Vox in the Box: Darren Lewis

Darren Lewis is a football correspondent for the Daily Mirror, and has been for the last 16 years. He’s also a regular on Sky and Talksport, as well as being known as the nicest man in football journalism.

Darren, You’ve been at the Daily Mirror since 2000. Hugh McIlvanney mentioned in his ‘farewell’ piece in the Sunday Times that he doesn’t envy the newer, more technologically savvy generation of journalists because they just don’t have the same access as before…

Technology has allowed a lot of people to write about sport without ever having to speak to people within sport, and I think what Hugh was alluding to is that in order to do our jobs we have to make and build those relationships. It’s that much harder because the clubs have their own media arms, through which they can put out their own “propaganda”. I read the piece you did with Rory Smith, who said we go to games in order to actually enable the supporter not to have to swallow what the club wants them to, but to actually have an objective pair of eyes, on a story or a game or any given situation. Technology has made that job much harder.

Another thing Rory said was that when you start talking to people you develop relationships with them and you therefore want them to do well. To take the opposite view – and I’m not sure if I believe this or not – do you think there’s a value in not talking to people within the sport because you’re a bit more emotionally disconnected from things?

I don’t know if I do subscribe to that, because people are able to put their club allegiances to one side in order to do your job – you couldn’t do your job if you were a fan with a laptop, because you wouldn’t be able to write the difficult stories, or criticise a manager and/or his players, and you wouldn’t be able to address the difficulties of any situation. I do see what you mean – if you are detached then you aren’t emotionally involved, but in order to do your job information is the key. Opinions can only get you so far – you can only write so many opinion pieces, so at some level you have to be able to inform people.

It’s one of my big bugbears, for example, that people shoot messengers all over the place, but it’s those so-called messengers who put stories out there. I’ll give you an example: the Sun did a story about Manchester United’s interest in Neymar – now whether United go on to sign Neymar or not, their [the journalist’s] job is to report the news on any given day, and on that day the news was United were trying to pursue Neymar. The kind of response they got was, all over social media, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ When we write a transfer story, or any kind of story, we’re not speculating on whether it will happen or not – we’re just moving the information we’ve received into the public domain. That does illustrate a) why information is so important, but b) why their job is so difficult, because social media enables people to come out almost immediately and knock a story down, or decry it. And when the story is vindicated, those people who have hammered you will be long gone, and are never around to say ‘Actually, you did a good job.’ And they did do a good job with that story.

When you have a story, and you’re talking to various agents, players or whoever, how do you weigh up who to trust, and who’s just giving you information from their own self-interest?

Generally when you talk to agents, they will always talk up their own player. Whenever you ask ‘Who’s interested?’, an agent will always say ‘Real Madrid and Barcelona’ – every agent’s player is always the best player who ever pulled on a pair of boots. You’re maybe told something, but generally what I do – and I’m sure other journalists do too – is try as much as possible to verify it: you may well go to the club and put it to them, for example. Obviously if you deal with an agent on a regular basis and you trust them, there are certain situations where you have a degree of confidence, but you always make the relevant checks to ensure the story you’re doing has something in it.

In January I did a story about Diego Costa and Oscar having a little bit of a dust-up at the Chelsea training ground – when you get information like that you can’t just run with it, because someone’s recollection of it might not be quite what happened, so you put it to the club and they either verify it or say it’s not true. In this case they verified it and we were able to run it. It’s very basic really.

If you have a story which turns out to be wrong, does that knock your confidence? Do you become more cautious when reporting subsequent stories?

I think you are [cautious] anyway. Sometimes you can only trust the source. You go about your job, and try to do as good a job you can on any given day. I remember when you spoke to Michael Calvin, and he said the hardest thing to do is go out on the coalface, and it is hard because you do have to get this information. But what you do, as much as possible, is try to make the checks that will enable you to write a story. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a story – and a colleague on another paper wrote a similar story – about Dimitri Payet, that his agent had asked for £125,000-a-week in a new contract. West Ham said that wasn’t the case, that he hadn’t asked for that amount, but then Payet ended up signing a new contract for £125,000-a-week. People assume we dream these figures up, but we don’t – we act on information, reliable information that you’ve been given. Obviously the more you work with someone the more reliable you’re able to judge them to be.

Does it concern you that a lot of websites now will take a story, do their own version of it then buried in the fourth paragraph somewhere is ‘…reports the Daily Mirror’?

It’s not so much that, more websites – and clubs, to be fair – that lap up gossip but shoot those particular messengers at the same time, and deride those stories. Why would you carry those stories as part of your output, if those stories are so poor and ridiculous? It’s having it both ways. That’s the issue. We’re all journalists, but there’s a different level of accountability there. We are accountable, we have to be accountable, but it just never ceases to amaze me that people think we wouldn’t try as hard as possible to ensure there is something in a story [we’ve written].

Clubs running gossip columns on their websites is a weird one – is that because they think they are rivals to newspapers in terms of providing content?

Yeah, it is quite weird because clubs will dismiss newspaper stories as speculation, and then they carry that “speculation” as part of their official output. It’s the whole having things both ways again – if they don’t want that speculation to be planted among their fans then why do they give it to them? I think in terms of social media they take the view that if you want to grow your numbers, and have the hits, it’s worth doing. It is fascinating: clubs telling their fans ‘don’t believe what’s in the papers’ then saying ‘here’s what’s in the papers.’

You’ve written a few pieces advocating for the Rooney Rule in football, and one of the frequent criticisms of journalists when those articles come out is that the press isn’t necessarily that diverse either…

I think there is a growing number of journalists to buck that trend, and I think the reason why things are changing as far as the reporting of football is concerned, is because of the growing change with people. I don’t want to criticise people that were around before, but I do think football is better at dealing with racism now than it ever has been. I do get annoyed when I hear people say ‘there’s no place for racism in our society’ – it’s almost like saying ‘there’s no place for killing people.’ It’s fairly obvious.

Do you think the coverage of race issues is getting better?

Years ago, football had no interest in covering racism at all, and I’ll give you an example: last year, Graham Taylor was threatening legal action about a story that said he’d told someone at a Kick It Out dinner he’d been told by the FA not to pick too many black players for the England team. That story was all over the back pages when it was reported last May, but it was originally reported 12 years ago by a guy called Vivek Chaudhary and at the time nobody batted an eyelid. That tells you the difference between back then and now. To be fair I don’t think football knew how to deal with those issues, with the press largely made up of white middle-class men who had never experienced racism in their lives, even if they were well-meaning about it. You also had people accusing players of playing the ‘race card’ – the dreaded race card, as if it’s in your top pocket – you had managers claiming they hadn’t heard stuff they blatantly had, and players that came out and said things were battered.

I think it’s changing now, but you go back to something like the Roy Hodgson thing  and that was fascinating. We’re always telling people in the workplace that if you hear something you’re not comfortable with, say something – it’s part of the duty of care employers have to their employees. And yet when somebody leaked out they were uncomfortable with a phrase that was used – and we all know that Hodgson wouldn’t have been inferring anything negative, but his choice of words was unfortunate – but that person got hammered, called a rat and a snake and a traitor in the camp. So the next time someone hears something like that, are they going to be as open and honest about it? I don’t think so.

The Rooney Rule is a strange issue, because for something not to be implemented, you’d think there has to be a significant negative to it, a genuine reason not to do it, but there isn’t one…

Every time I hear the Rooney Rule being discussed, I hear people saying ‘You can’t just give jobs away.’ But the people who would benefit most from it actually wish there wasn’t a Rooney Rule. They wish they could be judged on their own merits, but the statistics speak for themselves, first of all. Second of all people say ‘why haven’t they taken their badges?’, but if you look up and down the Football League you’ll see so many people taking their badges and they don’t mean anything, because when chairman want to give a job to someone they will give it to someone they’ve been recommended, or their mates, and they couldn’t care less about the whole idea that there are so few black managers in the English game. I’m not saying that guys should get jobs because they are black, but there isn’t a reason why some people who share a dressing room with certain individuals who have taken jobs at the top of the English football pyramid, should be at the bottom, with little or no chance of getting a job at a comparable level.

People still roll their eyes when you talk about the Rooney Rule, even though they can’t give you any kind of sensible reason why there are so few black managers in the English game. I also think people deliberately misinterpret the Rooney Rule and try to present it as a quota system, handing out jobs on a plate, when it’s just about widening the pool of talent available. When you look at the treatment that people like Anton Ferdinand got, or Jason Roberts gets when he talks about the Rooney Rule, and other people too, you can see why people don’t speak out as much as they could.

Has that ever discouraged you from writing pieces about those issues?

It never has. The Daily Mirror has always been fantastic about that issue, about allowing me to write whatever I want about the issue. And not just about the Rooney Rule, but about my experiences too. There is an assumption though that because I’m black, all I will ever write about is racism, but there is more of a willingness now [to write about those issues]. Oliver Holt, when he was at the Daily Mirror and now the Mail on Sunday has been one of the strongest advocates for the Rooney Rule, and he’s been outspoken about the underrepresentation of black managers. And other people within journalism have too, and that’s something that has changed a lot. Non-black people are far more willing to speak up and address it than before.

You can follow Darren Lewis on Twitter (@MirrorDarren)

You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)

Vox in the Box: Darren Lewis
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