Time to kill off the ghosts

SJA member, and former England cricket captain, Michael Atherton, writing in the Sunday Telegraph this week, has argued that “serious-minded newspapers should stop defrauding the public” over ghost-written columns by sports stars. Here’s your chance to join the debate

By and large, the players’ ghosted columns are harmless space-fillers, replete with vacuous thoughts and cliches and providing a nice little earner for the player (but not the journalist).

Occasionally, something more is revealed: Ashley Giles, who can be usually relied upon for “decent copy”, let the world know that England were a bunch of nervous wrecks before the first Test, and Sajid Mahmood had a none-too-coded pop at Andrew Flintoff after being ignored throughout the third.

The Mahmood column in The Guardian, immediately after the Perth Test, is the perfect illustration of why ghosted columns are such an appalling idea – for the newspaper and the player. The ECB have a mature attitude to ghosted columns. They realise that they cannot inhibit free speech, nor can they prevent players from earning through extra-curricular activities, but they do emphasise to the players that what appears under their name is their responsibility. Accordingly, Mahmood got a flea in his ear for daring to criticise the captain publicly.

Privately, Mahmood has complained that he was “turned over” by his ghost. Unsurprisingly, the paper disagree and since the ghost in question is an excellent young journalist, who would have known the sensitivity of the issue, it is unlikely. The thoughts on Flintoff’s captaincy may well have been paraphrased but they would have reflected the gist of the conversation. Being “turned over” is as easy a get-out clause for a player, as for the journalist who, when confronted by an irate player, blames his editor for manipulating his copy.

The next time that Mahmood was scheduled to do a column, his phone was switched off for six hours. When the ghost finally got hold of him (from Kuala Lumpur, of all places, which sums up the whole business) Mahmood complained that he was tired and had nothing to say. When pushed, he asked that his exact words be used for the column.

The ghost asked various questions, which received perfunctory answers, none of which were long enough to fill a sentence never mind a thousand words. No column – and a flea in the journalist’s ear from his editor.

That the majority of England’s cricketers give precious little time and thought to the columns that appear under their names is not the only reason why ghosted columns should be treated with utmost suspicion. Great players, those the public really want to hear from, are rarely prone to analysing their gifts. Arthur Porritt, WG Grace’s ghost, was continually exasperated. ”Getting material from Grace,” he said, ”was almost heartbreaking. All he would say in recording some dazzling feat of his was ‘then I went in and made 284’.”

It is not as if the ghosted column has any advantages, other than easy money, for the player. Any half-decent column, ie. one that is honest, will only create problems as other journalists pore over the offering like vultures. More might follow the wise lead of Michael Vaughan who turned down all offers. Cricketers are now well paid enough not to need the money. Encouraged by agents, whose only consideration is their cut rather than a player’s long-term interests, this is unlikely to happen.

Instead, serious-minded newspapers should be encouraged to put an end to such nonsense and stop defrauding the public. At the very least, they should differentiate between those who write, and those who don’t, by putting at the bottom of the player’s column “was talking to”. Not that such deception is the preserve of sportsmen and newspapers.

What are your views? What have been your experiences when ghosting a column? Post your comment here.

To read Atherton’s column in full, click here.