Well-known Spain-based football writer and broadcaster Sid Lowe interviewed Luis Suarez for the Guardian, published last Friday. While the piece generally follows the long-form player interview template, the manner in which Lowe dealt with the Patrice Evra incident involving accusations of racism has been received with some controversy, predictably from aggrieved supporters of Manchester United. This, for those who haven’t read it, is the offending passage:
The word negro in Spanish does not mean “negro”, and certainly does not mean the other n-word. In Uruguay, it is a word so widely used as to often be little more than mate. “In Spanish, in Latin America, there’s a way of speaking that is totally different. There are words you can say here that you could not say there and vice-versa. They would be taken in a totally different way,” says Suárez. But perhaps that is not even the point given that after three days of video evidence at a three-man Independent Regulatory Commission, lip readers produced no hard evidence that he said what he was accused of saying.
Before we get to the meat of this paragraph, there is an issue here with journalistic form that needs to be addressed. Long-form interviews have a long and complex history in mainstream print journalism, stretching back to Gay Talese’s influential piece for Esquire, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” In light of the wide availability of video and audio interviews, the traditional print interview often relies on literary flourish to give the reader more than mere words to get their bearings. If anything, Lowe showed restraint by modern standards, omitting the noxious “I” from the body of the interview.
Lowe for example uses physical language to put the reader at Suarez’s side, and in doing so reveals the subjective view of the author:
[Suarez] walks past the European Cup, past the rows and rows of boots and trainers, and up the stairs, taking a seat in an office overlooking the fields, still in his kit. He talks well; occasionally with eloquence and always with a self-awareness that is striking, even a little disarming.
While this is standard stuff, it does reveal the central limitation with the literary long-form interview: lack of clear and distinct journalistic disinterest. It’s generally impossible to take literary license in an interview while at the same time maintain strict objective distance from the subject and his or her views, although one can come close. Of course, if an interviewer wants to avoid any and all perceptions of bias they need only reprint a transcript, but that would make for a pretty boring read.
Chances are, Lowe has his own views on Suarez, views that probably flatter the Uruguayan’s view of allegations he racially abused Patrice Evra. Yet the way he relates Suarez’s defense, with supporting arguments outside of the quotation marks, is actually true to journalistic form. Essentially, Lowe is filling in the argumentative blanks in Suarez’s account of what happened. It’s an old element used in fiction and non-fiction alike, an extension of narrative voice.
Lowe could have pressed him on some of the inconsistencies in his story or included a throwaway paragraph or sentence undermining Suarez’s convictions, but this subject matter has been covered exhaustively elsewhere. Even if Lowe had he done so, he would have been subject to abuse from the Merseyside precinct of the Nuance Police.
Doing so would have also taken away from the final product, especially as the interview doesn’t even primarily involve the Evra allegations and the subsequent ban, but Suarez’s own problems dealing with his anger on the pitch and his adjustments to Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers. Lowe, unlike some other writers, has enough faith in his readers’ intelligence to clear the space for them to make their own conclusions about Suarez’s character—a player who admits he experiences anger on the pitch while maintaining he had no malicious intent in his dealings with Patrice Evra.
This was perhaps Lowe’s biggest mistake. That this incident has become more about Lowe’s interview and less about Suarez’s contradictory remarks is indicative of a rabidly partisan fan base that, in solidarity with their contemporaries in American politics, measure their victim-hood in relation to other clubs against the yardstick of media bias, often perceived and sometimes real. Football fans—angry, needy, emotional—need approval from their symbolic Press Daddy. Without it, they tend to throw tantrums.
The core of the Suarez/Evra dispute has never been about the two players, their clubs, and their supporters but instead those institutions still ostensibly bound by the dual requirements of empirical fact and sound reason: the media and (insert joke here) the FA. To this day, Liverpool fans are convinced domestic media gave John Terry a pass for racism while condemning Luis Suarez. And blogs like the Republik of Mancunia—a blog styled in Pravda-like Red Army lettering—seem incapable of appreciating the irony of a fan blog making the case a national newspaper is biased against their club.
There is some good to come of this: even Lowe admitted on Twitter he could have improved the interview. Yet he also quite rightly noted painting Suarez as a pariah would serve no one, particularly for a reading audience in a nation with fans that failed to see the difference between booing Suarez and booing a national anthem. That lesson, as usual, has been lost in the 140-character rancour.