"Rob was doing his job as a journalist by asking a question. Our expectation is that he'll ask more questions, and be afforded the ability to do so, as he covers the world's most popular sport."
Sir Alex Ferguson was faced with an interesting dilemma during a press conference on Tuesday. When asked a question about a certain footballer known in some circles as 'CTB', he issued a terse response to the journalist (Rob Harris of the Associated Press) and then attempted to have him banned from further press conferences. Perhaps unfortunately, this turned out to be impossible, as Manchester United don't have the authority to prevent reporters from attending UEFA events.
The exchange was caught on video, amusing hundreds of thousands of viewers, and eventually led to Lou Ferrera, Harris' boss and AP's managing editor for sports, issuing the statement quoted above in support of his employee. Reporters ask questions, and report the answers, or so the story goes, and therefore Harris was simply doing his job by asking Ferguson how important Ryan Giggs is to the team.
It would be overly simplistic, of course, to say that since Harris asks silly questions of Sir Alex Ferguson as part of his job the entirety of his work involves asking silly questions. I'm sure he has to do a lot of work in transcribing the annoyed answers and then meeting deadlines as he constructs two hundred words of fluff around whatever juicy quote he's been fishing for too.
But all of that's rather beside the point. The real question, to me, is just who might be benefiting here. Whose purpose do these question and answer sessions even serve?
They don't help Ryan Giggs. They certainly don't make Sir Alex Ferguson happy. You might have a case for 'football', but that one is at best tenuous - the sport is not going to attract more fans based on soundbites from players and managers, no matter how often they're watched or passed around the internet. The consumers? What possible enlightenment could they gain from that question? They're just clicking through and hoovering up the content like some sort of word-eating automatons. There's nothing in there that will make anyone think. Ever.
I'm not so cynical as to think that mindless garbage is what people want to read. There are too many good, successful writers around for that to possibly be true, something which the popularity of pieces by the likes of Jonathan Wilson or our own Andi Thomas will attest. But at the same time, we all seem content to call the question Harris asked journalism.
Why? Because we're sold on access. For some reason we've allowed ourselves to think that asking a player how he felt after scoring a goal and then reporting that he was quite happy is news, because it's coming from inside the game. When someone asks Nani whether he thinks Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez - plainly a good footballer - is a good footballer and Nani replies in the affirmative, that's also news. Because Nani said it. Just because we observed Chicharito being consistently excellent all season doesn't mean it's true, because we don't have access. We just watch games. We're not inside. Now that Nani's said so, we can put that question to rest. We can trust Nani, you see, because Ferguson has told us that he's also quite good at football. It's good to be in the know.
This is the culture that has turned the vast majority of journalists into machines primarily designed to move audio recorders into close proximity with famous people and then write down whatever they picked up afterwards. Recently, Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, had an amusing (albeit painfully punctuated) rant about the merits of allowing 'internet journalists' access to his players, and while he mostly just got an earful for his troubles he did manage to raise some excellent points regarding the state of modern journalism.
There are benefits that go along with access, of course. Without the ability to talk to managers and players, no information would ever emerge without the express consent of the club, which is where Cuban's argument falls down (from our perspective, not his). These facts can be useful to readers. Is Andres Iniesta injured? has Darren Fletcher made a full recovery from that virus? Manifestly of interest. Whether they respect each others' teams is not.
At the end of the day, journalists who operate via soundbite are forgetting that the people they should be asking questions of aren't the footballers, and they aren't the managers, the fans or random people on the street. Football reporters, presumably experts in the field, might try to follow the lead of some of the greats and start by thinking rather than sticking a microphone in front of the closest insider they can find. If the current trend doesn't stop - if the actual journalistic part of the profession continues to be outsourced to whoever happens to be nearby - then it won't be long before the whole edifice crumbles.
After all, if I wanted to talk to Rio Ferdinand myself, he's just a tweet away.