Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

STATE OF ANGST: Josh Dugan at a photo/interview opportunity for the NSW Blues last year. He was reportedly so hungover he was shielded from media representatives. Picture: Ben Rushton
STATE OF ANGST: Josh Dugan at a photo/interview opportunity for the NSW Blues last year. He was reportedly so hungover he was shielded from media representatives. Picture: Ben Rushton

NEGATIVITY sells papers.

So declared Cronulla, NSW and Kangaroos utility back Josh Dugan during an emotional interview this week, in which he claimed he was “an easy target” for media ridicule because of his past indiscretions.

It would be easy to dismiss Dugan as perhaps not the most accurate arbiter of impartial and objective press, firstly because he claimed: “I don’t watch the news, don’t read the paper”, and also because his opinion might be somewhat skewed by the headlines he has attracted over the years.

But the reality is that such views are not uncommon in rugby league, nor in other high-profile professional sporting codes.

If I had a dollar for every time my reporting had been labelled “too negative” by club officials, I’d be as rich as Nathan Tinkler once briefly (allegedly) was.

From my experience in covering rugby league, which dates back more decades than I would care to admit, there are definitely those who tend to view stories in black and white, with few shades of grey.

Positive, or negative.

Positive stories, from a club’s perspective, might include reports about players signing autographs for sick children in hospitals, players attending junior coaching clinics, a major sponsorship announcement, the unveiling of a new Women in League Round jersey, or the re-signing of a coach or key player.

Negative stories would comprise such reports as players getting drunk and/or nude on Mad Monday, players sending inappropriate photos or videos to female fans, players testing positive to banned drugs, a club getting busted for rorting the salary cap, or a coach copping the sack.

Now I ask you, in all honesty, which items would be more likely to attract your attention?

Let me put it another way.

In 1912, had the Titanic safely completed its maiden voyage across the Atlantic in world-record time, what sort of coverage would it have received in newspapers of the day?

It would probably have been celebrated on page one for a day or so, then spent the next few decades crossing the oceans with little fuss or fanfare.

Instead it encountered an infamous iceberg and the rest, as we know, is history.

The point being that one of the most memorable stories of all time – which has been re-told for more than 100 years right around the world – was anything but a feelgood fairytale with a happily-ever-after ending.

Was the Titanic a “negative” story? Not from my perspective. 

It was quite simply news, horrible, tragic, unprecedented news, but news in which people were, and remain today, fascinated.

So what exactly is the definition of news? According to the Oxford Dictionary: “Information about important or interesting recent events, especially when published or broadcast.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of the positive-negative argument.

Information that readers, or viewers, might find “important or interesting” will sometimes cause embarrassment or angst for the subject, and hence be construed as “negative”.

To borrow a line from the great author George Orwell: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” 

I wouldn’t necessarily agree that sports journalism is so rigidly cut and dried.

Reporting that Harry Scravis has suffered a season-ending knee injury, after he has been carried from the field in a televised game, is hardly a revelation that a club would prefer to keep secret, yet neither is it good news or PR.

Likewise a story that Joe Bloggs has been dropped to reserve grade after a run of poor form. One look at the squad named on Tuesday is all that is needed to confirm his absence.

In the case of Dugan, without doubt he has attracted more than his share of unwanted spotlight since debuting in the NRL as an 18-year-old, virtually straight out of high school.

Yet you only have to consider another player who debuted in the top grade aged 18, Kalyn Ponga, as evidence to discredit Dugan’s theory of negativity.

Ponga has featured on the back page of the Newcastle Herald more times this season than any player since the halcyon days of Andrew Johns. And it’s not just his on-field ability that has captured the imagination.

As one experienced female reporter tweeted after interviewing him: “What a delightful young man.”

At all times, Ponga has appeared humble, polite and down-to-earth, even slightly embarrassed about all the fuss. The 20-year-old has emerged as the game’s most valuable marketing tool and role model.

Indeed, the vast majority of the NRL’s almost 500 players are good ambassadors. A very small percentage, however, are repeat offenders when it comes to bringing the game into disrepute.

Dugan has been one of them. Even his revelation this week that he had raised $15,000 for a terminally ill teenager, and completed a diploma in community and social work, was delivered in a tone unlikely to ensure unanimous sympathy.

“You don't hear about that,” he said. “It's only the bad stuff. I'm used to it.” 

Maybe Dugan has finally learned his lesson. But when you’re a self-proclaimed “easy target”, trying to shoot the messenger would appear slightly futile.