A couple of weeks ago, there was an article on this site about the declining standard of football coverage in this country.
It’s here for those who missed it first time around.
I’m reminded of that by the current story concerning Manchester United and Gareth Bale, because that little saga is providing a pertinent example of one of the article’s themes: The prioritisation of SEO ahead of credibility.
Outsiders have every right to be skeptical about that story. Since moving to Real Madrid, Bale has been a successful - and constant - part of Carlo Ancelotti’s first-eleven and in every interview he’s given he’s radiated contentment. Similarly, Manchester United have already spent a fortune on their advanced areas and adding another big-budget forward is presumably well down Louis Van Gaal’s list of priorities.
Whatever. The point is not to discuss the feasibility of ‘Bale to Manchester United’, but to comment on the story’s characteristics and to present it as the perfect example of a false narrative.
Of course, we’ve grown numb to transfer reporting and most of us just assume everything we read to be nonsense. Take a moment to think about that, though, and you realise how strange a situation it is: we’re absolutely fine with national newspapers presenting fantasy as fact.
Generally, it’s harmless enough. Transfer stories are really just light entertainment and they’re really the adult life equivalent of reading a cartoon strip over breakfast.
With a Bale-sized story, however, that isn’t the case. When such a famous player is linked with such a big club, the coverage isn’t limited to just a couple of lines and a YouTube compilation video. Instead, gullible supporters are indulged with weeks of fairytale reporting and dozens of articles.
Already with Bale, we’ve progressed from a few throw-away lines in The Express, to journalists asking Louis Van Gaal (“refusing to deny”) about the player in press-conferences, to The Mirror insisting this morning that any deal will involve David De Gea going in the opposite direction.
It’s all a big lie. Every respected voice in the game has already laughed off any suggestion of a Summer transfer and yet the stories continue.
Why? Because it doesn’t really matter if there’s any truth to this. “Gareth Bale” and “Manchester United” are very useful keywords and football coverage is increasingly bent around the potency of headlines. Similarly, there’s an obvious value in sustaining a story like that for as long as possible and in using minor, incidental tweaks to do so.
‘Gareth Bale to Manchester United’ can be used in week 1. ‘Louis van Gaal refuses to rule out Bale pursuit’ is good enough for week 2. ‘Real Madrid demand De Gea swap as part of Bale deal’ provides a freshness in week 3.
Note how that cycle has no reliance on Manchester United, Real Madrid, Gareth Bale or Jonathan Barnett. It’s an age-old trick designed to maximise the traffic-harvest: by adding those small details, the same story - with the same headline components - can be reprinted again and again and again.
Prior to Robin van Persie signing for Manchester United in 2012, he was rumoured to be joining Manchester City. Over the course of that Summer, ‘Van Persie to City’ became old news and, in response, tabloid types started adding fictitious details to their reporting. At one point, the Dutchman had apparently got as far as deciding upon his shirt-number at Eastlands.
He hadn’t, obviously, but plenty of revisions were based around the premise that he had - and that the story arch was built on fiction was irrelevant. Banner-clicks aren’t revoked if they germinate from misleading articles and traffic volume isn’t asterisked by any measure of reliability.
Similarly, prior to Bale/United flaring up the previous eighteen months had featured countless stories about Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Old Trafford. Despite there never really being any genuine indication that the Portuguese was willing to leave Real Madrid, the narrative swirled and the ambiguities raged.
It’s not a coincidence, either, that very soon after Ronaldo had signed a new contract and reaffirmed his desire to finish his career in Spain, Gareth Bale’s name started being superimposed into the same range of suggestive articles. There was an element of doubt over Ronaldo’s future which could be exploited. Once that disappeared, another click-baiting tall-tale was needed to fill the gap.
There are bigger evils and there are greater annoyances, but the lack of importance attached to genuine information is very grating. These false narratives really convey to what extent veracity has been sacrificed and just how archaic the notion of having a reputation for accuracy has become.
It’s an ‘attention at any cost’ industry now.
For Squawka: Why Michael Carrick is the most polarising player in English football.