Transcript: Couch Talk with Lawrence Booth

Couch Talk 93 (Play)

Guest: Lawrence Booth

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)- Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the editor of Wisden as well as The Daily Mail’s cricket correspondent, Lawrence Booth. He talks about the story he broke last summer about the Kevin Pietersen texting South African players scandal, the responsibilities of cricket reporters in an ever changing cricket environment, relationship of the English team with the media, and also the effect of social media, amongst other things.

Welcome back to the show, Lawrence!

Lawrence Booth (LB)– Thank you very much!

SJ– Since the last time you were on the show, on Couch Talk, you have edited your second edition of Wisden. And more popularly, you won the Sports Journalist Association’s Scoop Of The Year award for breaking the Kevin Pietersen text message scandal story last summer. Congratulations!

LB– Thank you!

SJ– Let’s talk about the KP story. How do such stories get broken? Because, text messages are supposed to be private.

LB– Yes, that is a good question, especially in the climate of phone hacking, which is swirling around British journalism in the last year or so. I can assure you first off that it wasn’t a piece of phone hacking. The honest truth about most decent stories is that there is a rather prosaic explanation behind them. In this case, I was told something on the first morning of the Headingley Test match. Someone had noticed something, some interaction. He came and told me, I went and asked someone else about that interaction. They came  back and said that there is actually a bit more to it than that, and you (I) might want to check this out. I checked it out. I eventually ended up with the text story. That all sounds a bit cloak and dagger secretive, but you’d appreciate I can’t name names or anything like that.

I suppose you get an inkling that something is going on, and if you ask enough people or the right people, then by and large – not by an large – but occasionally, a story will turn up. It was a question of, I wouldn’t say creating your own luck, but it is putting yourself in the best position to turn up stories like that.

SJ– I understand that you can’t reveal your sources or how you came upon the story, etc. but, what I would like to know is – how is that a story? Is it a story? Without knowing the content of it, is it a story? One player texting someone else from the opposition – is that a story? I am sure that happens all the time.

LB– No. A player texting a member of the opposition is, in itself, not a story. If you know the content of the texts, it is unfaltering about your own teammates at an important stage of an important series when there were question marks over the state of the dressing room, over Pietersen’s role in it, then that does become a story. Would it have been a story if it had been someone else with a lower profile in the England team, James Taylor, say, who played in the Headingley Test? Probably not. I would have been less inclined to follow it up, because I don’t think the impact, the news value, would have been as high as it was for Pietersen. You make that judgment as a journalist. You instinctively know whether the story will make an impact. At that instant, I knew it would.

SJ– We know what happened in terms of the fallout of it from Kevin Pietersen and England Cricket Board perspective. What has been the fallout form your perspective, because you broke a very unflattering story about the biggest star in English cricket, currently?

LB– Not a huge amount, actually. I didn’t have a particularly close relationship with Pietersen before I broke the story. He was fairly standoffish with the written press. I wouldn’t say standoffish with me, we just didn’t have much of a relationship. I knew I wasn’t burning a bridge as such. There simply wasn’t a bridge to burn. He is now even more standoffish with the written press. The press conferences that he gives are almost monosyllabic. He is pretty touchy and tetchy. I know if he walks past me, he would look the other way. That is fine. I can live with that. I didn’t expect to write that story and have him, come and thank me for it. I made a judgment from my side, that might have been cold hearted, cynical or callous judgment; but I made a judgment as a journalist. This was an interesting story and in some ways an important one.

SJ– You mentioned that there was no bridge to be burned with respect to KP. But, how would you react, or, how was it generally when in such a situation where you have an good existing relationship with a player and perhaps you come across a story that may not be showing that player in particularly good light? How do you make that call? Do you report everything that you come across, or do you hold back? How does that work?

LB– It is a good question. It is central in a way to a lot of the sports writing, because things have changed, let me put it that way. 20 – 30 years ago, players and press were much closer. Things seemed to change in English cricket circles, I cannot necessarily speak for other countries. But when Ian Botham became a celebrity and he started making the front pages as well as the back page with the off field exploits, the newspapers started to send news reporters on cricket tours, not just the cricket writers. They wanted to catch Botham out. There was the famous 1983-84 tour of New Zealand, christened “The Sex, Drugs and Rock-and-Roll Tour”. If you read the tabloids, you would think all the players did on that tour was smoke pot and chat up the local women.

As a result, the players became, understandably I think, more suspicious of the press. It was perhaps a little unfair on the cricket writers who have never written about the players’ private lives. Cricket writers will see a lot of things on tour, but they just regard instinctively as off-limits. I have been in bars on tours and I have seen married players or players in relationships who have been with girls who look like local girls whom they have just met. I wouldn’t say it is my place to judge them by writing a story on it. So, the personal stuff, you don’t see as your job.

I suppose this is a long winded answer to your question, but my own approach, people do it differently, but my own approach is to try and keep a certain distance from the players – a professional distance. Which means that if I am forced to write critically about them or not forced but I choose to write critically about them, as you always do about any player along the course of a long career, then they are not going to turn around and say to me “I thought you were my mate. How could you write that?” I don’t want to put myself in that position.

It is natural that you like some player personally more than others, because that is human nature. It is like you colleagues more than others. But, you hope that won’t cloud your professional judgment. That said, we all like to think we are objective, but we are probably not. Does objectivity really exist in that sense? Can we, at times, in sports journalism, take ourselves too seriously? That is another strand to the discussion.

SJ– It is an interesting thought that when you are a cricket writer on tour, you see things not so pleasant, not so good about a  players and you say you won’t judge them; in your opinion that is not news. But, who defines what is news? Is it just a personal thing? Because, say, for example, a particular player who is married and with kids, is carousing around and womanizing or whatever – perhaps it is news in the current celebrity culture that we live in. Perhaps it may be news, but not cricket news, but news about a cricketer. So, as a cricket writer, it is a piece of information. A piece of perhaps explosive information. What I am asking is, when is a scoop a scoop?

LB– It is a fair question. I suppose a couple of things…

I personally don’t have much interest in a player’s personal life. if I see them carousing around or how you described it, I kind of think that that is up to them. I may have a fleeting thought, I think that is a shame for his girlfriend or wife or kids or whatever. But again, I might have that in all walks of life and I don’t think that is necessarily relevant to the story that I am covering, which is the England cricket team. That is my job, essentially, to report on stuff that is relevant to the story of the England team.

To go back to the Pietersen story, that seemed to me relevant because it said something about the state of the dressing room at a crucial stage of a series where their star player felt alienated and the texts were a symptom of sense of alienation from that team. If it wasn’t the text, it would have been something else, something else would have blown up. It just happened to be that.

When I did that story, I wasn’t judging Pietersen. It just happened to be a story that I felt as a journalist, I couldn’t possibly ignore. The private life stuff – everyone’s relationship work in a different way, don’t they? I don’t see it as my place to judge a guy who is behaving in a certain way even if I wouldn’t necessarily behave that way myself.

SJ– Fair enough, in terms of making personal judgments. If you say that you are there to report on the England cricket team and the dynamics of the England cricket team, and this is not anything new because there have been situations where a player’s girlfriend or a partner got interested in a teammate of his and then they got married, or whatever. This has happened before in a cricket team. Would that be, as a cricket writer – because that affects the dynamics of the dressing room, two mates, is that cricket news? Is that worth reporting on?

LB– Yes, that is a good point. I think, when it does affect the dynamics of a dressing room, you can make a stronger case for saying that particular personal aspect of a player’s personal life does become relevant. You would also have to make a call as a journalist, this goes back to the original question about my relationship with KP, as to whether you would then be considered absolutely persona non grata by the entire dressing room.

Now, with Pietersen, I made a judgment and my judgment was that – if one guy would probably never speak to me again and I asked myself if I could deal with that professionally, and I thought I probably could. If you get a reputation as a journalist for digging around a player’s private lives, then I think the whole dressing room would close ranks on you and it would be professional suicide. There is an element of calculation there, as I think there is in any job. So, yes, you have to always weigh things up.

SJ– Does a cricket reporter or any other news reporter make public everything that they come across, or do they hold back? If yes, under what circumstances?

LB– No, they actually don’t. The best journalists probably know an awful lot more than they can write because you are told a lot of stuff off the record and the best information that you can get is generally off the record. It is told on the understanding that the quote won’t be attributed to that person. Sometimes, they don’t even want the background information used. You have to be very careful about how you use the information that you are told. You can allude to stuff. I know it frustrates readers sometimes and they say “Oh, journalists can’t reveal their sources. That means he has made it up. Oh, all journalists feel precious about their sources.” The reality is, if you start betraying your sources, you have nowhere to go in journalism, you won’t get any more stories. You have to balance those equations out.

SJ– What do you mean by that? I would like you to go a bit more into detail for my personal knowledge. How does all the dynamic happen? What are the things that you need to avoid? Of course, you don’t want to name the sources. But, beyond that?

LB– That is the main one, really. If you are told something in confidence, you would be a fool to betray that source because a) it is not a very nice thing to do, and b) there is a professional reason – which is that they will never talk to you again and word will spread quickly within the cricket circles that you are not to be trusted. So, you have to write any story in such a way that it is not clear to the reader where it has come from. If you write a series of stories where you are quoting anonymous sources and if those stories prove to be incorrect, then you will lose your credibility as a journalist. If you’re doing stories where you feel you can’t quote people and they are vindicated, then you hope that the reader notices that.

You build a relationship with the reader as much as you do with players, and try and hope you get trust from people. It can be quite a slow process. Readers find it frustrating sometimes that the journalists can’t explain fully where they got stuff from. But, I am sure they will appreciate it that there are good reasons for that.

SJ– Can a journalist not publish a story because they think it can reflect badly on their favorite team or player? If so, who makes the decision? Is it just the journalists or the whole editorial staff that discusses the pros and the cons? How does it work?

LB– It would generally be the journalist because the journalist would have got the story. If your whole sports desk are aware of the story before you, you would think that it can’t be a very good story because if they do, then within the circle of people who are following England’s cricket team around [also] know about it. That kind of situation would not arise, really.

In terms of favorites, if it would reflect badly on your favorite team – well, you can’t afford to think like that as a journalist. You can instinctively want a certain team to win, which is fine – it is sport and it is fun and we all get into it because we love cricket and we all support our teams. But, you can’t let your judgment as a journalist be affected by which team you want to win, or which player is going to suffer as a result of your story. If we go back early, it is the judgment that you make on that.

The interesting thing is probably that it is more fraught in India where it is hard for Indian cricket journalists to write negative pieces about someone like Sachin Tendulkar because they know full well that the access to him, such as it is, will be made even harder if they seem critical of him. I am told by my Indian colleagues, the most critical anti-Sachin story that had come out was about the Ferrari that he got and there was a question of whether it was a gift and whether he should pay tax on it. This story was written by a news reporter for the Indian Express, not a cricket journalist but a news reporter. As a result of that, the cricket writers on the Indian Express got very little access to Sachin. It is like being punished in effect for the audacity of their news colleague for criticizing Sachin. You can see how players or the people around the players, like Sachin, can control the media, if the media are willing to play that game.

I think it is more of an issue in India where an exclusive interview with a player has a greater currency, value than it does in England, where a footballer is whom the guys want the exclusive interview with. You might get the odd cricketer in the Ashes summer, but by and large, we are under slightly lesser pressure than our Indian colleagues to get these relationships right.

SJ– It is interesting that you brought the Indian point of view, the Indian journalist point of view, because the way the set up is – any time there could be a gag on the player and the support staff and there could be no one talking any more. So, if there is anyone talking, it is off the record from unnamed sources. Even press conferences are quite severely controlled. How does a journalist deal with this? You still have to work as a cricket writer, you still have to get out the stories. But, how do you do that in a situation where you may not have as much cooperation because you need the players to cooperate with you to produce stories?

LB– I guess in that instance, you hope that you build enough contact over the years to be able to approach players directly and take sponsors or the BCCI media team out of the equation. That takes a lot of work and I think that side of journalism isn’t always appreciated by people who read – I am not saying everyone deserves a medal. I am just explaining the situation that when access is made difficult you have to rely on the network of sources, contacts of players that you have built up over the years to help you out. It is one of the regrets of the English cricket journalism that the players are increasingly inaccessible to us. They only speak at press conferences and sponsored interviews. Very occasionally you would get an unsponsored interview. It is rarer and rarer because they regard the media duties now as the stuff that they have to do if they are speaking at the end of the day’s play or the sponsor’s stuff, for which they are being paid. So, in their view, why should they have to do stuff for free for us buggers create who are going to turn them over and write nasty things about them any way. That is the view that they have of us, to put it crudely.

SJ– That is something that I wanted to know. In your career, how has the relationship between the England team – the players, management & the board and the cricket journalist / news reporters – how was that morphed because you just said it… it looks like ECB is also going towards where the Indian board and players are.

LB– Yes. It has got worse. It is partly a function of greater sponsorship. So, their appearances are corralled into speaking for Buxton water or Yorkshire Tea. But also, Twitter/social media has changed the roles of journalists. There is less need probably for the middleman to report the players’ works for the public. First, the players can put their own views out on twitter if they like. Sometimes, they get into trouble, but they can do it. Someone writes what the player regards as an unfair representation of the interview they did with them, they can go straight on to Twitter and say “That is not what I said.” or the old favorite, “I was taken out of context.” They can do it that way.

So, the role of journalist is changing and I think some journalist are obviously uneasy about it. They feel threatened about it. That is not to say that a journalist still can’t write a nice piece or write an exclusive story or do a revealing interview – tease something out of a player that they player might not themselves have presented well if they had presented on the social media.

So, relations have got worse because, partly, because the press – we do not contributed well for the health or wealth of English cricket. Sky do, and rightly they get a good deal of access to the players. I guess the written press is regarded as the trouble makers, always trying to sniff around and cause problems. But of course, the more you limit the access between the players and the press, the more bad is going to happen. I think that is an unfortunate by-product of this idea of we “are not supporters of the team”, that we are simply parasites who are there to get our free lunch and write critically about the English players.

I would say that the English cricket needs all the publicity it can get in the newspapers because football news are so dominant they are even in the non-football season you get boring transfer stories, or some goalkeeper has broken his toenail, and it is a back-page news. That is an exaggeration, of course, but cricket needs all the help it can get. It is not the case in India where obviously, Sachin Tendulkar burps and it is back-page and on the headlines. It is a balancing act and it is one that ECB is not doing right at the moment.

SJ– How was the change? You mentioned social media has taken the journalist out of the equation in conveying the story from the players to the fans and fans can correspond directly with them. The professional conduit that was the reporter/journalist is getting a bit obviated. Some journalists have not taken kindly to it. Right now, I am sitting in the United States of America, and can look at the twitter streams of all these players and I can write my blogs etc. blah. So, how does your profession and the professionals survive?

LB– I guess there will always be a need for journalists, despite what I have said and despite the roles changing. I think the journalists will have to adapt and will have to see themselves as commentators, if you like – that requires a certain amount of trust on the part of the readers if they are interested in what this person has to say about the game. You live and die by the quality of work in that respect or you get exclusive stories based on the proximity to the team – whether it is the home series or on tour because you get so much off the record. Even if you just get in the lift with a coach and there is something that you were trying to find out and you ask a question and get an answer. Then, you might think you have got a base to stand up your story. That is why the professional journalist has the advantage over a blogger who is simply reacting to stuff that they are seeing from the distance.

Journalists don’t need to feel apologetic about that. They don’t need to feel insecure about the way things are going, necessarily. But, it does require them to adapt to the way things are going everywhere. Everyone can see what is going on and make their own judgments and have a bit more contact with players on twitter, but I remain to be convinced that that contact is in any way meaningful.

I think the good journalists will always be there. People will always want to read news and want to read the opinions of people they respect.

SJ– One last thing that I want to talk about. The way our culture, and the kind of news and the way we consume news, has changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years because of all the technology. The kind of news that we want to read or seem to be produced anywhere, because one feeds the other… For example when you take the Shane Warne tabloid stories – they would be off the charts right now if it were to happen in the era of twitter, about stuff that used to happen when he was on tour in England. It would be off the charts. You see cricket websites, they incorporate a whole lot of social media – twitter reports and all that. The established way of how cricket was reported and what was reported has dramatically changed. So, what do you, as a journalist, do to adapt to that and stay ahead of it?

LB– I think a lot of it comes down to quality. There is a vast quantity of voices on cricket at the moment out there. There is almost too much that you get swamped by it. I’m sure fans feel that way, sometimes. So, you just have to ensure that your stuff is still readable and relevant and interesting and you can’t do much more than that, really. Like I said, you stand or fall by the quality of the work. You can get the odd exclusives that are great, exclusives are harder to come by because most pieces of news are on twitter within minutes and they spread around the word so quickly it is hard to keep something to yourself for the next day’s paper. You can break it on the web if you like. It is all part of it, because we are all hitting deadlines as well each day. It is sort of keeping up the web stuff, so we actually have less time to go and dig around for stories than we used to. But, I guess you just have to trust in people who consume the cricket media that they will go to the people they trust and most like reading. So, as a professional journalist if you can’t outdo the non-professionals, then I suggest you may be in the wrong job.

SJ– Alright! On that note, Lawrence, thank you so much for coming on the show once again!

LB– Thanks for having me.

SJ– Pleasure. Cheers!

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Episode Transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabhiraman