By now you may know the story of Samuel Rhodes. If not, here’s the Financial Times:
He gained 20,000 Twitter followers, exchanged messages with professional footballers and occasionally seemed a step ahead on big moves in English football.
But Samuel Rhodes was not the debonair blond journalist shown in his Twitter avatar. He was the alter ego of Sam Gardiner, a 16-year-old schoolboy from North London.
We’ve been here before. Last March in fact, when the world learned that a breaking story from the Times of London on a Qatar-based club competition was in fact a bad copypasta job from a litigious paranoiac based in Sheffield, claiming to be a connected Parisian football expert. This latter case was slightly more complex, of course, but not by much. The same deadly cocktail of truth, guesswork and fantasy was involved: a plausible rumour perhaps taken from a credible source extrapolated to a probable outcome slightly ahead of time. And voila! Twitter fame!
I had this to say on the matter this past weekend:
Theory: there isn't a substantial difference between Sam Rhodes and the "real" football journalists.
— Richard Whittall (@RWhittall) January 25, 2014
Getting wind of transfer news before it breaks is a difficult business. Most clubs are closed shops, and managers and heads of recruitment are naturally reticent over telegraphing their next move lest it affect increasingly high stakes and difficult transfer negotiations. So some of us cut corners. We have a single source. They’ve been dead on the money in the past. Why not just skip the double confirmation bit? It’s just Twitter. Add some caveats while publishing (“could be,” “might be”) and you’ll come out clean on the other end.
This of course leads to a lot of false rumours (officially at a rate of 65% of the time for the most accurate paper in the UK). It’s of course impossible to tell the difference between false transfers and those that simply failed to materialize of course. That’s why the rule of the transfer window is forgive and forget. These are journalists, they’re working to a higher standard than some guy with a rando account claiming to be ITK, right?
But what are football journalists, exactly? Like anyone in a scalable profession, they’re in part benefactors of cumulative advantage or what is often referred to as the Matthew effect. We’re tempted to think that their brilliant sleuthing skills got them jobs at the papers, but often it’s the job itself, which was as much “earned” as it was the result of a series of fortune events, that gave them access to clubs, which can often lead to access to transfer rumours based partially in truth. These are the big winners in the football writing game, because they come stamped with the paper seal of approval. That’s what gets you Twitter followers, that’s what gets you TV spots, that’s what gets you trusted.
It isn’t hard in this environment to be a Sam Rhodes, a huckster who need only add a few false publication credits in his Twitter bio to stave off any doubters. Predictably, Sam’s act eventually landed an actual contact:
In June, James McArthur, a footballer with recently relegated Wigan Athletic, followed his account. That allowed Gardiner to contact him privately with an exploratory message: “Are the rumours true?”
After a friendly exchange, Mr McArthur put Gardiner in touch with another Wigan player, Grant Holt. Gardiner spent Christmas eve in a private Twitter conversation with Mr Holt, then the subject of transfer rumours.
If Sam (Gardiner) had a passion for this work beyond simply baiting gullible club supporters, he’d have likely had as many opportunities (sans the press conferences) for lucky breaks as his actual newspaper counterparts. The veneer of expertise in this dirty business counts for nearly everything (as I’m come to know a little myself during the Rob Beal saga).
Is there a lesson in all this? I think that there will come a generation, perhaps yet unborn, for whom the newspaper credit seal of approval will mean less than an actual demonstrable track record of accuracy in the transfer rumour game. In the future this whole sorry business will the be the sole purview of hobnobbers and gossip artists who have a friend or friends on the inside. As for the professional journalists, they may be better off shelving this stuff altogether, except perhaps as a means to drive up journalist follower counts to ensure more page-views for the longer, more investigative pieces that involve the time and skill set that non-full time rumour spinners don’t have. But even then, the doors to that kind of work are really open to anyone enterprising enough to open them.
The Guardian’s Barney Ronay once dismissively wrote, “We’re all football journalists now.” At some point, we’re going to figure it out and stop taking those publication credits on face value.