Sambit Bal: Hello and welcome to the Cricinfo Round Table. Today we are going to discuss something that is close to home for us at Cricinfo - the role of the media in what are fairly turbulent times for cricket. For a small world, cricket has always been incredibly polarised but in recent times it has got shriller and meaner. Distressingly, the role of the media in all this has been quite dubious. Instead of acting as the voice of reason and sanity, large sections of the media have become active participants in creating and feeding the frenzy.
So we are going to put ourselves under the scanner today, and I have with me two gentlemen with impeccable credentials to do that - two people whom Cricinfo readers will know very well.
Peter Roebuck, one of cricket's global voices; and Harsha Bhogle, whom Cricinfo readers voted as their favourite commentator not so long ago.
Peter, let me start with you. I remember you telling me a few years ago that there was too much nationalism in cricket writing. It just seems to have got worse.
Peter Roebuck: Yes, it does. And I don't think it's restricted just to the print medium, I think TV news stations are also a factor in it. The thing that distressed me most about the SCG Test was the nationalism that it unleashed. I am a great patriot, but detest nationalism. I think it is a very divisive, dangerous and destructive force. At those times you need the senior voices in those countries to call their own countries to account. What was happening instead was, those senior voices were calling the other country to account. And that doesn't help matters at all.
Harsha Bhogle: A lot of us who grew up in broadcasting having been told that the word "we" is not allowed in the commentary box. But as I went around the world I was told: you are the Indian representative in the commentary box and you are there to present the Indian point of view to us, which we might not actually be aware of, so occasionally it is okay to say "we". I never really got to terms with that. But I think what starts happening is that we all start reacting to each other.
When India went to Australia in early 2008, I think we all got into the spirit of things and we didn't take a step back to look at things from a little distance. There were no voices in each country asking people to calm down and everybody started reacting to what another person had written in their newspaper. And we started playing the old game of us and them. A lot of us got caught up in it and it was only when - at least in my case - I took a step back and said, 'Hang on, I am becoming part of this whole stupid cycle'...
I think it is powered by sports editors to some extent and powered even more so by the news editors in the TV channels who want to see a story. And I increasingly fear that stories these days need to be far more sensational than they need to be accurate. If you had an index of sensationalism and an index of accuracy, I think the former far outrides the latter at the moment.
SB: Harsha, you were doing commentary for both ESPN-Star and ABC [radio] in that series. Did the awareness of the audience reflect in your tone and what you were saying?
HB: I hope not. Only when the Michael Clarke incident happened, I think, I allowed myself to get carried away. But I found that radio is a far happier medium and we can have a chat, like we are having now, on radio and have a lot of fun. TV keeps going into breaks and you have to make a comment in an almost spiffy manner and each comment tends to strike home - there are more people watching and reacting, so there is a greater temptation to do what you are suggesting.
I suspect that TV is becoming more chauvinistic in certain aspects. My greater worry is with news channels.
SB: Peter, do you share that view?
|I thought with the arrival of TV, cricket writing would improve because people would have seen the game on TV, so as a writer you would need to be a bit different and present a point of view. To my utter dismay it has gone exactly the other way Harsha Bhogle|
PR: Yes, I do. What you strive for is independence, because only as an independent voice can you locate the truth. What happened in the aftermath of the SCG Test was that I got a lot of calls from Indian TV news channels and the way they were framing the questions was very much concerned with what terrible things the Australians had done. There was no real time for me to say, 'Hang on a second, your fellows were also far from saints.' That wasn't considered as a valuable contribution to the debate, because there really wasn't a debate. That is something that we need to avoid.
Even within the Australian framework there are newspapers that I would view as right-wing nationalist newspapers, as opposed to more liberal newspapers. But perhaps that is the normal framework and who is to say what is right and what is wrong? You have got to look at and understand the histories of the ten Test-playing nations that we have before you can write intelligently about them. I don't think you can regard the cricket field as a totally separate field form the rest of the world.
SB: Peter, you write in many different countries. Are you aware of your audience when you write? Do you tailor your writing to suit the audience?
PR: No. I tailor it only in the sense of the topic and references. If anything, I go the other way. If anything, I will have a crack at the Australians in Australia and the Indians in India. But there is a particular reason behind why I have set out to write in different countries. I think writers should be a unifying force. Otherwise, if you are just writing to one audience, you don't have that discipline that what you are writing is going to be read all around, even though it may be.
HB: I am glad that Peter has brought up the topic of writers. I think the writer has got a greater responsibility because he has got time to step back and write later. So he has time to assess the situation. That is why I tend to get worried about the print medium. When I got into writing I felt cricket needed reviewers not reporters because cricket is a drama that is played out over a long time and it needs someone to review it rather than just report on it. Where I was wrong, and it hurts me even today, is that I thought with the arrival of TV, cricket writing would improve because people would have seen the game on TV, so as a writer you would need to be a bit different and present a point of view. To my utter dismay it has gone exactly the other way. There I have a bone to pick with the sports editors who only want their reporters to report on the press conferences and sidelights and things that happen off the field.
I am fairly certain that TV reporters are given that brief as well: people are seeing what is happening on TV, so they focus on what is happening off the field. I think that is one of the problems. People do want to know gossip but that can't be the agenda.
For me, the lowest point was the number of people who attended the press conference on the Harbhajan Singh-Sreesanth issue. There were more people than in some weddings that I have attended. Harbhajan, Lalchand Rajput and I had to be whisked away from a side entrance into the car to get to the airport because the CISF at the Delhi airport said, "We cannot protect you from the media." That was the first time I was hearing something like that.
PR: One of the beautiful things about this is that people care what is written in the newspapers. Also, on this trip to India I have read more of the Indian reporters than in previous years, and I think there are some fellows there who are very good. They write as one is supposed to write, because presumably they have the seniority or the dignity that that is what they are going to do. I don't see the more responsible senior players like Ian Chappell and Michael Atherton saying foolish things; they put across their points of view strongly and straightforwardly. These are the more important voices of the game. The whipping of the frenzy happens at a slightly different level and I don't know to what extent it actually influences events a great deal. I mean, Harbhajan is still there bowling offspin. It's almost like a sideshow at times and we somehow shouldn't get caught up in it.
HB: The good thing about it is that the perspective is three hours, six hours, or at best 12 hours. People are starting to get used to the fact that they are seeing a headline but they don't have to think too much about it because they know that in three hours there will be some other breaking news.
I think it also fair to admit that there are seven to eight cricket writers in India alone today who are better than cricket writers 20 years ago.
SB: With the internet being there, there is no hiding place anymore; today everybody reads you. When I was in Australia last year, I met one of the Australian journalists who specialises in this kind of provocative writing. He was surprised that there were so many Indians commenting on his article. It had never occurred to him that he was being read outside his constituency. Do you think eventually this will bring more accountability?
PR: The internet is a mixed blessing. There is no sense of responsibility in the blogs; people can say what they want and get away with it. It is the ultimate freedom of expression but at the same time it is the ultimate spreader of nonsense. But the good thing about it is that every word can be looked at. It has challenged the western people to start thinking of the eastern interpretation and vice versa.
One of the issues with the match referee situation is that I don't think the Indian players are picked on but I do think that the western concepts are the starting point. I don't think that we have gone far enough down the track together to have a truly internationalist interpretation of the code of conduct. The internet does spread accountability and foolish is the writer who doesn't know that every word that he writes can be read within half a hour of being published by thousands of people.
HB: Some of the best suggestions I have had have come from blogs and responses. In the course of time you learn to ignore the two extremes: people who say nice things about you for no reason and people who say horrible things about you for no reason. I have a question for you, Sambit: as an editor you are constantly on the lookout for new writers. Is the fun element going out of cricket writing?
SB: I see a lot of journalists, both print and TV, and I think they are incredibly stressed. What you see during a day's play is no longer the story. They have to find the story after the match is over. That is a challenge. Since all matches are now live on TV, possibly the sports editors might think that there is no point in writing on the match since everybody has seen it.
HB: I have long felt that Indian cricket parallels English football more than it does anything else. Peter, you have spent quite a bit of time in England. Is there both balanced and sensational reporting on football there or is it completely going the sensational way?
PR: I think you have to distinguish between local and national papers. In India it is perhaps the vernacular papers and the English papers. And also within the English papers between the sensationalist and the considered, depending on their readership. The readership in the Australian newspapers has to be very broad, so they have to be at once an English tabloid and an English broadsheet.
Each country has its own media characteristics, but there is a frenzy about English football - and it depends on that frenzy. Financially it must have that frenzy to survive. It's no use being like a library.
|It is particularly sensationalist now and I think it has got exacerbated not just by the existence of TV channels and the way we react to them but also because this is a particularly high-pitched period in the countries that we are predominantly discussing Peter Roebuck|
HB: I know what you are saying, Peter. Sometimes I wonder that because we are such a small society we tend to get worked up. But I also find that reporters in Spain have the same frenzy about football; Italian reporters can say what they want about their football clubs. Maybe, as we are increasingly a one-country sport, like England is about football, we are just reflecting what happens in most countries where there is one hugely popular sport.
SB: The difference between football writing and cricket writing is that cricket has had a history of literature. Football never had the sort of literary influences that cricket has as far as writing goes. That is what seems to be changing in cricket, and perhaps it is a reflection of the times.
PR: The other thing is that we are talking about this at a particularly turbulent period - obviously after India's tour of Australia but also after the growth of the IPL and the ICL. This is a uniquely turbulent period in the history of the game. At the same time we are really focusing on two nations, Australia and India. Both are strong right now and both have heroes in their ranks and it is the fall of the hero that causes the greatest upset. I don't think even the Ashes clashes have reached this level, because there haven't been those heroes in English cricket in the last ten years and they haven't had the IPL and the ICL. It is particularly sensationalist now and I think it has got exacerbated not just by the existence of TV channels and the way we react to them but also because this is a particularly high-pitched period in the countries that we are predominantly discussing.
HB: I think there may be a silver lining to all this as well. Despite all that has happened, Peter is still a respected cricket writer. After all that has happened on TV, people still tell me that they look forward to ESPN-Star's cricket broadcasts because they think it is done a little differently, with a little less drama about it. There is still a certain amount of respect for people who do things a certain way. Prannoy Roy of NDTV is still respected after all that happens on the TV channels. Maybe the viewer senses that he will get his instant gratification by watching the sensationalist news channels, but he will still respect the person who can take a step back and put things in perspective.
SB: The media is always shaping public perception and I am glad that there are people still doing that responsibly.
Harsha, most of us are essentially cricket fans. We have our favourite players and we support our countries. How essential is it to have a detachment from the country you support and the player you like, and how do you strike that balance?
HB: I am from the school of thought that just as it is a cricketer's job to go out there and give his 100%, it is also our job to go out there and give 100%. A cricketer is loyal to his side; a TV broadcaster is loyal only to his audience. My thinking has always been that I have to be 100% accountable to my audience, and if I take sides I will not be giving them the complete picture.
In course of time you train yourself to be passionate enough to create the enthusiasm that a broadcaster should generate - when there is drama, he should be able to transmit that sense of drama to the audience. To that extent you have got to be passionate. But you have to stay as dispassionate as ever on taking sides for two reasons. Firstly, you don't always know the truth since you are at a distance. And secondly, your primary job is to inform and entertain the audience and not to be sitting there in judgment. To some extent I think I have enjoyed a huge advantage in not being a former cricketer, in that I am not expected to have these firm views; so I can be myself. I am in a tiny minority but it has been a huge advantage for me.
PR: Some of the writers that I respect have never played the game. So it's not impossible in the written media to do that. Don't forget that the player will not come into the written media until they are, say, 35 years old in most cases. So there is room for a young journalist to come up the ranks and make his name.
I think India has more good young cricket writers coming through nowadays. There is a lot of space for sports in newspapers anyway, and from the Indian newspaper perspective I think sport can be much better presented than it is right now. I think they ought to copy some of the other papers around the world in terms of presentation.
I am interested in what Harsha said about taking sides. I agree that enthusiasm is a very important quality; it is not the same as passion. If a cricket writer is not enthusiastic then he should be in some other profession, because if you come at things from a cynical perspective you are killing the game. As long as your starting point is not on one side or the other, it doesn't mean that you can't take one side of the argument or the other. What you have to train yourself to do is have an independent starting point. After that, make up your mind and present your case, and sometimes admit later that you might be wrong. Journalists are not gods; they are people doing their jobs - hopefully, as well as they can.
HB: I couldn't agree with Peter more. I found in my career as a TV broadcaster that I really became comfortable the day I could go on air and say, "Sorry, I made a mistake." As a broadcaster you can make a mistake and that's fine. We aren't surgeons; when surgeons make mistakes, people die.
I honestly don't have a problem with cricketers getting into commentary because they do bring a different perspective. My only issue with that is that not all of them can. Another way of looking at it is that if a reporter has covered 100 Tests does that mean he can play a forward-defensive stroke better than someone who has played two Tests?
PR: On that point you can also distinguish between the English and the Indian former players. In some cases the English are doing the reporter's job very well: Derek Pringle, Mike Selvey, Atherton, Angus Fraser; Vic Marks as well. And they aren't doing it so much as former players but as people who have learnt the journalistic trade.
HB: Jonathan Agnew as well.
PR: Someone like Richie Benaud learnt shorthand towards the end of his playing days. This is the way the professional people will go about things. Guys like Ian Chappell have always written every word that has been published under their name. I distinguish between that and the bloke who goes on TV without any training; the bloke who writes a column with someone else's assistance. I don't really call that journalism actually.
SB: In the end, you have to embrace the profession and be a professional and have the rigour.
HB: And I would like sportsmen to bring to the media the same rigour that they brought as sportsmen.
|Enter the profession because you want to enter the profession and not because you have been forced into it. There is great pride in the byline. If you are getting a byline in a newspaper, it means that you have qualified to earn it Harsha Bhogle|
PR: You have got to be a perfectionist. Once that is in you, I don't think you can accept anything else. Writing and journalism both are crafts, and in a way they are separate crafts. One is the pursuit of the right word and the correct phrase and the other is the pursuit of information and facts. The best ones stitch both together. I think that is the challenge that one faces, coming into journalism. I don't think that is suddenly untrue because we have this media explosion through internet and TV. It's not so much cricket that has changed, it is the whole media world that has changed.
SB: Before we wind up, there will be a lot of young journalists who are listening to this discussion and I would like the two of you to give them some advice.
PR: By all means have a go at it. It is a wonderful profession and a wonderful opportunity. But come into it with the right motivation and try and keep those motivations despite the battering of the world.
HB: Enter the profession because you want to enter the profession and not because you have been forced into it. There is great pride in the byline. If you are getting a byline in a newspaper, it means that you have qualified to earn it. And what goes under your byline, should never ever be less than 100%. It could be right or wrong, it could be adequate or inadequate - those are separate issues. But it should be the best you can do. The moment a youngster in journalism says 'Is this the best I can do?' he has already taken a giant step forward.
SB: Thank you gentlemen for being part of this Round Table.
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