An appalling treatment

There was no debate in Australia about Arjuna Ranatunga and Muttiah Muralitharan. The Australian Press let it be known that Murali had a suspect action and that we must remember that Arjuna was the nasty piece of work.

Muralitharan and Ranatunga argue with Umpire Ross Emerson after a no ball incident during the ODI against England in Australia.   -  Getty Images

When we try to understand what has happened to the Sri Lankans in the past month - and in particular to Muttiah Muralitharan and Arjuna Ranatunga - we must remember that roughly 75 per cent of Australian newspapers are owned by Rupert Murdoch and the rest by Fairfax which means that there is very little in the way of dissenting voice.

This fact is nothing to do with a bias imposed by the proprietors; simplv that in the main there is just one reporter from each organisation to cover cricket matches for many newspapers that in, for instance, India and Britain would be discussed by up to a two dozen journalists.

The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age, both Fairfax newspapers, share their cricket coverage. From the Adelaide Advertiser, by way of the Sun Herald in Melbourne, the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and the Brisbane Courier right through to the Northern Territory capital of Darwin there is often only one News International or Murdoch writer to tell the Australian newspaper reader what is happening to his cricket team and their opponents.

Of course, there are radio stations, led bv the ABC team who report every Test and one-day international and the celebrated Channel Nine cricket commentators who cover every home Test. They have rivals on the ABC television channel, as well as Channels Seven and Ten, who both obviously see cricket as a major platform from which to extend their number of viewers and devoted a slice of the sportscasts to the game, although coverage of the matches is the sole purgative of Nine.

So in the main it is the same views that impinge on the Australian consciousness day in, day out. It is far from beneficial for this society.

In any newspaper office I have ever worked in, there has been a philosophy which said that if a story appeared first in another publication, it was not good enough to reproduce an updated version the next day. We would - and I see it daily in Britain and whenever I visit India - try to take the story a step further, or find a completely new line, or even a way to suggest that the original story was mostly fiction.

That way debate begins. That way there is discussion wherever sports people meet. Many criticise the power of the Press - which is considerable in Australia - but it has a serious place in a democratic society if only to make the population discuss the major subjects of the day.

There was no debate in Australia about Ranatunga and Murali. Only the strongest-minded people took any view save that offered by the compact group of men who send out the news. From the moment the action began they let it be known that Murali had a suspect action and that we must remember that Arjuna was the nasty piece of work who told his men not to shake hands with Australians.

There was no one to defend the Sri Lankans, no one to remind us that in the face of criticism of his action Kumara Dharmasena was left out of the Sri Lanka squad, no one to say that Australians are far from saintly when they play the game, that by their own admission they don't walk and that sledging was invented, developed, nurtured and honed on this continent of 18 million people.

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The Sri Lankan cricket team waits after Australian umpire Ross Emerson called Muralitharan for throwing in the ODI against England in Adelaide.   -  Sportstar

 

Stories relayed recently from the field of play during the triangular tournament include some of the foulest language, some of the most sordid suggestions. The Barmy Army set the tone in disgusting words and banal thoughts but England and Australia proved they were the Army's equal in rudeness and crudity.

No one cared to mention the Australian belief that you can say what you like to a man on the field so long as you have a drink with him at the close of play is not a universal truth. It is often recited by their players as if it were holy writ but it lies badly with those cricketers who come from a background that excludes strong drink.

England, South Africa, Zimbabwe and New Zealand may subscribe to the same belief - although not always - but there must be men of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka who find it offensive. Though West Indians have been unwilling to follow this path. Their attitude amazes Australians. But why should the men of the Caribbean, an area dominated by strong Christian beliefs, support a way of life based around the week-end, life on the beach and all the hedonistic experiences that go with "having a beer?"

As the tour progressed, it seemed that there was a larger ration of the Murali story and once umpire Ross Emerson had made his infamous call the floodgates opened.

There is also the strong streak of patriotism that drives Australians. They think they alone have the right to criticise their own; but they rarely avail themselves of that privilege. Instead they abide by the principle spelt out by one mindless soul of my acquaintance. "Mate, we're Australians. We can do what we like."

Here is a curious fact. On the day the story about Emerson being off work because he was sick, the Murdoch papers in the eastern States, played it down. In Perth, where the only paper is an independent, it was front page news because Emerson is a local man.

It was not until Denis Rogers, the Chairman of the Australian Cricket Board, announced Emerson had been stood down that the story made an impact. Even then it was given more prolonged coverage by the England Press group than the Australians who are much less aggressive in their news coverage. Why should they compete, since in many cities and towns there is no rival to compete against.

By now the story had become a set piece. A bowler who threw had been defended inappropriately. By a captain who had no manners. No one contradicted this theme; there was no one to put the other point of view until Peter Roebuck, whose reputation is high in every part of the world, began to point out some of the flaws in the Australian arguments.

It reminded me of the attitude taken by British newspapers in 1992 when Pakistan were accused of ball-tampering, when Javed Miandad fell out with umpires in the Old Trafford Test and the series deteriorated into one of the most irritable in modern history.

That set-to also included some of the most one-eyed reporting I can remember. It's not just the Australians who can take a biased point of view, although a dozen national British newspapers and almost as many Sunday papers ensure there is a chance of another viewpoint being expressed. In Australia there was one final factor.

During the third Test I met Michael Roberts of the University of Adelaide who has a Sri Lankan background. He had been disturbed by the way the previous tour of Australia was reported and we discussed the reasons at length. By the time we returned for the three one-dayers he invited me to a dinner for the Sri Lankan team which allowed us to discuss how best to respond to the news stories in The Australian newspaper.

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Ross Emerson keeps an eye on Muttiah Muralitharan's bowling after earlier calling him for throwing at the other end.   -  Sportstar

 

Over breakfast the next day I suggested he got in touch with the editor. When he did he found that the modern equivalent of the Gideon Knot; he could not get past the voice mail. So he sent a reply to one article that had particularly offended him and asked to be given equal space on the basis of right of reply.

Nothing appeared. Roberts was distressed and no wonder. He also appeared on ABC TV; two snippets were used from a talk with an interviewer who offered sympathy for the Sri Lankan point of view.

There is a solution: a 21st century answer to the problem of biased reporting.

England have a full-time staff of public relations people from Richard Peel, their head of corporate affairs, through Brian Murgatroyd who travels with the team, to Andrew Walpole, who concentrates on county cricket but who has a wider brief when Murgatroyd is away, to Clare Fathers, who deals with Press passes and staging conferences. Australia has the forthright presence of Patrick Keene, who also acted for ICC during the winter; South Africa and West Indies have dipped their toes in the PR pool.

Press Officers and Public Relations Officers have grown as important as coaches in the modem era. (Politicians and businessmen have long accepted them as a vital tool in their progress).

They not only smooth the ground between Press and player and arrange TV interviews so that they do not intrude on the captain's time but they also form a more subtle link with reporters who need explanations, or facts, or figures.

The best are worth their weight in gold - to their employers at any rate - for they create an atmosphere of trust between the media and a team, give a visiting squad the chance to put their point of view and ensure that the inevitable rifts do not get out of hand.

It was The Godfather who proclaimed that a lawyer with his brief case will rob you more effectively than a man with a gun. The modem version says that a public relations expert with his mobile phone will prevent a robbery before the thieves get near your front door.

The modem sports organisation needs one just as they need an accountant, as much as their stars need a doctor and a physio and as their ground authorities need gatemen.

Sri Lanka were appallingly treated but it is no use them blaming the habits of the Australian media or the behaviour of their crowds or the chatty habits of the Match Referee Peter van der Merwe for their troubles. They will have to join the modem cricket world which consists of men who whisper as well as men who shout.