Qatar 2022 - How will the media report on this year's World Cup?
The stage is set for the first game of this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar as the country becomes the first middle eastern nation to host what is arguably the world’s biggest sporting tournament.
As it approaches kick-off on Sunday, the tournament continues to be dogged by criticisms of the nation’s human rights laws, notably its criminalisation of homosexuality, the treatment of migrant workers that constructed its seven new stadiums and the controversy surrounding the decision by the footballing governing body, FIFA, to name the nation as host back in 2010.
With the world’s media flocking to Qatar to cover it for the expected 3 billion viewers across the globe, questions remain about how journalists plan to cover the tournament, given the aforementioned controversies, and whether the nation itself will be as scrutinised once the footballers take to the pitch.
For a view on these matters, Jack Flintham, a sports reporter at the Manchester Evening News and Paul Broster, Associate Dean of the School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology at the University of Salford and journalist, give their take.
Do we feel the UK is excited for this tournament?
Jack: “The World Cup is still a massive event that spearheads the football calendar but two things this year have dampened the excitement. Firstly, the timing. Putting it in the middle of the regular European football season and splitting up the Premier League and Championship hasn’t helped get many fans excited about it. What possibly makes it worse is the controversy surrounding Qatar hosting it and that has played into people's mindsets about whether they are excited or not. It’s one thing moving the tournament to winter because it's extremely hot in Qatar in the summer but it's another thing around the controversy surrounding why Qatar got it. Russia’s World Cup in 2018 was controversial as well, but when the matches started, the controversial things got put to one side, so maybe we'll see the same again in Qatar and it will feel like just a regular world cup.
Paul: “Not as excited as usual. This is a World Cup without comparison and people are not sure what to make of it. The controversy surrounding the choice of Qatar is in many minds and then there is the timing, too. We are used to summer World Cups with warm English weather, flags waving from cars and people taking leave from work to enjoy the tournament. Now many of the games are at times in our winter when children are at school and people are at work before the holiday period begins. The country’s love for football means the excitement will grow once the games begin but at the moment, the sense of excitement is much lower than for previous tournaments.”
Do you think that once the football begins, it will feel like a regular world cup or will reporting on the nation itself continue?
Jack: I think there will be more of a concerted effort, from the BBC and ITV particularly, to talk about what's happening on the ground in Qatar, such as the controversy with the migrant workers, in the build-up. That will still have some prominence but I do wonder how far that is going to go, particularly, after the first week of games and after England have played a few matches. Will the bigger focus then be what is happening with Southgate's team?
Paul: “This is not a regular World Cup, so the reporting will be different. The usual sports coverage will be there but news around wider issues will be more prominent than in other tournaments. We have already seen with just days to go an apparent last minute decision to stop alcohol sales in the stadiums. That led major news websites at the time rather than Gareth Southgate’s team dilemmas. It will ebb and flow between sport and news much more than usual.”
How do you think journalists will feel about reporting on it?
Jack: You're there to report on the football but, possibly, this time, if you see things that are out of character and what you would not normally expect from an international tournament, you're well within your rights to be reporting on that too and I don’t think journalists will be particularly afraid of reporting on it either. With Euro 2016 in France, they reported on the fan trouble between the English and Russian fans. I don’t think they will be particularly deterred from reporting on either the football or what's going on outside of the stadiums and matchdays.
Paul: Journalists cover anything from a church fete to a war. It’s their job to be there and they will feel privileged professionally because it will give them the chance to report on a moment in history. For many sports reporters, the World Cup is probably the biggest event they can cover and news reporters will want to shine a light on wider issues, including human rights. They can all make a difference through their work.
There has been some retrospective discussion that the media ‘dropped the ball’ with reporting on the nation of Russia during their World Cup. Are we a bit more conscious about the host country this time?
Jack: I think there wasn't a dropping of the ball with Russia. Maybe there's a bit of hindsight in play with Russia considering what's happened with Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. There's hindsight that obviously they weren't such a great country to be hosting it at the time but once it started, I think there was that surprise that it was going so swimmingly and going to plan. With Qatar, it is a difficult one as the topic of sportswashing is a very valid one but I don’t think it’s necessarily the media's job to decide what sports events to cover and not. When it comes to countries like Saudi Arabia, who've had high profile boxing bouts and the WWE there, they’ve been accused of sports washing and their ownership of Newcastle United has also come under the spotlight. As much as the media should portray what's happening off the pitch, I still think they have a duty to report on the sport itself. I don’t know whether a boycott would have helped or would have changed the views in Qatar around human rights at all. At the end of the day, fingers should be pointed at FIFA, the decision makers, who decided it was right to send the World Cup to Qatar. But now it is there, I think you’ve got to report on the sport and report on what's happening human rights-wise as at the end of the day Qatar has chosen to put itself in the spotlight. I don't think the media should necessarily feel any guilt in covering the matches as they get started.
Paul: The media is certainly more conscious of the host nation this time. We have seen that in all the coverage in the run-up around many issues from migrant works to women and LGBT rights.
How do you think the broadcasters are approaching covering the tournament?
Jack: The opening game coverage and the build up to that match will be dominated by the human rights issues, especially considering there's not huge amounts of football debate to find about Qatar or Ecuador and not much UK interest in that game. In the build-up of the opening match, it will be a human rights focus and a lot of eyes will probably be drawn to see how that looks and how the discussion goes down with audiences. From then onwards, we are likely to see it take more of a backseat. I don’t see broadcasters talking as much or in length when it comes to England versus Iran as there will be a million and one topics to discuss about England. That’s what were likely to see, whether that’s right or not. At the end of the day, there's a conversation to be had about human rights but if they feel it is just going over old ground after doing a full dissect on the opening day then that will be interesting to see. I don’t foresee this tournament to be the last instance of sports washing. I think this will only continue and who knows where we could end up playing in the future. I would say that it is going to be a big deal on Sunday but beyond that it will be a more secondary role.
Paul: I think again that broadcasters are carefully balancing the need to build up to a major sports event but also be conscious of the wider issues on human rights and questions about whether Qatar actually has the infrastructure to cope with the tournament and the influx of fans. This balance will depend on a number of factors: the quality of organisation, the integration of fans in the country, the mood of fans and of course how well England and Wales are doing!
The FIFA World Cup kicks off on Sunday 20th November with Qatar vs Ecuador at 4PM GMT.
Paul Broster is a journalist and Associate Dean in the School of Arts, Media and Creative Technology and worked as a news and sports reporter for local, regional, national newspapers.
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