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The London Times and a Journalism Hoax

March 13th, 2013 · No Comments · Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Football, France, The National, UAE, soccer

The London Times once had the same reputation in Britain that the New York Times has in the States. The emphasis here being “once” … as in “bygone days”.

Britons were clearly proud of it. And still are, almost instinctively. They refer to it still as “The Times” … as if there is only one that needs no further description. As opposed to the New York Times, which has been a better newspaper for, oh, 50 years. Maybe 100.

First, the London Times was bought by Rupert Murdoch, who loves newspapering but not always high-brow (or even factual) newspapering. Then it went tabloid, and gave up a lot of the fustiness that had made it a “paper of record” …

And today it seems quite likely that it reported three pages of fiction about Qatar purportedly hosting a huge summer soccer tournament for elite world club teams, apparently having tried to turn into “journalism” the invented ramblings of a French satire site. The London Times, it seems, through lack of diligence and unforgivable sloppiness, has perpetrated a hoax.

It is a very bizarre and embarrassing episode for Old World journalism, certainly, including the competitors who picked it up and rewrote it and may or may not have credited the London Times.

The outlines for the competition, as reported in the London Times — as well as the French site Cahiers du Football: 24 clubs being paid perhaps $200 million each just to show up for biennial summer tournaments, beginning in 2015, to be played in air-conditioned stadiums with outdoor areas for fans also air-conditioned. Somehow.

Here is the London Times story … or at least the opening bits of it, because the rest is behind a pay wall. Feel free to pony up, if you want to read the entire work of fiction.

And the amazing thing? The newspaper continues to back its story and the author, Oliver Kay. Even after the French guys pointed out that they “reported” on the fictive Qatar “Dream Football League” two days ago, and that the Times used the same muddy graphic the French site had used.

We heard about this at The National in mid-morning, but something was wrong with the story right from the start. Not one named source. Zero. Not even someone on record saying it was a bad idea. And it was a spectacularly bad idea — a recurring tournament in Doha in the height of the blistering Gulf summer.

The unlikely aspects of it, including the fantastical amounts of money and the air-conditioned public places, were explained away by the London Times as football zealotry on the part of mega-rich Qatari sheikhs.

Then, the wire services ignored it. Reuters, Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press, Britain’s Press Association … no one ran a story about the Dream Football League, crediting the English paper as the source.

At The National, we put one of our best people on it, looking for UAE reaction because the plan the London Times outlined suggested that part of the tournament would be played in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

We ran into a wall. No one would talk about it, and no one knew anything about it.

By the middle of the afternoon came the first reports that the London Times had taken a French flight of fancy and turned it into a news story.

Reuters did move a story, eventually — on how the London Times had been fooled. (It is hard to write “victim of a hoax” because anyone paying attention to the French site, or who had real/credible sources, would have known it was not a serious story.)

Note that this site linked (above) is from the English-language Qatar newspaper the Gulf Times — who, like everyone else in the region, wondered how some guy in London had a story no one in the Gulf knew anything about.

Follow the Reuters story, and you will see the French guys laughing about the Times, and marveling that someone could have been so gullible as to take seriously their story — and then just lift it and attribute it to “sources” and call it their own.

This is not as unlikely as it sounds. Newspapers around the world often post and print stories based on the Pan-Arabian Enquirer website, which is nothing but satire.

Recent history in the region, however, does lend itself towards the fantastical, and the more fantastic the more likely it is some “real” publication will be suckered and report it as news — often as their own news, which is where the trouble begins.

I can envision how this happened. The French site runs their fanciful bit about the Dream Football League. Someone tells the Times guy about it, and perhaps embellishes it a little, and the Timesman, unaware of the satire site, sees “scoop” and runs with it, and his editors devote three pages to it.

The Times has hunkered down, denying that they don’t have it right, essentially saying “wait till next month when the Qataris make it public” … to try to fend off the mockery they so richly deserve.

And another weird aspect of this? People who ought to know better than to believe everything they read in the newspapers … began spirited arguments about how the tournament would be good/bad and how this or that team should always be invited, and would Liverpool make the list? Like hundreds and hundreds of comments, leading one of our staffers to say, “Got to hand it to the supporters; they’re backing their sides to play in a tournament that doesn’t exist.”

A strange, strange day, and not a good one for a certain newspaper that once was far more careful than it is now.

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