In a crisis, controlling the narrative is key. A large part of that is the person at the centre of a story deciding when they talk and who they talk to. Increasingly, the decision on the latter seems to be – not a journalist.
The most recent example of this is Premier League footballer Ivan Toney. He discussed the betting scandal that surrounds him with Steven Bartlett for an episode of the entrepreneur’s ‘Diary of a CEO’ podcast. (For those not familiar with the situation, the Brentford star is serving an 8-month ban after pleading guilty to 232 breaches of FA betting regulations.)
The episode, which lasts the best part of two hours, is mostly interesting. Obviously what everyone is tuning in for is the discussion of Toney’s ban. This happens at length. However, the episode is missing something – a proper journalist to probe the player about what he did, why he did it and how he is dealing with the consequences.
To be clear, Bartlett does tackle these topics. He even sometimes pushes back against the answers and excuses he is given, particularly on whether or not Toney knew that he was not allowed to bet on football and why some bets were not made in his name. The host appears to be across most of the details of the case. Despite this, he simply does not and cannot offer the rigour a trained journalist can. However commendable you think Bartlett’s approach is, and he certainly draws some interesting answers from the striker, he offers a significantly more convivial environment than sitting down with a hard-hitting news presenter would have.
That, of course, is why Toney agreed to go on the show. He can claim that he has had his say and been held to account, but the reality is that it has happened in a quite soft way. Being on “Diary of a CEO” is hardly the same as being quizzed by Emily Maitlis.
Blaming the Media
Another developing theme is that sports stars and other celebrities use these kinds of opportunities to dismiss what the media says about them. Toney did it on “Diary of a CEO” and it is clear that one of the reasons Dele Alli sat down with ex-player Gary Neville instead of a journalist was a total distrust of the media. (His situation is very different to Toney’s. You can arguably see why Dele needed to have that conversation in that kind of environment.)
Journalists need to work to rebuild trust, not by being soft but by being fastidiously fair. Footballers dodging journalists is one thing. If this trend seeps into politics and other forms of public life it will be a much bigger problem. We are already starting to see politicians in the US opt to appear on a variety of podcasts, some of which are not overtly political. This has the benefit of a politician seeking high office reaching a different part of the electorate. It can produce interesting conversations. However, it inevitably reduces the rigour with which such people are interviewed.
Whether it’s athletes or presidential candidates, it matters that they face tough questions from proper journalists.
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