“A free press is bad news for corruption”
– Aymo Brunetti
Once upon a time world champions had twenty fights a year, top boxers were all household names and sour-faced reporters sat on press row in trilby hats, hunched over their notepads. Eeking out whatever stories they could from a show, they would write up the action, follow boxers backstage to their dressing rooms and hang around in gyms. Their words appeared in national and local newspapers as well as special interest magazines and for many fans of the fistic arts, they provided the only coverage available.
In this way the views of Bud Schulberg and Bert Sugar in the USA, or Hugh McIlvanney here in the UK became, for decades, the first stop for any punter wishing to inform themselves of the subtleties of pugilism. While these men maintained necessary relationships with fighters, managers and promoters, they were careful not to allow such relationships to sully their impartiality. They may have made mistakes, they may even have shown personal bias, but the basic journalistic tenet of integrity was central to everything they wrote.
This meant that when reading one of their pieces, fight followers could have confidence that opinions contained therein were the writer’s and not placed within the article in pursuit of third-party agendas. In addition, due to their deep involvement in the very fabric of the fight game, their words carried a weight of authority far beyond the saloon-bar conversations or partisan opinions of fans. It was this that made them worth reading. If one of these men praised a fighter, or tipped him for future glory, it meant something. Similarly, if they said a boxer had limitations and could expect no future beyond beating journeymen, people listened. They weren’t always right, but at least they meant it.
During the golden age of print journalism, which coincidentally (or maybe not…) overlapped with the golden age of the ring and then throughout the wireless era, this situation remained unchanged. However the arrival of mass-market TV altered the landscape forever. The internet blew it all to smithereens.
Despite boxing’s current status as a niche attraction for sports fans, there are now a huge number of sources of information. All the major promotional companies have their own PR departments which pump out press releases and many outlets simply regurgitate them, something I have never been in favour of. Sadly, articles heavily based on the writings of Matchroom or Queensberry promotions marketing departments also frequently crop up in newspapers and the even the boxing press. It is, after all, the busy journalist’s fall-back plan. Deadline looming? Too busy to come up with a story? Use a press release.
These days boxing is seldom seen on the back pages of national newspapers unless there is a huge fight on the horizon. (Steve Bunce’s very readable Independent column being the only exception). As a result, there are few dedicated boxing journalists and most dabble in the noble art occasionally while writing mainly about other sports. Sadly this does not lend itself to insightful, expert coverage.
Last week, Jeff Powell, a very experienced fight and football writer of many years standing who works for the Daily Mail, posted an article of staggering ineptitude. He chose to bolster his own ill-advised opinions regarding the recent Mayweather / Pacquiao money spinner by quoting ‘facts’ from a website of the lowest quality imaginable. As any regular readers of internet boxing coverage will know, that particular site is set up purely as clickbait, by using a tactic of irritating viewers into commenting, thereby servicing the ads that are featured on its pages (more on this later). It is effectively a large-scale exercise in ‘trolling’, yet Powell has given them enough credence to be referenced, as the main witness for his case, in his column. We may all have our own views of The Daily Mail and its attention (or otherwise) to quality control, but there is something deeply worrying going on, when writers of Mr.Powell’s experience and reputation are reproducing this sort of content.
Indeed, a look at that paper’s boxing page reveals, to the trained eye, relatively few articles that have been creatively rendered by The Mail’s staff. The majority are in fact direct adaptations of press releases from the big promoters and the few that aren’t, such as the Powell effort mentioned above, offer precious little in the way of insight or analysis.
In a similar vein, Kevin Mitchell, who pens lots of well-observed Tennis pieces for The Guardian, sat ringside for May / Pac and also managed to score the fight for Pacquiao. No-one who knows their onions could possibly agree. Clearly swayed by the crowd in the arena who cheered every punch Pacquiao threw, even the ones that missed (which was most of them) while greeting Mayweather’s easy domination with silence, Mitchell filed a report of which a novice fight writer should be embarrassed. Yet Mitchell has been covering boxing, on a part-time basis at least, for 20 years.
It is probably not his fault he has been leaned on to cover a sport in which he possesses no background, but it is a clear indicator of boxing’s lowly status in modern sports journalism. The great fight writers of the past will truly be turning in their graves.
In moving on to consider TV output we encounter different problems. Sky’s coverage has become so blatantly a crude promotional tool for Matchroom Sport as to almost become a caricature of itself. It would be lovely if just once, Adam Smith and Johnny Nelson paused their wooden banter in order to appraise their product honestly and say something like,
“Sorry about that folks, that show was pretty sub-par, really. All the home fighters won their inter-continental final eliminators comfortably and most of the opponents were nameless Argentinians from the weight division below.”
Sadly that’s about as likely to happen as Benjamin Netanyahu affecting a sudden conversion to Islam. Honesty is not highly prized in the modern age of big-profit-media. Yet you would imagine that eventually the audience will become increasingly alienated – most fans, I would hope, don’t want to be patronised by presenters selling them an inferior offering as top notch, they want some level of intelligent analysis.
BoxNation does a far better job in that regard. Barry Jones is always worth listening to, as are many of the other guests that stalwarts Bunce and Lillis bring in alongside them. I must admit to having a sizeable soft-spot for ‘Boxing Matters’ hosted by Alex Steedman as well. Nonetheless, the channel’s output is clearly affected by its creation as the TV arm of Queensbury / Frank Warren, although the influence is managed more subtlely than by Smith and Co.
Lastly, we turn to the internet. We now live in an age where anyone can start a blog, website or youtube channel and reach an audience. In some ways this is positive, although it has made it much harder for writers to earn a living.
The only way for owners of websites to profit in this new climate is through advertising. Advertising generally pays per click. Therefore it behoves would-be internet media entrepreneurs to upload content that can generate as many clicks as possible. This does not necessarily relate to quality. A cheeky headline involving a famous name will spawn a bazillion clicks. If this article was titled “Floyd Mayweather poses in bikini, click here for pics” it would probably be the most read piece on the internet this week. Many sites are aware of this and simply reproduce press releases with their own contrived titles to generate traffic. Easy money.
It is also a mistake to believe that the worldwide-web, with its relaxed censorship culture is intrinsically more objective than other sources. Setting aside the articles written by PR departments, many sites have reciprocal arrangements with certain promoters. In a previous role I had an article pulled about the Ricky Burns v Ray Beltran fight and was told by an angry editor I could not to write anything too critical of Matchroom Sport ‘because they are a site advertiser’. There were similar restrictions on covering one or two other promoters too.
Many people reading this may not care about this stuff and good luck to them, but in all aspects of society a free press is essential in keeping decision makers and money men honest. Without observers who scrutinise, analyse and yes, criticise, in the spirit of openness and democracy, those in power find it too easy to manipulate the masses for their own purposes. In this way, corporate toffs who rigged the financial system to make themselves wealthy at everyone else’s expense get re-elected and promotional companies who want you to pay large sums of money to watch their fight cards at home get to convince everyone that it’s the only way it could be done. If no-one calls them out on it, if the people interviewing and writing about them are cowed into deference by their perceived power, nearly everybody loses. It’s worth thinking about. A real, dynamic and robust media is our only defence against this sort of thing.
I don’t want to finish on a low, however – yes the TV channels are jaundiced, the papers largely incompetent and the internet full of all manner of crap, but there are some beautiful chinks in the fabric for those who care to look for them. Steve Bunce remains a valuable print journalist, in my opinion. Boxing Monthly, always a quality production, established and continued with the very best of intentions, now has a site up and running at www.boxing-monthly.co.uk. There is new blood too. I find the work of this gentleman to be more than worth my time, for example.
Simply put, boxing contributors worldwide, like political commentators, historians or any of the rest of them, are either part of the problem or part of the solution. You must use your discretion to determine which is which.
This week’s column was sponsored by Mickey Duff and Setanta Sport. Thank you.