No more heroes anymore?Posted on

In 2011 the Daily Mirror ran a leader asking why England’s footballers were no longer “true moral leaders”. The question really should be – why should footballers be moral leaders?

Forty years after England won the World Cup in 1966 Tina Moore gave an interview to the Daily Mail in which she alleged that her husband Bobby had had extra marital affairs. Sir Bobby is (rightly) lionised as one of his country’s greatest players and captains. His personal life was considered no-one’s business during his playing career and had no effect on his image as a footballer.

Conversely, England’s players are nowadays routinely pilloried for the decisions they make in their private life. Ashley Cole will soon notch up 100 caps for England but appears to be widely reviled by the tabloid press because of the breakdown of his marriage to a pop star and other perceived misdemeanours. Had Cole been a star of the 1960s or 1970s his silly behaviour involving an air rifle at the training ground, for example, may have been an unknown incident, relegated to an amusing anecdote in a later autobiography, but, in this media age, it was a screaming headline and a media scandal.

What is different about Bobby Moore and Ashley Cole, or John Terry, or Rio Ferdinand, or Wayne Rooney? The simple answer is – the media landscape.

Technological developments

In 1955, after he had secured the First Division title with his Chelsea side, Roy Bentley jumped on the tube home. He received a few congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back but nothing more. If Vincent Kompany had tried the same at Manchester Piccadilly last season he would have been swamped, filmed, placed on YouTube and Tweeted across the world.

Times have changed and we must respond to that. An unfortunate result is that players often have to guard against over-familiarity and candidness with fans. One client of mine was stopped in his car outside his training ground by a group of fans. He stopped, rolled down the window and chatted for a couple of minutes. He laughed, he joked, he used a couple of expletives when talking in the vernacular and, when a fan made a joke about a rival player being elbowed in an earlier game, he responded laughing “good, wasn’t it?” He was responding with what he thought the lads wanted to hear and hadn’t intended to make a public statement condoning violence, however, unwittingly, he was being filmed on a mobile phone by one fan, who then put the video on Youtube.

Mercifully we were able to have the video taken down from Youtube (on the basis that the video featured the player’s number plate which breaches YouTube’s policy on revealing identifying personal information) and a wider story, and possible governing body recriminations, were avoided.

There is a new generation of athletes who are so-called “digital natives”. They were born in the internet age and communicate using social media, apps, instant messaging and picture messaging. Unfortunately, such technological developments encourage information sharing, which means that candid photos, comments and actions are spread far and wide if not controlled. In such an environment young athletes open themselves up to impersonations, stalking, harassment and blackmail. Getting players to think before opening up their private lives is a key challenge in sport.

The “super-Injunction” myths

Many anonymised privacy injunctions have been obtained because the claimant believes he/she is being blackmailed – i.e. an individual holds private information about a well-known person and threatens to take the information to the press unless they are paid. Publishers (such as Private Eye) have decried these claims of blackmail as a fallacy and just an excuse for covering up bad conduct. This is not fair in the majority of cases. Blackmail, or a species of it, is an all too familiar aspect of modern media. I have seen clients asked for money to stop:

–        naked pictures from a stolen mobile phone appearing online

–        intimate photographs taken in a night club being sold to a newspaper

–        the contents of a stolen video recorder being sold to the press

–        false allegations of an affair being leaked to a newspaper

Some clients go to the police, for others it is too late and the information will very soon be published unless an emergency injunction can be obtained.

Blackmailers rarely succeed and they shouldn’t be entitled to. Sadly, we have an instant fame and greed culture. Many individuals crave a slice of what the privileged few have. Whether that be through kiss’n’tells, stalking, trolling or blackmail, there is an insatiable hunger amongst a noisy minority to be a part of the narrative of a celebrity story and/or to take a slice of the profit.

The tabloid argument in favour of kiss’n’tells is that it exposes hypocrites and shines a light on wrongdoing and therefore there is a public interest in reporting. Far from “shining a light” a kiss’n’tell tells us what we already know – all men (and women) are made of straw. Human fallibility is a fact accepted through the ages. Far from being in the public interest kiss’n’tells have created a mini industry in which there is a financial motivation for individuals to seek out sexual encounters with celebrities and then seek to profit from them. Is the public interest served by such an industry? I would argue the opposite.

Extra marital affairs are a sad fact but a private fact. The public do not have a genuine interest in receiving information about them (i.e. a right to receive the information as opposed to just being interested) the only interested parties are those close to the situation (a wronged spouse for example). But telling a wronged wife or husband doesn’t sell newspapers. It is a myth that all privacy injunctions are just to cover up wrongdoing.  I have seen injunctions to prevent stolen family photographs, personal love letters and photos between two single people and details about marital difficulties (in an injunction sought by the husband and wife).

Our current “right to know” culture is unhealthy and, for those in the public eye, it requires a great deal of guardedness, education and preparation because dealing with the aftermath of a leak is a thoroughly unpleasant business.


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