Twitter, twits and Lily Allen

STEVEN DOWNES on an online spat that demonstrates another shift in how we report sport

We are all Twits now.

Covering sport in this digital age is an ever-changing, fast paced affair, which conventional media (put simply, newspapers) struggle to keep up with.

Little more than a decade ago, a hack armed with a Tandy and a brick that passed for a mobile phone was the cutting edge. Now, if you don’t have a Facebook group or a Wikipedia page and ensure that you update your blog every five minutes, you are disregarded as just soooo last week.

SJA member Will Buckley caught the sharp edge of this recently. Writing a review of BBC Radio’s Test Match Special for The Observer, he brought down on himself the full weight of the Twitterati.

Buckley tried to amuse with his reflections on Jonathan Agnew’s interview with Mockney pop star Lily Allen. To say that Agnew’s interview was slightly fawning would be understatement. Buckley, though, called Agnew “pervy”.

In a bygone era, a reader’s letter of complaint might have flooded on to Buckley’s sports editor’s desk by Wednesday morning, and it may have appeared in print the following Sunday. But in this instant comment, Google-researched, we-are-all-journalists-now age, Buckley was subjected to an avalanche of reader abuse.

Within two days, more than 300 had posted comments on Buckley’s newspaper’s website, few of them complimentary. “What an unpleasant little article”, was among the mildest and most damning.

It was when Agnew himself entered the fray, through Twitter (@aggerscricket), that the ante was well and truly upped.

Twitter is the latest fast-growing (is there any other kind?) internet networking phenomenon. It is Facebook stripped of everything except the status update, and even that is restricted to just 140 characters. Some use it to chart every banal twitch of their daily existence, others flag up articles that they’ve read and some (like me, @sdownes) use it to drive traffic to websites they work on.

Agnew has more than 22,000 followers on Twitter. That’s half as many as David Lloyd, the Sky Sports commentator, has attracted (@BumbleCricket), but seemingly all Agnew’s followers weighed in behind the BBC’s cricket correspondent in their mutual loathing of poor old Buckley.

“I gave Will Buckley 24 hrs to apologise for calling me a pervert, and he has declined,” Agnew Tweeted.

What gave Agnew’s Twitterings more force was the support of one of his “followers”, Allen herself (@lilyroseallen — beware, there are many imposters), and her 1.3 million followers.

Soon after, a somewhat grudging apology from Buckley was posted among the comments on the article.

Agnew ought not be surprised at the power of the web: thanks to YouTube, his commentary corpsing with Brian Johnston in the famous “leg over” incident is an online comedy favourite.

But what Twitter is doing is changing the news-making dynamic. Just as many sports reporters, denied conventional routes of access to players, have come reluctantly to rely on footballers’ websites as a source of back page news, so Twitter is now breaking many stories.

Phil Hughes Tweeted that he’d been dropped from Australia’s Ashes team for the third Test hours before any official announcement, while golfer Ian Poulter (@ianjamespoulter) was forced to apologise after linking to some off-colour pictures.

Lance Armstrong Tweeted his every drug test throughout the Tour de France and since, and Darren Bent curtailed his Tottenham career with a Twitter tirade against his then club chairman that made a back page splash in The Sun. Bent’s Twitter account is long gone.

In Berlin for the athletics world championships, Sanya Richards (@aaronandsanya, an account she shares with Aaron Ross, her NFL-player partner) announced the US 4x400m relay squad in a video clip Tweeted while she was on the team bus, while news of the race intentions of Paula Radcliffe (@paularadcliffe) were flagged up on Twitter two days before any formal announcement.

By the end of the week of his Twitter storm, Agnew was reflecting his own shortcomings. At Edinburgh’s Grange for Scotland’s televised match against Australia, he Twittered: “Discipline of tv commentary very different to rabbiting on TMS”.

“Rabbiting” perhaps. But never pervy.

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