Chris Rogers reads the newspaper
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Press on regardless

Australia v India is a tense, loaded, complicated affair. And we're not even talking about the players

Peter English  |  

Sourav Ganguly struts out to bat in his final Test and there is loud clapping, cheering and waving. Nothing unusual there. Except, on Nagpur's far outskirts there seems to be more congratulatory noise from the media area than in the sparse stands hovering over Ganguly. Four years earlier, led by Australian journalists in an SCG basement, Steve Waugh's season-long farewell ended with a standing ovation after his final press conference as captain.

No clapping in the press box is a convention similar to that applied to sledging: there's a line that cannot be crossed. Except there isn't really a line. It is more a series of guidelines, with no absolute umpire. Traditionally, a journalist's role has been to report in an objective and detached manner. In modern times, this approach does not always fit within the desires of the publication, broadcast or audience.

This conflict may also blur the thoughts of the imaginary cricketer inside the journalist's head, the one who grew up watching, celebrating and crying over the team he or she is now so fortunate to be reporting on. Being a fan set up the path towards professional employment, but the position of respectable cricket journalist comes with standards. Wisden editor Lawrence Booth remembers his mistake as a 25-year-old in the Lord's press box. He broke "one of the golden rules" by leaping from his seat when England dismissed Brian Lara. In the stands that is de rigueur, but in the press box it is demeaning. "No cheering, clapping, oohing, aahing, petting or diving, especially at the Nursery End," Booth wrote in the Nightwatchman.

Journalists are there to report, not cheer. Yet while celebrating or commiserating in the media centre, or with the players themselves, they inject bias to the point where athletes can actually think journalists are linked with the team. These cheerleaders promote their own side excessively, ignore its mistakes while magnifying opposition flaws, and create the potential for international fault lines. That is what Australian journalists, the team's 13th man, have often been accused of doing. The Indians too. And the nationalistic English, and the patriotic Pakistanis. And anyone else not agreeing with the view of whether a team deserved to win or lose, or whether a catch was a classic or cheating.

In the fractious Australia v India series of the past decade, the performances of the players and administrators sometimes gained excessive media praise or criticism. Given the relationship between the two cricket nations, and having myself sat in the press box for four series, I wanted to study India's 2014-15 tour of Australia to see how newspaper journalists reported it.

"I have no qualms admitting it, that I feel like a fan," an Indian journalist said. A small number of reporters from both nations agreed with this stance

Specifically, my academic research was interested in whether the reporters were cheerleaders or critics of the sides. It also covered the cricket writers' thoughts on their own content and on the "opposing" media. Eighteen journalists - nine each from India and Australia - were interviewed and their responses were looked at in the light of cricket articles written in four English-language newspapers from each nation.

Part of my research, published in Digital Journalism, revealed that of the 1265 print stories analysed, more contained critical elements (from both Australian and Indian reporters) on their own teams than cheerleading aspects. Articles rated as critical were, for example, a Mumbai Mirror piece saying India's bowling was "toothless" and "pathetic", and the Australian describing Brad Haddin as having "forgotten everything about the art of batting".

Articles considered to contain cheerleading aspects included, for example, a column in the Sydney Morning Herald about Haddin that said, "Let's hope he stays in the middle for as long possible", and a comment piece in the Hindustan Times stating "good luck India". References to team performance that included "we" were also categorised in this way.

In the Australian publications, 23% of 700 articles included aspects of cheerleading, compared to 34% containing critical elements. The Indian newspapers had 14% of 565 stories with cheerleading aspects, while 29% had critical elements. These newspaper results fit with the general view of the interviewed cricket journalists. Most did not consider themselves "fans" of their "home teams".

Indian and Australian journalists might regard themselves as being disinterested and impartial, but that's not how each party views the other

Indian and Australian journalists might regard themselves as being disinterested and impartial, but that's not how each party views the other Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images

If cricket supporters ever feel the need to sledge a serious journalist, call them a cheerleader or a fan. Fifteen years ago the late Frank Keating, a dreamy columnist for the Guardian, described the Australian media as an "attendant band of one-eyed fans with laptops and microphones". As an occasional interloper on that tour, I remember the anger simmering among the reporters throughout that Ashes series and beyond. They were not cheerleaders, they grumbled, they were journalists who happened to report on a side that had just set a record of 16 Tests wins in a row.

In the 2014-15 Australia-India series, most journalists from both camps were adamant they were not fans, boosters or public supporters. "That's the worst area you can get into, the cheerleading aspect of it," an Australian broadsheet reporter said in the Digital Journalism article. Other responses from Australian and Indian journalists included the phrases "no, never" and "absolutely not". All came with exclamation marks. Neutrality, impartiality, objectivity and truth-telling were the aims of these chroniclers.

But if you do want to troll your least favourite sports journalists, be warned. There are some who would take that cheerleader sledge as a compliment. "I have no qualms admitting it, that I feel like a fan," an Indian journalist said. A small number of reporters from both nations agreed with this stance.

"If I'm not a fan about the Indian team, I wouldn't be doing sports journalism," one said. An Australian reporter noted that his readers wanted to know about the Australian team, so his coverage was generally slanted that way. "I do think that you are biased in the sense that you are looking at things through Australian eyes."

Cheerleading and fan behaviour is not limited to the pages of a journalist's publications. It can also be on display in press conferences, player conversations and general fawning over cricketers or officials. During the fourth Test of that series in Sydney, senior journalists were complaining in the media room that Michael Clarke, commentating for television, was being asked for selfies and autographs by "journalists" carrying cricket bats. Clarke was polite and obliging. It looked like he was used to it.

On TV, former players appear obliged to boost struggling incumbents, they shout "Crackerjack!" and "Maximum!" for regulation boundaries and praise their cricket boards for fear of losing their jobs

"We're all neutral in here." The comment sounds plausible and commendable at first. But the utterer is Shane Warne, lounging in the Channel Nine commentary box. At that moment, during the first Australia-South Africa Test at the WACA last November, he was angry, frustrated and disappointed because David Warner had just been dismissed for 97. Sitting on his baggy-green pom-poms and streamers for a moment, Warne made a limp attempt at pretending he was not constantly barracking for his old team.

Even Australia's most rusted-on supporters recognise the commentary booth is as one-eyed as a pirate party. Television, with its entertainment-focused presenters, follows different standards than print. Former players appear obliged to boost struggling incumbents, they shout "Crackerjack!" and "Maximum!" for regulation boundaries and praise their cricket boards for fear of losing their jobs. This is in contrast to the traditional sports journalists across the news media, whose role is to provide information for their audiences to digest - whether palatable or not.

The sports media's method is to tell consumers what happened and why, and things they don't know. It is why newspapers run stories about rifts between captains and their men, and expose aspects not revealed in press conferences or denied when they are confirmed as true. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald's Andrew Webster was criticised by Clarke for highlighting his "broken relationship" with Cricket Australia - which Clarke confirmed as truth in his recent autobiography. The ride between journalists, players and officials is not meant to be cosy and blokey, like it is with the joshing and fist-bumping commentary teams on the outfield.

Consider the scenes on the infamous Indian tour of Australia in 2007-08. Well after midnight, journalists hung about behind the slumbering green pavilion at the SCG, trying to uncover something - anything - of what happened during that third day of the "Monkeygate" Test. Television reporters preened in front of hot lights before crossing to indignant hosts, highlighting their versions of the facts in the latest episode of What Harbhajan Singh Said to Andrew Symonds. Like with the spotting of wild animals, any sign of movement in the twitchy environment raised cameras.

Embedded reportage: remember when the <i>Courier-Mail</i> forgot Stuart Broad's name?

Embedded reportage: remember when the Courier-Mail forgot Stuart Broad's name? © Getty Images

The scene was repeated at the conclusion of the Test, with another wait for the outcome of the initial hearing. It was a period when journalists were often passed with looks of suspicion, admiration or desperation - depending on who they were, the information they had collected, and what they had written on previous days. Journalists from both countries were accused of inventing quotes, angles and stories. Press boxes are usually relatively friendly places, where contact details, hotel flaws, local sights and team titbits are swapped cheerily (although an ill-timed question at deadline can result in a curt, expletive-laced response). But on that tour the mood changed. Reporters who were poles apart in their take on the truth had to sit next to each other, filing stories in cramped spaces without the polite exchanges.

Residual tension simmered in the Test series in India later that year. On one occasion a young Indian reporter was tricked by colleagues into thinking that the Australian's hard-hitting, Walkley Award-winning correspondent of the time was named "Conjob Conn", not Malcolm Conn. It appeared in print that way.

The contests between Australia and India during 2007 and 2008 contained regular flashpoints. Racist crowd chanting at Symonds and on-field comments from Harbhajan during a one-day tournament marked the start of the breakdown between the nations, cricketers and sections of the media. The Australian's Peter Lalor, who is a lover of India after many short and long visits, reported Symonds' treatment - from the Vadodara crowd in particular - and was interviewed on an Indian television channel about his work. The host accused him of being a racist.

The issues surrounding those series continue to rumble on almost a decade later. "We never get away with anything, but they do," Clarke wrote in his autobiography. At the time, remember, Anil Kumble said it was only India playing in the spirit of the game.

"We never get away with anything, but they do," Clarke wrote in his autobiography. At the time, remember, Kumble said it was only India playing in the spirit of the game

Was Symonds a hero or horrid? Were Harbhajan and Sachin Tendulkar truth-tellers or obstructive in hearings? Should Clarke have walked or claimed that catch? Were India sooks or sensible for threatening to fly home? Was Peter Roebuck's Sack Ricky Ponting piece reasonable or ridiculous? The answers depend on your position on the Australia-India-bias spectrum.

Most cricket followers don't spend all day switching from newspapers to websites to television and radio, with long bouts in between scanning social media. Sports journalists do. So they are well positioned to judge what is happening on their own nation's pages - and those of the opposition's. During my interviews with the 18 Australian and Indian journalists, they generally thought their own newspaper coverage was effective.

Similar to the cricket team's view of itself whatever its ranking, the Australian sports journalists considered their cricket reporting to be of a high standard. "It's aggressive, it's feisty, it's entertaining, no-holds-barred, but I also think it brings a certain vitality to cricket," a broadsheet journalist said. More than half of the Australians specifically mentioned the coverage being "high quality" - or better - for its range, writing and readability.

There was more variety in the responses from the Indian journalists. A majority felt their publications did a strong job of writing about the team, particularly with the knowledge conveyed by the reporters to their audiences. "Indian journalists probably write in a more technical way," an Indian tabloid journalist said. "The Australian journalism is not so much about technique, it's more about the moment of the match."

But there were two Indian journalists who felt the country's media coverage was "extreme" and "overdone". "If they win you put them on a pedestal, if they lose you bring them down - there is no balance," a tabloid journalist said. Another said Indian cricket journalists would "criticise in order to appear objective".

"If they win you put them on a pedestal, if they lose you bring them down": a sentiment the likes of MS Dhoni might identify with © Getty Images

The views of the coverage of their international opponents highlighted both respect and derision, but also at times a lack of understanding of what the other was trying to achieve. This was especially noticeable when some of the Australian journalists commented on the Indian newspapers' quality. Descriptions included "bizarre", "pretty fragmentary and pretty superficial", "loose" and "poor".

In discussing their press-box rivals, they might have been Australian cricketers deconstructing their opponents. "It may seem unfair but [the newspapers] just didn't seem to have the same depth," an Australian broadsheet journalist said. A senior writer who has toured India twice said he had not been able to understand the Indian press. "I find it's a hard scene to penetrate in any coherent way," he said. "There are so many people working for so many organisations and the range of work, from the tenured cricket writer at the Hindu to all sorts of people who just kind of seem to be chancers. There's an immense spectrum."

The media is significantly different in the two nations. India has broad variations in scope, content and language in its national (the Times of India), more regional (Hindustan Times or the Hindu), and metropolitan press (Mumbai Mirror or Mid-Day). In Australia, the print media is dominated by News Corp Australia, which owns the Australian and state-based tabloids such as the Daily Telegraph, and Fairfax Media's Sydney Morning Herald and the Age.

While there were large amounts of scorn, one senior Australian columnist said the best Indian cricket journalists were "as good as anywhere in the world". And there was sympathy too, particularly in restrictions over access to players. Without being able to interview the key figures regularly, it was more difficult for the Indian reporters to produce meaningful coverage. The lack of player access, and the subsequent difficulties in finding stories, was mentioned regularly by the Indian journalists themselves.

A tabloid journalist who has made multiple tours of India highlighted the issue from an Australian perspective. "I've often discussed with my peers how you go to India and pick up the papers and there's a long, rambling story about what happened in the nets. The first net was for the quicks, the second net was for the medium pacers, the third net was for the spinners... I thought, 'This is just jibber-jabber.' But there's no content. There's no players speaking, there's no coaches speaking, it gets down to cloak-and-dagger and speculation."

One journalist said: "The perception we have in India is that Australian media is the official 12th man in the Australian team, trying to intimidate"

A small number of Indian cricket journalists were complimentary about elements of the newspaper coverage in Australia. They said it was generally "excellent" and "sometimes better than us". However, a majority of the Indian newspaper journalists pointed out that it could be sensationalist, biased, aggressive, "very Australia-centric", and not critical enough of its team.

One broadsheet journalist said: "The perception we have in India is that Australian media is the official 12th man in the Australian team because they are actually part of the team, trying to intimidate." Another remembered the coverage from Brisbane's Courier-Mail in 2013-14, when, following his refusal to walk in a previous Ashes series, the newspaper chose not to refer to Stuart Broad by his name in any of their articles, and instead described him as the "27-year-old English medium-pace bowler".

"In general Australians write for Australians," an Indian broadsheet journalist said. "They don't write for the world media, and so their perspectives are very Australian. Sometimes they write in support of their team, which you might not see in India so much." Another senior journalist put it this way: "It's like if you go to the USA and read papers, you'd think that in this world that one nation only existed."

Where a reader, viewer, player, official or journalist sits can determine whether something is cheerleading or biased, constructive or critical. Overt displays of nationalism in the media - or press boxes - stand out, like they did on the final Test days of Ganguly and Waugh, and during the Monkeygate series. While clapping in the press box remains discouraged, pursuing a line that suits a journalist's audience is considered acceptable reporting.

In modern media, where clicks on stories are monitored like players' strike rates, journalists and their bosses know exactly what the fans want: articles on the home team and its players. Journalists produce more locally focused content, leaving the opposition under-reported and often misunderstood, especially at times of crisis and controversy. The angles might be critical or cheerleading, but the readers get what they want, to the detriment of knowledge they need.

Peter English is a journalism lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia