7 AUGUST 2004, Page 11

Even serious newspapers have adopted the sex and football agenda of the NoW

The other day someone asked _ me what the story of SvenGoran Eriksson. the Football Association and the girl was all about. I hesitated. I thought that I understood it — and had even written a column in the Daily Mail complaining about the lies told by the Football Association. But when I reflected, I had to concede that the story had taken on a life of its own. It had grown like some uncontrollable plant in a science fiction story so that by Monday morning it was the splash in the Guardian, and occupied several pages of the paper's tabloid sports section. The BBC prattles on about it hour after hour. No one any longer bothers to examine the reasons for its existence. It is just there.

Ostensibly it is all about lying. On 18 July the News of the World alleged that Sven-Goran Eriksson had had a fling with a secretary working for the Football Association called Faria Alam. You may ask why this was such a big story. After all. Sven is not a married man, nor has he sought in any way to defend or uphold the state of marriage. The answer is that the News of the World is obsessed with sex and football, and when the two subjects come together it has difficulty in remaining calm. Nevertheless. Sven could have killed off the story by taking one of two courses of action. He could have admitted to the affair, and asked what business it was of the newspaper's, the more so since he does not have a wife. Or, more sensibly — since the first option might have caused him some embarrassment — he could have simply said nothing.

The Football Association, however, decided to respond to the story in a different way. It lied. Where the lie originated is still a matter of dispute — was it Sven or FA officialdom or both? — but there is no question that it was told, The FA even got its lawyers to send a letter to newspapers insisting that Sven had never had an affair with Faria. In this way it managed to turn a private matter into a subject of public interest, since national bodies such as the FA are not supposed to tell untruths about anything. In fact there was plenty of evidence that Sven had had an affair, and on 25 July the News of the World informed its readers that Faria Adam had also had a fandango with Mark Patios, the chief executive of the FA and a divorced man. Mr Palios has since resigned.

In engaging with the NOW the Football Association made a disastrous mistake, Twenty, even ten, years ago such an organisation would not have felt obliged to respond in such a way. On this occasion it danced to a tune which the News of the World had struck up. And not only that. Last Sunday's NoW revealed that the FA's director of communications, Colin Gibson, had done a deal with the paper, offering to dish the dirt on Sven so long as Mark Patios was kept out of the story. Naturally this was not an arrangement which the NoW thought it necessary to honour for very long, and it reprinted the transcript of a conversation between the hapless Mr Gibson and one of its reporters. Mr Gibson is a former journalist who has worked for the Telegraph titles and the Daily Mail, and his behaviour was more naive than one would have expected. His readiness to land Sven in the soup tells us something not very nice about him and his FA masters, who presumably egged him on. More interesting to me is the way in which the entire FA and Sven responded to the NoW on the newspaper's own terms. Instead of telling this leering, sordid brute to mind its own business, they sat down and talked and, more fatally still, lied.

In a wider sense the NoW controls all of us. Let us accept that there are many people in this country who want to read about Sven and sex. From time to time I am reasonably happy to do so in small dollops. But actually there are millions of ordinary people — not just a high-minded elite — who are not absolutely gripped by football, and who do not care very much about the sex life of the England manager or members of his grotesquely overpaid squad. I know that it is the silly season and all that, but this obsession is perennial. On Wednesday the Sun's front page informed us that 'the girlfriend of England soccer ace Gary Neville has been seeing another man'. Big deal! We live in a country where not only the tabloids but also the supposedly serious newspapers and the BBC have adopted the sex and football agen

da of the News of the World. I accept that the FA's lies justify the coverage of this story to some degree, but not on this scale. There are other issues mixed in — the sex, of course, and hatred of Sven as an avaricious, overpaid foreign impostor, and, above all, the obsession with our so-called national game. But couldn't most of this be confined to the sports pages? It is as though some minority sect that enjoyed wrestling in the nude and pelting one another with hardboiled eggs had got control of us all, and we are forced to read and hear about their insignificant and slightly sordid lives day after day. Is there no escape?

onrad Black's last-ditch attempt to block the sale of the Telegraph Group has failed in the American courts, and the titles, including The Spectator, have now passed to the Barclay brothers. I am still staggered by the extent and speed of Lord Black's fall from grace, and I only hope that someone somewhere is planning to do justice to this amazing story in a book.

Meanwhile here is another thought which will take me on my summer holidays. There are 550 journalists employed by the Telegraph Group. A few of them are very expert investigative reporters. Obscure companies which step over the line are mercilessly deconstructed. Malefactors are brought low. And yet the affairs of Lord Black in the years and months before his fall were never remarked upon. The brilliant skills brought to bear in eviscerating others were never turned on him. Of course, one cannot expect journalists working for the Telegraph Group to investigate their own proprietor in the pages of their own titles, but they might have passed on whatever misgivings they had to others, and ferreted out some information. I certainly do not exempt myself from blame. I never took the time to look into the complex and tangled affairs of Lord Black's various companies.

What does all this tell us? That journalists suspend their natural scepticism and questioning when they are in their own backyards. Not only journalists were at fault. Were there no executives who had qualms about what was going on? It is some excuse, though not a sufficient one, to say that Lord Black was in most respects a good proprietor, as well as an agreeable man. He was very far from being a monster. But I don't think that any of us who worked for him save in the most humble capacity has cause for feeling entirely at ease.