Classic code of carefully cultivating leaks
I remember it as if it were yesterday. In fact, it was many years ago. But I had been “leaked” revealing statistics that would categorically prove that one of football’s leading managers had been talking out of his proverbial when criticising a colleague in the game.
It was exciting, exhilarating. It is what a journo lives and breathes for. All those years of carefully, discreetly nurturing the “contact” – one of the top bosses in his field – and never once having betrayed his confidence had finally paid off. It was also an “exclusive”, with no other media outlet having access to the damning stats.
Of course, it was a two-way exercise. The top boss was defending the integrity of one his peers, the leading manager was utterly wrong in his accusations and the issue needed to be clarified. Quickly and publicly. Top boss would help me, I would help him. Job done, drinks all round.
And that’s what happened. The leading manager – believe me, a serious grandmaster of managers – was forced to eat a slice of humble pie, actually huge portions of it, and the impeccable character of his temporarily tarnished colleague was restored. Not quite of “Deep Throat” magnitude, from the Watergate Scandal in 1972, but a satisfying episode nonetheless. My desk chief was pretty impressed, too.
That’s leaks. Virtually always from third parties who have an interest in their news entering the public domain, whether they be agents, advisers or associates – those lovely “Three As” – PR flunkeys, managers, fathers, brothers, sisters, chairmen or, very occasionally, club Press officers, who will provide you with a gentle “steer” in the right direction.
It is mostly about building trust and deep-rooted relationships over many seasons so that, when you need that third party to confirm a story, he or she will not slam the phone down. Or when he or she needs your help to put right a perceived wrong, they feel comfortable contacting you in the knowledge that you will not misrepresent them.
Of course, many of the Three As just love to spin a yarn, especially when the transfer window is open, and many a journo falls under their spell, often willingly. I have dealt with that before in this column … let’s just say that they are not so much genuine leaks, more sly fabrications – with both sides equally culpable.
A lot of leaking is done one-on-one via phone, text, email or clandestine face-to-face meetings in hotels with a favoured scribe. But when one of the huge and well-oiled PR agencies gets going – as, I suspect, was the case when John Terry’s England retirement suddenly came to light recently – then the world and his wife can be “briefed” almost simultaneously.
Such a scattergun approach offers little personal kudos to the hack, because the story is not his alone, but at least he hasn’t missed it. And many is the time I’ve had to endure tales of woe from a miffed colleague, who thought that he was “in” with the well-oiled machine only to discover that so were numerous others. It really is dog eat dog out there.
Every football organisation will have its leaks and, if such a word exists, leakers. From the FA, Premier League and Football League, to the League Managers Association and Professional Footballers’ Association, to Professional Game Match Officials Limited, the referees’ governing body. Cultivate the “source” over many a lunch and phone call, develop that mutual empathy, lean on him gently when the time comes … and bingo.
Friends in high places? That’s what it’s all about. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Whatever cliche you choose to use. When the disclosure of private information is beneficial to both parties, it’s a marriage made in heaven. However, misreport – or, worse, identify – the leaker and an acrimonious divorce can swiftly ensue. After all those years of schmoozing. What a ridiculous waste.
I have to end on a sad note. When I received the exclusive stats that effectively condemned the “serious grandmaster” as little more than a bullying fraud, I felt utterly elated. As I wrote the article, I felt as pleased as punch. And when I opened a rival paper the next morning … I felt betrayed. In it, in stark black and white, were the same stats, the same story. My leaker had leaked the leak to someone else.
Oh well. At least no one else had it. Just the two of us. And it did set the national sports agenda for that day and which rumbled on until the end of the week. If only my contact had told me that another journo was in his loop. No problem. But that was it. I never trusted him again.