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August 19, 2013

'There'll always be a need for cricket journalists'

Interview by Subash Jayaraman

Daily Mail cricket journalist Lawrence Booth talks about breaking the Kevin Pietersen texts story, the ethics of the job, building relationships, the perils of boards and sponsors restricting access to players, and the role of the old-style cricket journalist in the age of social media.

Excerpts from the show

Subash Jayaraman: Let's talk about the Kevin Pietersen text message story. How do such stories get broken?

Lawrence Booth: Yes, that is a good question, especially in the climate of phone hacking.

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 [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'll appreciate I can't name names.

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

SJ: I understand that you can't reveal your sources, but what I would like to know is - how is that a story? One player texting someone else from the opposition. I am sure that happens all the time.

LB: A player texting a member of the opposition is, in itself, not a story. If you know the content of the texts, it is unflattering about your own team-mates 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 judgement as a journalist. You instinctively know whether the story will make an impact.

SJ: 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 standoff-ish 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 judgement that might have been cold-hearted, cynical or callous, but I made a judgement as a journalist. This was an interesting story and in some ways an important one.

SJ: How is it generally in 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 a particularly good light? 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 sportswriting, because things have changed. Twenty, thirty years ago, players and press were much closer. Things seemed to change in English cricket circles - I cannot necessarily speak for other countries. When Ian Botham became a celebrity and started making the front pages as well as the back page, 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 n' 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 that 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.

I suppose this is a long-winded answer to your question, 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, 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 players personally more than others, because that is human nature. It is like you like some colleagues more than others. But you hope that won't cloud your professional judgement. 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?

I don't think [stories about a player's personal life] are 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 a sense of alienation from that team. If it wasn't the text, it would have been something else, something else would have blown up.

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 relationships 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.

With Pietersen, I made a judgement and my judgement 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 players' private lives, then I think the whole dressing room would close ranks on you, and it would be professional suicide. 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 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.

I know it frustrates readers sometimes and they say, "Oh, journalists can't reveal their sources. That means he has made it up." The reality is, if you start betraying your sources, you have nowhere to go in journalism, you won't get any more stories.

SJ: 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 cricket circles that you are not to be trusted.

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 favourite team or player? If so, who makes the decision? Is it just the journalist or the whole editorial staff that discusses the pros and the cons?

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!

In terms of favourites, if it would reflect badly on your favourite 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 judgement 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.

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 that 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 criticising 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 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 up the Indian point of view, because the way the set-up is, any time there could be a gag on the players and the support staff and there could be no one talking anymore. Even press conferences are quite severely controlled. How does a journalist deal with this?

LB: I guess in that instance, you hope that you build enough contacts 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…

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 will get an unsponsored interview. It is rarer and rarer because they regard the media duties now as the stuff 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 who are going to turn them over and write nasty things about them anyway? That is the view that they have of us, to put it crudely.

SJ: In your career how has the relationship between the England team - the players, management and the board and the cricket journalists - how was that morphed, because as you just said, it looks like the 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 coralled into speaking for Buxton Water or Yorkshire Tea or whatever. But also Twitter/social media has changed the roles of journalists. There is less need probably for the middleman to report the players' words 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 onto Twitter and say "That is not what I said." Or the old favourite, "I was taken out of context."

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 the player might not themselves have presented well if they had presented on social media.

So relations have got worse, partly because the press - we do not contribute to 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, 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 English cricket needs all the publicity it can get in the newspapers because football news is so dominant even in the non-football season that you get boring transfer stories, or some goalkeeper has broken his toenail, and it is back-page news.

It is not the case in India, where Sachin Tendulkar burps and it is back page and on the headlines. It is a balancing act and it is one that the ECB is not doing right at the moment.

SJ: You said social media has taken the journalist out of the equation in conveying the story from the players to the fans. 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. So how does your profession 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 proximity to the team. 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 your story on. 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.

Everyone can see what is going on and make their own judgements 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.

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 so 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.

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.

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Posted by kennyg on (August 20, 2013, 8:35 GMT)

Yes, there will always be a need for cricket journalists, particularly those who don't fall prey to setting themselves as experts of the game. Some of to-days crop of journalists have adopted an air of arrogance and tend to lecture in their articles, often treading into territory that makes them look foolish. Periodically, I take a chance and visit their sites, just to see if they have changed their approach to writing, but alas find they have not.

Posted by   on (August 20, 2013, 3:38 GMT)

I dont suppose to be rude but try to reduce the habbit of suffixing every question by "I mean", "but", etc... i sounds as if you are just brushing aside any point the interviewee is trying to make.

Just an observation to help not a criticism.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Subash Jayaraman
Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch

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