When It’s “Increasingly Difficult For Serious Journalists” To Cover Sport … Part III: Trust
Editorial – Part 3 – In the last part of our long essay on things that make it “Increasingly Difficult For Serious Journalists” to cover Olympic sport, we turn to athlete welfare, an issue that the mainstream media is often perceived to care less about in the context of getting the next big story “at all costs”.
That perception, like many others, holds truth, but is a generalisation and not the norm in my experience of working in both mainstream media and niche.
A quick reminder of how and why this long essay was written: it’s the end of a northern summer in which athletics (among a fair few other sports) attracted widespread broadcast and written mainstream media attention while swimming was left gasping for the oxygen of mainstream coverage in many places, including countries such as Britain and others whose swimmers have fared very well indeed of late.
[NB: most but not all of the following was first posted in part 2 but us now self-contained here with some additional thoughts on the end]
A Matter Of Trust Between Athletes, Coaches, Managers & Journalists
In April, The Times ran an exclusive interview with Adam Peaty over a big double-page spread. The interview was granted to me on the basis of trust gained over many years with athletes, coaches and managers who have a very solid understanding and expectation of serious, knowledge-based questions when there’s an opportunity for me to engage with them and they with me.
Trust is always important but all the more critical when dealing with sensitive matters and challenging experiences. The topic was Adam’s mental health and his journey of recovery with a view to being the best he can possibly be at what would be his third Olympic Games and an historic third crack at the 100m breaststroke title he first won in 2016 and retained in 2021.
There were only two ways to access the material in The Times article: via the newspaper’s website, which includes the paywall behind which my article was and remains placed, or by buying the newspaper. That mechanism pays for journalism and ought to be respected, as should copyright.
Here’s what that means in UK law: The author and first owner of the copyright in a published edition is the publisher.
Next in line is me. SwimSwam did not seek permission from the publisher, The Times, nor the author, for use of material from the article.
In common media practice, there is no issue with citing the article and quoting a small extract, including quoting or paraphrasing any figure in the article in question. Several UK publications did just that when they followed up on the Times story.
However, SwimSwam, crediting The Times but not this author (I return the favour here and forever more: no mention for any of them by name) basically took out almost every single quote provided by Adam in a long feature.
At the very least that was deeply unethical, in my opinion, as was the response from the American website when I asked one of their senior folk to remove the bulk of what they had taken without permission.
As a result of the above I refused to join any future interviews or media groups if SwimSwam were to be included; my colleagues joined me in that stance as a result of the broken embargo. Josh had reached for harmony and understanding between niche and mainstream media but we were all let down by the American niche. He had planned a WhatsApp group that included us all for the purposes of the World Championships but that specific American website was excluded from the UK media group at the media’s request.
Different Media Roles
It is against that backdrop that I made clear in an exchange on X (Twitter) that I thought it important not to confuse the different media and “journalistic” roles, as described in part 1, in the UK swim community debate on why mainstream media did not show up in Fukuoka. This, apparently, hurt the feelings of one of those included in the tweets.
I can assure that good man that his hurt is as nothing compared to mine in the context of the point I was making, namely: If we don’t explain the economics of it all and the truth about the highly and heavily subsidised nature of the in-house media offer, including covering the big costs of travel and accommodation and all that staying 2-3 weeks away from home entails, then the community with good reason to question the mainstream media and seeking deeper understanding will not be able to fathom the complexities and depths of what’s truly at play – and what needs resolving.
Only by being transparent and honest about who is paying whom for what and what is expected in return can we distinguish between independent journalism and that which is something quite different. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for lovely videos celebrating fine wins and all the wonderful stories of athletes, what motivates and moves them and how they managed to rise to towering challenge. Much of that kind of material also makes up the bulk of content the mainstream media – but not at the exclusion of the down stories that go alongside the up, without the fear or favour inherent in working for organisations that only want the up and have often gone to extreme lengths to control such things.
Such as: the kind of harmful, bad practice we witnessed and I also endured in the days of pre-reform FINA, meaning practices harmful to media coverage of the sport, harmful to me personally and in business.
The story of a $150,000 payment from the international federation to a PR outfit that came up with a plan to “discredit” “critics”, including me and my work at SwimVortex because we pointed out at a time when the FINA President and USA pick Julio Maglione, of Uruguay, was a regular quaffer, hand-shaker and “great friend” of Vladimir Putin’s despite both being heads of organisations committee to the WADA Code at a time when Russia had 23 active doping cases on its books and several secrets on the way to be exposed, some by me, heading into the 2015 World Championships in Kazan.
To cut a long story short, by 2016 I had been told by two key advertisers that they had been approached by FINA leadership figures who told them that if they continued “to support” my work, they would not be granted contracts with FINA. In such an environment, the advertising model not only becomes fragility for the independent journalist but leaves media who continue to carry the adverts of the companies involved vulnerable to suspicion that they are being left to carry on because they’re not asking serious questions and providing the checks and balances that independent journalists do.
SwimVortex limped on a little longer but by 2018 was no longer viable and could not afford to pay John Lohn, Liz Byrnes and others who made our website what it was. Threats of a serious nature and timed attacks (during major events) on our server were fairly commonplace. No sports organisation should ever get anywhere close to the likes of Putin and those who operate in a dangerous and toxic sphere and yet so many did, from the IOC downwards. Cue consequence.
My pointing out what I did on twitter in response to a fan-based love-in that praised in-house work that I was in no way opposed to (it just shouldn’t bee seen or celebrated as linked to or even competing with mainstream media for obvious reasons, including independence and resources/budget/where the money comes from) resulted in a comment that implied I was hostile because of my feelings towards World Aquatics.
That tweet included people one connection away from others who played an active part in the events of 2015-2018 and those in 2019-2020 linked to a vile campaign against me from the very day my appointment as editor of Swimming World was made on July 4, 2019. That date was significant and deliberate. The team of Craig Lord and John Lohn would lead Swimming World’s clear commitment for independent journalism, fearless at that, alongside Liz B and others appointed to bolster the journalism of SW, the publisher noted in a statement.
Sadly, that stance turned out to be something of a sick joke, in my opinion, and I have the emails to back that view up with facts should anyone wish to argue.
All of the above is part of a canvas of that phrase of Cathal Dennehy’s that I’ve borrowed for our headlines on this two-part editorial, the things that make it “Increasingly Difficult For Serious Journalists To Cover” sport, and in my case, swimming. There are those who think “good riddance” to that but I’d like to think there are many in swimming who get it and would like the reform process at World Aquatics to now reach for the next level on issues of integrity, transparency and fitness for high office.
How Do We Start To Make It Better In Olympic Sport ?
In that light, I conclude with a note for each of three parties:
1. SwimSwam: Please desist when tempted to copy and paste vast swathes of my work, read up on copyright and media ethics as well as athlete welfare. Please think about the damage you do through the following behaviour: ultimately, the only person who might be hurt by you crashing in on arrangements between a management, his athlete and a journalist working for a very well-known British newspaper on the basis of the trust essential and inherent when dealing with matters of mental health is …. The Athlete. Your Wild-West comments section, both on the end of the article in which you ran vast amounts of my work without permission and elsewhere, includes references that are obviously libellous. I realise that you have an amendment to turn to but I ask you to behave ethically and remove those libellous references to me (no, I did not leave Swimming World “for making things up” – that accusation is complete fabrication and you as publisher are responsible for it). And finally, please do your homework on embargoes and understand how those are helpful to athletes and media alike and are standard practice in the world of mainstream-media journalism.
2. British Swimming: for decades, the media in the UK was kept at bay, told it could not go to the warm-up pool, told it could not access swimmers and coaches on the pool deck and much else of a controlling nature. Many media were put off by such defensive measures and many of those simply never returned, the double whammy of that decline an unhappy coincidence of nationals no longer really being that, with trials for the best set at another time of year and the thread of domestic-championship history severed because the best no longer took part.
To the outside world, swimming made less and less sense to them; it became a sport without recognisable seasons, without a logical calendar, without a steady and consistent home on the schedule for its major events. It became a sport that appeared to want to shut the media out and the rest of the world with it. And then a former CEO decided some years back that the way to make sure The Times and The Telegraph did not have a head start on the rest who didn’t show up was to feed them with “exclusive” information, perhaps to appease them. Well, it was often far from ‘exclusive’: on one occasion the ‘exclusive’ was a story The Times had run two years previously; what happens when a CEO thinks he can be an editor for the day). Ultimately, it all just annoyed the two papers who were actually spending good budget money on covering your sport.
So, fast forward to the past several years and a seascape in which the mainstream media is almost absent from any event barring Olympic Heights. A long the way, one trend, or so it seems, has been to attempt to embrace the fan-coverage community, perhaps as a way of compensating for the loss of mainstream, especially at domestic level. Turn to social media and we find a vlogger with a snappy title and links to product partners who presumably pay for promotion, on the competition deck with access to athletes and fellow coaches to shoot videos and get “exclusive” content to pump out to… well, to whom exactly? Certainly going out on social media but hardly to the wider world.
A conversation needs to be had about how you think that fits and how the behaviour relevant to you as described in the editorial above fits in with any mission to engage with mainstream media and have its journalists return to the pool beyond the Olympic moment. That conversation needs to be held in the context of the access granted by non-journalists engaged in activities that lead to the scenario Cathal Dennehy paints in the intro to his fine opinion-piece: “Athletes like Tobi Amusan make it increasingly difficult for serious journalists to cover their sport.”
I think many members of your elite swim community are wise enough to understand that reference from Cathal when he wrote “fans with smartphones, showering athletes with love when they step off the track, avoiding any question that might irk them. The result is athletes grow so used to praise that a minor meltdown occurs if they face basic questioning.” I hope that has not happened and hope it never will. It would surely undermine resilience and ultimately performance in the most merciless and fiercest arena of all: the Olympics.
It’s time to reach out to members of the mainstream media and ask ‘what are the things that might lead to better/more mainstream coverage of our sport(s)?” Some answers may be uncomfortable, including “not much, we’re not that interested” – but at least then you’d have your answer and can decide how to handle that when such media come calling at their convenience. As any athlete or coach worth his or her salt will tell you: nothing comes without challenge, test, trial and tribulation along the road to the triumphs you seek.
Meanwhile, worth putting on record that the media officers at British Swimming, including the current crew who we work with, Josh at the helm, are professional, understanding, accommodating and pleasant to work with and manage sometimes conflicting demands with aplomb.
3. To WA president Husain Al-Musallam. You have done some fine work on the reform front and you have honoured commitments to change and healing that previous generations in power at FINA were incapable or unwilling of even contemplating let alone getting done.
I address you on two fronts.
a. In one of your talks with me, on your way to honouring a promise to strip the criminal Kipke of his FINA honour as a token gesture and way of finally sending the right message long overdue to rogues too long allowed to feel as though swimming was a home they could rely on for rich pickings, you also told me that anyone involved in the reform process who did not meet the demands of the new culture, including an ability to acknowledge that things had gone wrong and needed putting right, would not survive the journey.
Some of those folk are not only still in your presence but hold high office. Some of those folk were there in positions of power, partly planned and certainly knew all about that $150,000 spent on discrediting critics of very bad practice bent on wilful harm – among those damaged, me and my business. Those responsible, those who knew but sat in silence, happy for the harm to unfold, should have no place in governance.
May Paris mark another turn of the tide. Apologies, reconciliation and healing are due, accountability and greater transparency need kickstarting and the old culture of omertà and leaving practices beyond their sell by date to fester need to be sent to the gallows once and for all.
b. Media. All good and well producing in-house moments of exploits to be proud of. However, it speaks to those already in love with aquatics. You cannot ‘promote’ and ‘grow’ aquatics sports without mainstream media. Many years ago I suggested a visit to Wimbledon and secured an invitation for the leadership. The offer was never taken up. They would have learned so much, had they been remotely interested in understanding how the All-England Club manages its media operations (there were complete transcriptions of press conferences in media pigeon-holes (emails these days) within minutes of the athlete leaving the stage – a quarter of a century ago.
This needs deeper understanding: the more in-house you go, the less the mainstream media will engage, all the more so in this digital evolution era in which many will persuade you that technology will solve all your problems. It won’t. Perhaps that’s what governors want, for less media means less questions. I trust that’s not how you think, given the reform measures you have already taken.
A mature sport, or realm of any kind, is one robust enough to embrace checks and balances, the serious questions of sports journalists, most of whom spend most of their time writing fabulous words about fabulous achievements but from time to time do indeed smell a rat and want to know where the stench is coming from. So should you and everyone else – it’s essential to health.
The opposite way, resistance to media, building in-house empires to do the PR and promotion and thinking it possible to sell that as journalism, is a mistake that leads to less and loss for the prime asset: athletes, like those in Britain whose exploits were brought to fans via some of that in-house activity.
It also leads to PR outfits thinking they can separate out “friendly” and “non-friendly” media. That approach is doomed to fail. Where a SwimVortex falls, something else will rise – and there will always be another wave flushed with the knowledge of the last.
Next step: how do you intend to get the mainstream media interested in coming back to cover swimming meet after meet after big meet? What new formats are you discussing and are all stakeholders with enough knowledge actually in the room? Will the new take into account the lessons learned from tennis about the importance of seasons, traditions and understanding the nature of humans who will shop at the supermarket that they recognises every time they walk through the door but will walk away from the store that repositions its goods to different shelves every few days.
In short, how are you going to make swimming attractive to wider audiences in the years between Olympics? What provisions are being made to ask mainstream media why they don’t come in nearly the numbers they used to decades ago?
How are you going to make it ‘Increasingly Easy For Serious Journalists’ To Cover Olympic Sport, Including Swimming?
I ask in a week that ended with a press release sent out to media from World Aquatics at 6pm European time on a Friday heading into a weekend stacked with a vast multitude of sports events. The statement focussed on the big names signed up to swim at the World Cup series of three events all to be hosted in Europe this autumn: Berlin, Athens, Budapest.
Question for any and all of you reading this: what do you think is going to happen to a press release that lands on extremely busy sports news desks at 6pm on a Friday with no information in it of any value to the respective correspondents focussed on whichever national hero may happen to be involved?
From WA, we learned that Adam Peaty would swim the World Cups. It made no mention of the significance of that moment in terms of it marking the Olympic, World and World record holder’s return from a period of reflection and rehabilitation centred on the mental health issues outlined above and revealed in more detail in that Times exclusive back in April.
From WA we learned that Kristof Milak is another signed up to race the World Cups. So I asked the folk who would know and they tell me he will “speak to his coach next week to see if”… it’s viable and wise, after he too has spent time out, including bypassing the World Championships like Peaty and others, for reasons similar reasons. Milak may race the 50s as a way to shake off cobwebs, feel at home once more in the competition arena and give fans and the home crowd a glimpse of the man their backing for a fine return on the way to the defence of an Olympic crown at Paris 2024.
That press release was on the WA website several hours before the media was alerted – and no, not a single mainstream media outlet out there has the WA website open with an unsleeping eye on it. So, what was that somewhat uninformative information pumped out for? Were loyal fans the target and are they the first line of ‘we must inform first’ when 11 big names are announced for a World Cup, a concept and series that has limped along for years now with almost no significant interest shown by mainstream media apart from the odd feature on a single swimmer of interest to national media on the way to that one and only moment that is significant for mainstream media (and athlete): the Olympic Games.
“Train smart”, “smart technology”, “smart” much else: all part of the mantra of the age. Perhaps someone might think about a smart approach to mainstream media and understanding why that remains, as Wimbledon but not Swimbledon woke up to long, long ago, a tried and tested pathway to “growing” your audience, as opposed to being content for your existing audience to tread waters familiar to them but alien to most others who hear the words “come on in, the water’s lovely” just once every four years.