Saturday, 11 June 2011

Journalistic Licence or Licentious Journalism?

Umm…because you shouldn’t need a warning against being rude?

Let me start by saying that I’m anything but a RafaKad and certainly not a “Worshipper” of either Rafa or of the Prophet Muhammad (as Miss Barber mistakenly seems to think the worlds 1.6 Billion Muslims are).

Let me also say that I totally get the way writers sometimes exercise their journalistic licence to go against the grain of mainstream opinion – even when they might happen to agree with that opinion. Playing devil’s advocate in this way can often yield great insights and provoke a healthy debate that might otherwise be stifled. Sadly, its all too often also used as a cheap way to garner both attention and hits.

The funny thing about Miss Barber’s Times piece on Rafa is that it doesn’t comfortably fit either mould. As problematic as I find it, and as much as she’s clearly out to ruffle feathers, I really don’t think she’s pot-stirring for the sake of it. But then neither does the piece succeed in yielding any of the hard-won, piercing insights writers of such character pieces go to such great lengths in order to deliver: it’s simply too coloured by her own prejudice to do that (will get to why I think so in a minute).
An astonishingly large number of people have greeted it as a truly incisive piece of journalism: lauding the way she supposedly set out to cut through the nauseatingly wholesome image manufactured and managed by Rafa’s PR machine (not something unique to Rafa by the way), and in doing so, to generate an insight (any insight) into “the real Rafa”, often, as they say, “by any means necessary”.
I don’t necessarily disagree with that, it may or may not be true. She wouldn’t, in any case, be the first journo to try it, nor is she likely to be the last: debunking the most cherished tenets of any cult is not nearly as original an angle as some seem to think.

But I also think she overshot a little. OK, more than a little. Actually, I think she was under pressure to come up with a “different take” on Rafa (very welcome) and got lost in a mire of her own preconceptions (not so welcome), in this case a selection of the most trite, unsavoury Rafa-motifs (like, say, pant-tugging) that even his most ardent haters stopped using many eons ago – ultimately, it has to be said, at a cost to her own credibility. A lot to admire, but also something of a lost opportunity.

Let me be clear: I have little problem with the way in which she almost luxuriates in tearing down some of the most sacred and sacrosanct tenets of Rafaworld. I daresay, a certain amount of snark goes with that territory –  the role of the iconoclast is, after all, anything but objective.

There’s only so many times you can be told that Rafa is “unaffected” by the accoutrements of fame and fortune, “happy” to travel economy class from Paris to London, or enjoys nothing better in between tournaments than to retreat back to Majorca for a “quiet spot of fishing”, before it begins to make you gag. How very Huckleberry Finn.
JUST as important, however, is what you attempt to replace the image with – in this case a toxic mix of snide commentary and reckless insinuation, that seems designed as much for inflammatory effect as it does to get at the “real Rafa”.

The point about his image is not that its fundamentally untrue – it may or may not be (I’m inclined to think some of it is) – but that it’s been managed, massaged and manicured, ultimately, into something above and beyond the original reality. And that this “image-squared” is then being used to control and shape perception.

Which, to be fair, seem to be her precise point. Mired as it is in layers of snark.

The point about snark is that it's the premium you (or rather the interviewee) must sometimes pay for the benefit of an insight. And in so far as “accepted practice” goes, that’s perfectly ok.

But if you’re going to spend an entire article lampooning his underwear, comparing him to Freddie Mercury, even making snide inferences about his libido and sexual orientation, and the future/stability of his relationship with Xisca, then you’d better be darned certain that you’re delivering on that insight. I don’t think she does.

Rafa: “[Xisca] is perfect for me, because she is very relaxed and easy-going and I’ve known her for a long, long time. Our families have been friends for many years.”

Hardly the language of passion, you’ll agree, but at least from then on he had an official girlfriend, which made up for the fact that his sleeveless tops and bulging biceps reminded one inexorably of Freddie Mercury. But The Girlfriend remains a distant presence, never actually around.

The obvious question is whether Miss Barber would be that exacting (if you can call it that) with a player she likes, whether that's Federer, Wozniacki, or anyone else. Whether she’d be as unflinching in her efforts at breaking down the PR machine (in so far as we’re convinced she’s actually done that) of a player more in tune with her (very subjective) notions of the values a sportsperson should supposedly embody – values she very evidently doesn’t believe Rafa does embody (not at any rate, to the degree we are being invited to believe).

She (Xisca) sometimes makes an appearance at his finals, among his family, but even long-time tennis insiders have never met her. Nadal says he sees her whenever he goes back to Majorca, but for a young man in peak physical condition, it doesn’t suggest the height of sexual fulfilment.

I can only record that there was a big difference in the enthusiasm with which he said he phoned his mother and sister every day, and whatever he was saying, or not saying, about his girlfriend. I’ll be pretty amazed if he ever marries her, though.

Try and imagine the outrage if Mirka was the object of such overtly spittle-flecked innuendo. I have a sneaking suspicion – perhaps unfounded (though no more unfounded than any of the more reckless extrapolations the piece makes) – that Miss Barber’s piece on Fed would read very differently. Just a suspicion, as I say.

One can always argue (as many have) that Feds superior command of English would mean he’d negotiate the attempts at cutting through his PR machine far more effectively than Rafa did. That’s probably true. At the very least, he could attempt to preempt some of the more obvious lines of attack, like, say, ‘jacketgate’ .

But I doubt that would have caused the writer concerned to refrain from making the most mind-blowing and sordid extrapolations imaginable if that is, indeed, what they were set on doing (which, as it happens, is EXACTLY what I remember them doing) - it's not, as I say, something I can see Miss Barber being that keen on (or as keen on).

Listen: I dare say Nadal really is a lovely man (though I refuse to say lad). But the point I’m trying to make is, whether he is or isn’t I wouldn’t know, and you wouldn’t either. He lives within this tight stockade of team Rafa, and sticks to the script his minders have written for him. It must require great discipline to be so controlled, but then it must require great discipline to be a world champion anyway.

If your raison d'etre is that we can never get close enough to Rafa (or any elite player) to make that kind of elusive insight, fine – but lets not pretend that’s nearly the revelatory, incisive or blinding piece of journalism so many seem convinced it is. And it certainly doesn’t warrant the flecks of spittle.

I daresay a less preeminent (and less prejudiced) writer could have made the same point with a fraction of ink.


Presumably, her point is that the mere existence of a PR machine, and the hegemony it exerts (again, hardly unique to Rafa), allows you to weave any kind of elaborate fantasy you want, and that that should be a two-way street: if you’re so intent on poeticising him as ‘Huck Finn’ then I have EVERY right to lampoon him as an uncaring, obnoxious neanderthal. 

Couldn’t agree more. Except the Huck Finn “earthiness” (however trite) does, at least, have a grain of truth to it. Even those ambivalent to his appeal concede that much – something she might have been cognisant of had she known more about tennis.

The neanderthal that Miss Barber supposes “will never marry Xisca”, on the other hand, is an elaborate and particularly caustic fantasy concocted in order to demonstrate what remains, at heart, a pretty unsubtle point – let us hope SHE would concede that much.

And I still think that she has an axe to grind with Rafa in particular – presumably because he doesn’t accord with an out-dated (and entirely flawed) vision of tennis “gentility” certain dinosaurs continue to insist upon, and is on some kind of misplaced, iconoclastic crusade aimed at exposing him as an overgrown, £67M fratboy.

Personally, I think that characterisation is flawed and doesn’t bear up to scrutiny (however much you might object to the PR machine) – but I’d be more accepting of it as “her opinion” if she were more honest about simply not liking Rafa very much. Which isn’t, after all, (and shouldn’t be) a punishable offence.

Instead, we’re expected to buy into the entirely spurious vision of the crusading saviour cutting through the tentacles of Rafa’s PR machine. Look at it how you want, but that ennobling image seems just as inaccurate as anything Rafa’s PR machine can conjure up.

Am I reaching? Probably – but, again, no farther than she does with Rafa  (several times over) throughout the piece. That axe is grinding so much its gouged clean through the flooring and is giving rise to various unwholesome tingling sensations in my nails and teeth.

In as much as she was after an angle, any angle, it seems she’d already made her mind up about it before starting the interview – which she then went on to use, almost, as a cathartic vehicle with which to lampoon Rafa with from every angle, and every which way but loose.

There is, to be fair, something to be said for her debunking of “the myth”. Much of what she says is beyond dispute.

As she correctly points out, Rafa is now 25, and,  by all accounts, half way through his tennis career (over half if you buy into all those stories about how the way he plays is supposedly shortening his career) – the “Huck Finn” image is as hackneyed, now, as all those superlative-laden tracts describing Fed’s game in terms like “art” and “poetry”.

And 'Rafa Inc.', valued at somewhere around £68M, is as much a corporate entity as Shell Oil – both requiring the most exacting standards of brand management.

The main trouble with Miss Barber’s piece is, aside from a small, far-right element of Rafaelites (a corresponding element might be found in the spectrum of Fedophiles, SerenaKads or Led Zeppelin enthusiasts), no one’s ever really lost sight of that.
Tennis fans are, by and large, an educated bunch. And are informed enough and savvy enough to realise that much of what is drip fed to them regarding their heroes is saccharine-laced fantasy. Not objecting to the mere presence of a PR machine should not be mistaken for not having the ability to account for one, nor for being unable to form their own opinions.

The material point that’s been been lost in the ubiquitous fallout is how patronising the article is to these tennis fans: it’s really rather difficult not to resent the implication that it takes someone of the preeminence of Miss Barber to re-educate and reorient us and to snap us out of our collective opium-infused stupour – especially when that someone admits to knowing so very little about tennis.

For my part – and I’d imagine it’s the same with most fans – I’ve never really bought into the attempts to further embellish Rafa’s wholesome image. The desperately romantic PR surgery is, at best, overwrought and, at worst, deeply nauseating. And will  in all likelihood, do little to influence tennis fans whose opinion will, long ago, already have crystallised, into something resembling romance, ambivalence or active dislike – or even an irregular fusion of all three – YES WE FANS REALLY CAN BE THAT NUANCED.

As it happens, I might choose to believe the romantic anecdotes, but mostly because I trust my own judgement about him, and only in so far as those anecdotes expound upon that very organic judgement –  the cloying narrative forged by his PR machine has nothing to do with it and serves as little more than an entertaining backdrop.
Unlike Miss Barber, I have no axe to grind regarding either Rafa or anyone else. But I would invite all those people greeting her piece as such fine, exemplary and “penetrating” journalism to ask themselves whether they’d be as tolerant of a piece so overtly derisory and so very evidently couched in prejudice  towards their faves  – whosoever that might be.


When Fed was so mercilessly crucified over ‘JacketGate’ by other similarly “preeminent” writers, there was, unfortunately, a small element of Rafaelites attempting to use the episode to supposedly “vindicate” their toxic hate.

Well, what goes around comes around.

Which is why I’d urge just a little caution from those that now feel supposedly “vindicated about Rafa” – not to crow TOO loudly, and to hold back on rubbing their hands togethr in such obviously grim satisfaction.

Let NO ONE feel secure from the fevered and reckless insinuations of a writer that’s already made up their mind.

(Pics: getty)
blog comments powered by Disqus


All images on this site have been found in the public domain.
Credit has been given wherever possible.
If you feel your copyright is being infringed upon by any particular image, please contact me and I'll have it taken it down.

You Said...

Powered by Disqus

Receive Updates by Email...

Enter your email address:

  © Free Blogger Templates Spain by 2008

Back to TOP