It is too much to call it a witch hunt. It has certainly been a saga. But it is nonetheless easy to get carried away with things, to see Kevin Pietersen’s often gauche behaviour, his effulgent narcissism and crashing lack of social judgement as corroborating ‘evidence’ of some profound treacherousness when it was probably all little more than ill-judged sounding off from a player who is – yes – full of himself and needy and, frankly, not one of the lads, and so just as complicit in his own marginalization from Team England as the parody Twitter account that Stuart Broad had nothing to do with.
Over the last three weeks, Pietersen has provided the cricket writing press with what is often called a feeding frenzy, in which, in the words of media theorist Steven Johnson, “coverage of a story begets more coverage, leading to a kind of hall-of-mirrors environment where small incidents get amplified into Major Events”. Scribes with perhaps little personal agenda against the batsman (although it is fair to say that not many have warmed to him) have all weighed in. Salient among these was the ludicrously boorish radio interview of Michael Henderson – with his grandiloquent Mancunian intonation, a sort of reactionary version of Anthony H Wilson, and a man who, in the process of dismissing “riff-raff” supporters on 5Live and not-quite-namedropping “six England captains” apparently unanimous in their hardline views about Pietersen’s fate, seemed genuinely unaware of the irony in his long, rasped checklist of KP’s flaws.
Aside from the preposterous
there are journalists – would-be kingmakers, many – with little real idea about
which way the ever-changing situation between the ECB, Strauss (now Cook) and
Flower will tip yet who nevertheless find themselves writing things like “there can be little prospect of
Pietersen ever playing international cricket again”. Maybe, maybe not. They
speak of “the latest damaging revelations”.
Maybe, maybe not. The assurance of the language is indicative only of the
newspaper’s sense of its own influence. Henderson
Anyway, on Monday my eye was turned by a brief exchange – one that seemed particularly illustrative of a blindspot among pressmen (well, a blindspot or species of speciousness) – that took place on Twitter between @countycricketkj and @newman_cricket (the latter being Paul Newman, cricket correspondent of the Daily Mail), an exchange in which the former, unwittingly, is cast as disgruntled naïf, the latter, as venerable hack. Also present is the trope of the impersonal, supra-personal media machine rumbling along, propelled by its editorial strictures and the friendly one-upmanship of professional rivals seeking scoops; look more closely, however, and beneath this dreary inevitability – that's just the way things are – we cannot avoid seeing the individual decisions (albeit circumscribed, limited) of conscious actors.
KJ: “Whoever is leaking the KP stuff is forgetting that team unity involves all 11 players – not just 10”.
PN: “It’s not leaks…it’s journalism”.
KJ: “Issue isn’t what’s reported Paul, it’s where it’s come from”.
PN: “It doesn’t mean the ECB/whoever contact journos and offer them info like this. Believe me, there is little spin doctoring”.
[I should say here that I have omitted a tweet from before Newman’s second reply. We’ll get to that just now.]
What formed the background to all this was an apparently factual yet still insidiously scurrilous article by Newman that sought to muck-rake regarding some snub of Pietersen’s to James Taylor on day three at Headingley, first by walking off at tea with the South Africans (no mention of him giving Taylor a pat on the back as the latter left the field when dismissed) and then later in the dressing room. True? Yes. Over-inflated tittle-tattle characteristic of a feeding frenzy? Absolutely.
The article then makes an incredibly glib elision between KP’s absence from the ODI squad and Chris Woakes’ new boy, straight-bat observations about the atmosphere in the dressing room. To wit: “As it emerged that Pietersen swapped angry words with a senior player, after criticising debutant James Taylor and boasting of his own importance to England during his brilliant 149 at Leeds, another newcomer to the dressing room described the atmosphere within it now as ‘fantastic’.” Now. Not … not when? Or is it just to confirm that he was talking about the day of his arrival, and not the day of his non-arrival? And that “as it emerged”, too, making sure you get the connection, is pretty craven. An everyday, conventional sort of craven, mind.
Of course, everyone of sound mind who has managed to suffocate their inner fascist knows that the Mail is exactly the sort of institution that systematically preys on its readers’ basest emotions, a Leviathan that indulges in the most cynical, moralisingly middlebrow shit-stirring-for-profit. It is an editorial tone that happens to shore up, and foment, the prejudices of those who like their ivories (not ebonies) tinkled with that sort of misanthropic melody (Middle Englanders who would wet themselves if they had to deal with the world outside of their soft-furnished social codes), all the better to sell the same curtain-twitching drek the next day, and the next, and the next... You would hope that its sports writers might avoid their domain’s equivalent of knicker-sniffing. Not that Newman is by any means the only one guilty of it. Derek Pringle wrote a day earlier in The Telegraph: “According to some, there has been animosity brewing between [Pietersen and Strauss] for a while now and the pair were seen having a heated argument” at a PCA golf day. According to some.
|not part of the story|
The feeding frenzy, hall-of-mirrors element can be glimpsed in the fact that, to all intents and purposes, any dressing room slight toward Taylor – and Pringle tells us, with no loss of proportion whatsoever, that it “plumbs new depths of obnoxious behaviour” – was part of the same episode, the same day’s bad behaviour from Pietersen, the same day of inhibition loss and tantrum, the same insecure defensiveness and lashing out. Exactly as he bats, in fact. ‘Man on 78-person shooting spree also fired three rounds at a passing chihuahua’ is not news.
But it is highly revealing to see how Newman worded his defence of the article, or its provenance, on Twitter. He dispenses the mini-lesson about “journalism” and its ‘rules’ for the naïf’s benefit, a self-validating statement – on the order of a “this is just the way it is” – that thereby implicitly absolves himself of any ethical self-reflection.* Yet before that came the killer line that I had hitherto omitted: “I think there’s a misunderstanding on how things work. We seek out info that we feel is newsworthy/relevant by many means”. The devil is in the detail, in the phrasing: we feel is relevant…
Here, then, it seems clear that the journalist is not so much documenting facts – if by that is meant writing from some neutral vantage point, exterior to a reality that they are thus describing in a purportedly ‘objective’ manner – as constructing a story, creating an entire ambience in which the shards of reported ‘facts’ will be received, as with the Bilbao Guggenheim and its Rothkos and Warhols. There is always a precise approach to the works, to the words. Although they may strive for ‘neutrality’, journalists are, like all writing, making an intervention from a position very much immersed in reality, part of the event's feedback circuits, and thus capable of causally affecting its outcome (even if that effect, in the case of the KP saga, is simply influencing public perception to the point where, say, a process of reconciliation becomes intolerable for all parties). It is, in a sense, a proof of Heisenberg’s Principle: the position and momentum of a particle cannot simultaneously be accurately measured because we inevitably affect things that we’re attempting to observe and measure. As for quantum physics, so for journalism.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the power of the media – and for its practitioners – is, or can be, intensely libidinal. To be in an inner circle, to be party to the secret, to be at the cutting edge of history-in-the-making, provides an erotic frisson, a psychic reward. To pen paragraphs that take this tone or that, sentences dripping with rancour or revenge, apathy or aloofness, unleashes a voluptuous wave. Sade and Sacher-Masoch knew about this omnipresence of desire. The Nuremberg Rallies; doing the accounts; the Last Night of the Proms; the man in the dole office assiduously checking your Jobsearch; the stroll down the St John’s Wood Road, resplendent in one’s egg-and-bacon suit – entirely sexual.
The distinction to be made when weighing journalistic interventions, then, is not about ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ (no one knows all the ‘facts’ to be objective; no one writes free enough of institutional constraints to be subjective) but simply to follow the course of actions – actions perhaps with conscious motives; actions maybe having unconscious causes; actions with extraneous reasons; but actions always with repercussions... Is the pursuit of anecdotal evidence deemed “newsworthy” or “relevant” really free of any personal agenda, an axe to grind? Is the journalist truly allowing, as much as possible, the situation to follow its own internal course, free of interference, or is her line stoking the fires, itself stoked by a commercial logic (that of the paper) masquerading as news, as truth?
“You can normally spot when one of these [feeding frenzies] reaches its denouement,” Johnson avers, “since it almost inevitably triggers a surge of self-loathing that washes through the entire commentariat”. We may be having a breather with KP, but I’m not entirely sure we are there just yet.
* The probable truth is that Mr Newman’s employer demands that type of story and he – like all of us, playing within the true rules of the game: those of capitalism – has most likely internalized any conscientious objection and dutifully carries out his work according to the desires of his employers. Their desires become his will. At least, that is the most charitable explanation, aside from having his copy tweaked by subs to fit the DM agenda.