February 2007

Megaphone press spoils the party

Kevin Mitchell
One of the perverse pleasures of touring Australia when England are rubbish is to witness the local media rise to something like hysterical, curtain-tearing orgasm. Kevin Mitchell looks at the Australian media's response this winter

Crass or fair? © Daily Telegraph (Sydney)

One of the perverse pleasures of touring Australia when England are rubbish is to witness the local media rise to something like hysterical, curtain-tearing orgasm.

It is not exclusively an Australian trait, of course. Few newspapers anywhere in the world can match Fleet Street in full, overblown, flag-waving mode. And, in 2005, maybe England did go over the top with the open-top parade, the Trafalgar Square celebrations and the MBEs. That, though, was a populist and spontaneous expression of relief. Give 'em a break; it had been a long time. Now it's the Aussies' turn. Again.

The support of the national team, in the street and the bars, is touching. It is heartening to see a whole nation pulling together. But there is a gap now between the supporters and the media who claim to represent them in what is, essentially, a petty propaganda war.

I don't quite know what to make of the excesses such patriotism generates, except maybe enjoy them for their grossness. These words, for instance, deserve a wider audience than the other originally intended for them.

"This time, the last time, there'll be no relief until the shell of the English cricket team lays on the SCG turf, picked bare of wings, legs and barely squirming, a chorus line of Aussie Terminators dancing around the torso, singing:

Under the Southern Cross I stand A squashed bug in my calloused hand A giant in a giant's land Australia, you bloody beauty."

They could have been written by Matthew Hayden in one of his less measured victory celebrations, Australian flag draped around those broad Queensland shoulders. (Or by The Sun or Daily Mail in polar opposite circumstances.) No, they appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, normally a sober organ, the weekend before the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. They were unapologetically cruel. You can almost taste the triumphalism. There is not a hint of mercy.

I presume they are heartfelt (if over the top) thoughts, and the author, Andrew Stevenson, seems to be reflecting what he sees as an underlying sentiment that describes an important difference between not only the Australian and England cricket teams but the cultures too. A sub-heading on his harsh polemic declared: "The crushing of England says a lot about our national mind-set."

Maybe it did once, at least about a particular sort of self conscious Australian mind-set, the one that shouts, the slightly obvious one, the one that doesn't sit with those Australians quietly embarrassed by the volume of some of his celebratory compatriots. But that is not the mood I detected around Australia this southern summer. I saw and heard a lot of goodwill. I heard some crassness, but not a lot. The Fanatics, shouted off the park by the Barmy Army, were generous in those few circumstances when it was warranted. They did not strike me as bug-crushers. There was lightness in their laughter, not ugly superiority. And the travelling supporters appreciated it.

'But Ponting won with a cheeky grin. Jardine kept his boot on the neck during and long after his bloody victory' © Getty Images

One of the major debates in the Australian media before the start of the Ashes tour was that between old hardline lags from the uncompromising 1970s and their supposedly softer, liberal heirs who, according to the crushed-bug theory, were too friendly with their conquerors in 2005. There were plenty of Australians inside and outside the team, who would not be content with just winning back the Ashes, went the dictum. They wanted total humiliation.

The trouble with such angry thoughts is they do not allow for the human quality common to all of us: fallibility. It is a philosophy that sees no merit in losing nobly. No prisoners. No excuses. Never declare (unless sick of batting), never apologise. Once they laughed at our sitcoms. Now they laugh at our cricketers. Come on, they say. At least give us a fight. What's the point of grinding you into the ground if you don't at least make us sweat?

Condescension was once a trait of the British upper classes. Inevitably it would be rendered irrelevant and absurd as the fabric of that system unravelled and now it has been taken on by sections of the country Douglas Jardine openly admitted he despised. Revenge, for those of such a cold bent, has taken time coming but now seems entrenched.

Everyone loves a fight. What's the point of going head to head if you don't strive for victory with all sinews stretched? Equally, though, there is surely more satisfaction in a win gained smilingly, rather than one dressed in a sneer. The sweetest memories are those that lift the heart, not the ones that leave a bad taste.

Jardine's Bodyline was every bit as ruthless as Ricky Ponting's tactics in snuffling out the slightest chance of England getting back into the game at just about any point in the series. But Ponting won with a cheeky grin. Jardine kept his boot on the neck during and long after his bloody victory.

There were other nasty touches in print here. The Sydney Daily Telegraph ran a regular tongue-in-cheek bulletin of what was going on back in Britain for the benefit of the thousands of England supporters on tour. This included advising them that Bulgarians and other 'illegals' from eastern Europe were flooding the country and taking their jobs while there were away. It was puerile, crass and bigoted.

It was a tough tour, on either side of the boundary, but the sun shone and the beer flowed. It felt pretty good. It was just disappointing to see these few outbreaks of megaphone journalism spoil the mood.

Kevin Mitchell is chief sports writer for The Observer