, on June 6. “Help keep Tevez a Blue,” reads the headline, underneath which is an article, written by me, urging Manchester City fans to sign a petition to persuade Carlos Tevez to stay at the club.
This was a couple of days after Tevez had slated Manchester in an Argentinian television interview, claiming that it only had two restaurants.
The campaign united a city. Fans of both clubs, by and large, thought it was a dreadful idea. Even my own father thought so, and was considerate enough to tell me to my face. My defence, and I’m sticking to it, is that I was mistranslated.
Newspaper campaigns, then, don’t always work. Sometimes, though, they work too well. I was thinking about this today as I read Des Kelly’s piece on the poppy fiasco in the Daily Mail.
Kelly’s considered, well-reasoned article criticised the “misplaced poppy rage, posturing and grandstanding” of the last week in the build-up to tonight’s England-Spain friendly at Wembley. It started with FIFA turning down an FA request to allow England players to wear embroidered poppies on their shirts to mark Remembrance Sunday, on the not unreasonable grounds that it could set an awkward precedent.
There followed plenty of indignation, whipped up by the media, the FA and David Cameron, culminating in the far-right English Defence League attempting to gain some political capital out of the debacle by protesting on the roof of FIFA’s Geneva headquarters.
“But let us start at the beginning,” Kelly wrote. “If somebody can explain to me why, after all this time, we suddenly need to have poppies on an England shirt, I’d be very grateful.”
OK, Des, I’ll have a go. I’d suggest that a significant part of this whole fiasco can be traced back to a campaign run by your own newspaper two years ago.
On Monday, November 2, 2009, the Mail began an aggressive push to get all 20 Premier League clubs to wear shirts with embroidered poppies in the build up to Remembrance Day.
Charles Sale noted in his Sports Agenda column that day that 12 of those clubs had informed the Premier League of their intention to wear poppy shirts. Of the eight that hadn’t at that stage, Portsmouth, Fulham and Aston Villa quickly agreed to follow suit. By the Thursday of that week, two more clubs had done so.
“Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers are the latest big clubs opting to wear poppy branded shirts with both admitting the Sportsmail campaign highlighting the poppy issue this week had been a major factor in their decision,” Sale wrote.
“That leaves only three in the Premier League — Manchester United, Liverpool and Bolton who will play at the weekend without a poppy on their shirts in stubborn defiance of public opinion.”
The Mail contacted all three clubs requesting an explanation, then emotively referred to each response as an “excuse”. But as Bolton didn’t comment, the paper ended up with this:
BOLTON’S EXCUSE – Club statement: No comment.
By Thursday night, Bolton had agreed to wear poppy-embroidered shirts too.
“Nevertheless, the absence of a poppy on their shirts will make two of the world’s biggest clubs stand out for all the wrong reasons to the vast television audience in Britain and in hundreds of countries around the globe.”
I don’t know who was responsible for the Mail’s poppy campaign of two years ago (it wasn’t necessarily Sale’s, even though he ended up writing the articles to publicise it), but it clearly had an effect. Even at the time, though, its force was hard for some of us to stomach. Two years on, a new row has got to one of the paper’s own columnists, concerned that the poppy is becoming a political symbol.
As Kelly wrote today: “Was it a slow news week? Did Prime Minister David Cameron see a populist bandwagon he could hitch a handy ride on? Were the English football authorities happy to fuel this story to knock the John Terry race row off the front and back pages?
“Either way, the saga cheapened the meaning of the poppy. Slapping it on a jersey reduces it to the level of a Nike tick or the adidas three stripes.”
There’s been a lot of hot air, and a lot more scrambling for moral high ground in the poppy debate this week. I’m fully aware that I’m adding to that hot air here, and perhaps doing a bit of scrambling too.
Even Robert Fisk didn’t completely escape that trap. Fisk, a journalist whose reporting from war zones has won him too many awards to count, wrote a thought-provoking piece in the Independent last Saturday warning of the dangers of competitive grieving, of wearing a poppy because it was seen to be the right thing to do. Yet he still felt compelled the fact that his father fought at the Battle of Arras in the First World War, as if concerned that his opinions would count for nothing without a personal war story to back it up.
Perhaps it was an attempt to head off accusations of being unpatriotic, of disrespecting the memories of soldiers who fought and died in the British cause. If so, it failed, as Ed West wrote a response for the Daily Telegraph website that completely missed the point of Fisk’s piece, but got a lot of hits and comments. (Which, if you believe what you read in Private Eye, is all that matters to the Telegraph webmasters. And if you don’t, isn’t.)
For all that hot air, though, the debate has been one worth having. It has, I hope, made a few people stop and think about the poppy, about what it means to wear one, and the importance of the right not to. Maybe it might make the odd newspaper editor think too. If you’re going to start a campaign, be aware that it might come back to bite you, even if it’s successful.