Friday 9 December 2016

Berbatov's exclusive with himself opens up new avenues for journalism

Dion Fanning

Published 31/01/2016 | 17:00

'The trained and experienced journalist is more essential than ever, but whether he is required to intervene in an interview between Dimitar Berbatov and ‘journalist Dimitar Berbatov’ is less certain'
'The trained and experienced journalist is more essential than ever, but whether he is required to intervene in an interview between Dimitar Berbatov and ‘journalist Dimitar Berbatov’ is less certain'

In these uncertain times for the newspaper industry, the last thing many of us wanted to see was Dimitar Berbatov interviewing himself. Last week Berbatov spoke exclusively to 'journalist Dimitar Berbatov' after Berbatov had been sent off for PAOK Salonika in their game against AEK Athens.

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We are, of course, living through the fourth industrial revolution, and it seems obvious in this time of radical change that one of the simplest ways of saving money would be to allow the stars to interview themselves. Of course this chimes with the wishes of the celebrities and the powerful - funny that - who also feel that the pesky, grubby hack is an unnecessary pebble in their shoe.

Berbatov hasn't done journalism any favours by pointing out that he can do the job on his own, and it would be standard at this point for a journalist to say that the professional touch is required in these cases, that a critical distance is necessary which will allow a trained reporter to ask the tough questions Dimitar Berbatov is unlikely to ask himself.

The trained and experienced journalist is more essential than ever, but whether he is required to intervene in an interview between Dimitar Berbatov and 'journalist Dimitar Berbatov' is less certain.

For one thing, the interview was indistinguishable from so many standard encounters in the 'How does it feel?' category which are the result of long hours in pursuit of stuff which is only printed because everyone else is going to be printing it too.

Perhaps journalists should retreat from this pointless business, from all these wasted nights in mixed zones and concentrate on other skills. These include, of course, the ability to entertain such as the recent 'points v pounds challenge' issued by one newspaper in the wake of Louis van Gaal 'You too, fat man' scandal. Things have gone so poorly for LVG since then that the journalist who is on a mission to lose pounds can probably relax. In fact, he could probably breakfast in McDonald's every day, bellow, "Supersize me!" as he enters, and still be sure of victory.

There are, it also has to be said, certain other advantages to the approach Berbatov is advancing. Firstly, there are fewer problems with access. When Dimitar Berbatov interviews himself he won't feel like a tired cop on a long stakeout who is waiting for his prey to slip up and reveal himself or, in the case of a reporter waiting for a footballer, for the player to show up at the agreed time.

When the journalist does finally get to sit down with the talent, there can be other difficulties. I once interviewed David O'Leary while he was receiving a massage from the Leeds United masseur. If the 'journalist David O'Leary' had wanted to interview David O'Leary at that point, I wouldn't have had any problems with that.

Berbatov's interview with himself was generally regarded as eccentric, even if it stuck rigidly to the demands of the form, and even managed to provoke a flash of anger from Berbatov.

"Some media says you don't want to play for PAOK any more," the journalist Dimitar Berbatov asked. "This is why I am giving [the] interview to you," Dimitar Berbatov replied, "and not to people who are coming up with stupid things like this."

This was as good as any other professional was going to get, while the full transcript on Berbatov's Facebook page wasn't much different to so many pointless interviews which have been diluted by PR people, agents and, most crucially, the player's passionate desire to say absolutely nothing. Occasionally a footballer will open up with somebody he trusts, but often these sessions become a tedious portrait in access, as was the case with the Wayne Rooney profile on the BBC. Berbatov clearly trusts himself and he was relaxed in his own company, but there are others whose interviews with themselves could become spikier.

Roy Keane would be fascinating interrogating himself. Keane often seems to have no more time for himself than he does for the average journalist so anything could happen. Roy might catch Roy on a good day and open up to himself but there are no guarantees.

Paul Scholes interviewing himself would be another fascinating if excruciating exercise, while Emmanuel Adebayor would also be an excellent interviewer/interviewee. Adebayor was essentially in this position when he talked to the Crystal Palace website last week after he joined the club.

"I don't know much about the club but it's better to learn," he told the website. "So I'll be going on Google and finding out more about them."

Naturally, the correct answer was to say how much he had enjoyed the Steve Coppell era, how Terry Venables had demonstrated his radical coaching ideas down at Selhurst Park, and if Fiona Richmond ever joined him in the bath after a game, he wouldn't be sticking around.

Instead he angered people by speaking truthfully which is not something we have come to expect from interviews, whether they are conducted by the interviewee themselves or not.

There would be limitations to the form as well. Lance Armstrong interviewing himself would have lacked some of the impact of, say, Paul Kimmage confronting him at the Tour of California.

Of course, Kimmage had asked for an interview and didn't get one, as Lance pointed out back then, so there were plenty of people prepared to do a job which wasn't exactly Lance interviewing himself, but wasn't Kimmage interviewing Lance either.

Berbatov was interviewing himself because he was angered by other newspaper reports, demonstrating journalism's role in the process, even if this process sends Berbatov into the comforting embrace of the journalist Dimitar Berbatov.

Journalism works best in the modern world when it's not trying to be what journalism once was. The comfortable wised up to the dangers of speaking freely a long time ago and changed the rules of the game. The best way for journalists to maintain the critical distance required of an interviewer is by not playing the game at all.

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