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Sign Of The Times?

April 24, 2020 4 min read

Has celebrity culture finally killed off insightful sports journalism? Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson fears we’re getting there…

   The publishing industry is in turmoil. I know this much because I have an agent who tells me so every time we speak via e-mail. The Internet may well have democratised the communications space, but it’s knackered the bank account of almost every journalist I know as opinions become quite literally 10 a penny. Media organisations now have so much ‘air time’ to fill given the Internet’s voracious appetite for content that they’d much rather pay less for rubbish than more for quality. Go to any supposed respectable newspaper’s online property and you’ll see what I mean. Ill-formed viewpoints and grammatical errors are littered all over the place. It’s a depressing landscape.

   ‘But what the hell has this got to do with rugby?’ I hear you cry. Well let me tell you this story. I was sitting on a plane heading from England to France last Friday and had picked up a copy ofThe Times to while away the journey. Boy was it hard to miss Jonny Wilkinson as I settled down to have a flick through the paper. Wilko’s releasing his autobiography shortly, which I suppose makes sense. After the World Cup in New Zealand he could well have played his last game for England. He’s back in France with Toulon and where sport is concerned there’s always a certain sense of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, so best to try to get in ahead of the crowded UK Christmas market.

   The trouble, of course, is that Wilko’s star has been in the descendant for some time now. This is no criticism of Jonny the person. Wilkinson is as dedicated and honourable a servant of the Red Rose as we’ve ever had. But you’d have to be blind not to have seen the decline in his influence at international level. While not by any means the only one of the many big names under-performing, his World Cup was a personal failure. His kicking, normally so utterly reliable, was wayward. And his game in open play seemed lethargic and unable to produce decisive moments. No England fan will tell you that Jonny was their 2011 darling. Which leaves publishers and paper in one hell of a dilemma.

   Wilkinson has had a relationship withThe Times going all the way back to 2003, when as a 24 year old he had illuminated the World Cup and won it for England with a famous swing of his right leg. Overnight Jonny became a bona fide rugby superstar, England’s first ever truly box office minority sportsman. His face and his thoughts were undeniably interesting and undeniably valuable, his columns inThe Timeswere doubtless followed with interest and he surely helped the paper sell copies. But the way these things tend to work is that any future books the player puts out end up being written by the guy who ghosts his newspaper columns, and the deal the player has with the paper will also include fees for serialisation rights so that the paper gets first dibs on any revelations that the books might contain. This is logical, standard practice. The trouble with sportsmen is that they can’t always be relied on to be at the top of their game to suit a publisher’s schedules and what it looks like right now is thatThe Times has a serialisation deal in place for a player who isn’t exactly core to the nation’s thinking any longer.

   As far as I’m concerned there was a real air of desperation in Friday’sTimes regarding Jonny Wilkinson. There were no less than four plugs within this single edition of the paper for Wilkinson-oriented content based around the release of the book, including a full-colour half-page ad, not to mention the two-page feature from ghost Owen Slot which basically told us that, yes, Jonny is ever so meticulous when it comes to proofing his book’s copy and that being such a perfectionist all his life had been quite tough on him. Well, what a big surprise that is. 

   I can’t help but draw the conclusion here that this is mutton dressed as lamb.The Times has a commercial interest in talking up Jonny’s autobiography, of course. They have to show that their exclusive access to these words really is a big deal. But the shameless way they’re going about plugging something that isn’t exactly ‘of the moment’ can’t help but seem ridiculous at a time when great sports stories are bought for an absolute pittance if they’re bought at all. You should see how many jaws drop when I tell people what I was paid for a rugby-oriented page interview inThe Times not so long ago.

   This isn’t about having a pop at Jonny Wilkinson, who’s a good guy. He’ll have contracts to honour and I wouldn’t be surprised if he would have been perfectly happy not to have written a book at all right now. But if, in a supposedly quality broadsheet paper, we’re being fed uninteresting rugby stuff based more on perceived celebrity status than the actual quality of the work, then I really fear for the future of serious sports journalism. It seems that in mirroring our modern day obsessions, celebrity has also become the driving force of sports writing. The lion’s share of the budget is blown on ‘The Name’ and the rest of the content has to be cobbled together for peanuts. Celebrities have always been important to sport, but never has the gap been such an enormous chasm.

   This isn’t a sour grapes story. I have no problem with papers paying good money for access to the revealing thoughts and feelings of the men at the heart of the action. But don’t editors need to rethink long-term deals put together in fear of losing out on a name when what we end up with is shameless plugging of costly material that’s not particularly contemporary or insightful, while other parts of the paper are allowed to sink further and further into an abyss of mediocrity?