In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Is too much sport killing our newspapers?

Bill Heaney

FAR too much space in our newspapers is allocated to sport – and to football in particular. I am not in the minority of one on this. Another veteran in his field, Walter Smith, the respected manager of Rangers Football Club, shares my opinion.

However, Walter, who uttered his words of wisdom – albeit briefly – in a television interview this week, was not accorded the usual accolade of having them repeated in print. At least not in any of the newspapers I read.

Someone once said the observations of wise, experienced old timers are usually worth listening to, but they are seldom appreciated. Absolutely right.

Walter’s dig was not aimed at sports reporters, however. He said you could hardly blame them for wringing every last word, dot and comma out of every interview and every match – no matter how dull – and every incident, no matter how innocuous.

The journalists’ problem is that they are allocated far too much space to fill in their newspapers – and too much airtime on radio and television.

My take on this is that it is the editors and proprietors – the people who make the decisions about pagination and who allocate air time – who are ultimately to blame for the recent intense scrutiny of football match officials, not the reporters or the pundits.

This is the gospel according to Walter Smith, someone I greatly admire for his wisdom, experience, tact and diplomacy and whom I have known since his days as an accomplished wing-half for Dundee United and Dumbarton FC.

But what does Walter Smith know about newspapers? Quite a lot, it seems, for someone who has never crossed the line from player to pundit like so many footballers before him.

There is a great myth in newspaper offices that sport is the most important part of the paper. There is a feeling that, without it, or without lots of it, circulation figures would plummet. As if that’s not already happening.

Because of this, some sports writers, most of whom couldn’t lace Hugh McIlvanney’s boots, are feted as celebrities. They pull down the big salaries, the foreign travel, big expenses, reams of newsprint and even their own slots on radio and TV.

But their time is just about up. The media’s equivalent of the referee must surely be looking at his watch. For the truth, unpalatable though it may be, is that, as sports coverage has expanded to fill the space allocated to it, newspaper sales have crashed through the floor.

Readers are sick of sport and they are voting with their feet. They are fed up of the lowest common denominator coverage of sport and celebrity and of the thinly-disguised sectarianism that seeps through in the coverage of Old Firm matches.

They have become queasy about the extent that even the religion of referees is reported in sports pages. In these enlightened, ecumenical and secularist times, this is too much information.

Intelligent readers are beginning to question why a football match with fewer spectators at it than it would take to fill a phone box receives more space in their paper than the coverage of a tsunami claiming hundreds of lives. These days they want to know why there’s more in the paper about a rift in the dressing rooms at Hearts and Hibs than there is about an earthquake in Haiti.

If anything, sports coverage has cost newspaper sales. Some footballer supporters have given up buying certain titles because they feel their team no longer gets a fair crack of the whip. One match report perceived as biased can lead to the loss of thousands of newspaper sales which will never come back.

Anyway, I never paid much attention to sport when I was an editor. When the sales of my weekly newspaper were at their zenith, just over 14,000 copies a week, which is frighteningly around a third of what our quality nationals now sell, we carried little or no sport. Apart that is from those times when Dumbarton FC was doing well, which wasn’t often.

I am a newsman. I like sport, I love it in fact – but not to the extent that I want to read the mountains of it now being produced by our national newspapers. I am not alone. I yearn for a time when these pages – and the scarce finance that is poured into them – are turned over to news, features, comment and good pictures produced by journalists and photographers, who know their trade.

H. L. Mencken is another grizzled veteran. In fact, the great man is long dead, but our newspaper managements should take his advice: a newspaper is not only a newsmonger but a critic and an interpreter of news, showing what it signifies and putting some sense and coherence into it.

It’s time to give politics precedence over penalty kicks. Religion should reign over sports results and newspapers should put sport back on the back page where it belongs. That way the industry will give itself a chance of getting off the back foot. It has to do something to get back into the race for decent readership figures.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning newspaper editor, reporter and columnist. He has been a special adviser to the First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish, and media adviser to David Martin, Vice-president of the European Parliament. He was, for four years, media adviser to the chair of the UK Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a Life Member of the National Union of Journalists. He is now a media consultant.

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