First, a confession. As the one-time golf writer for The Age, I was sent a few years ago to cover the Johnnie Walker Classic in, of all places, Taiwan. Normally, it was hard to convince the powers-that-be, that’s to say those with their claw-like grips on the purse-strings, that it was worthwhile covering a tournament in Traralgon, let alone Taipei, but because Tiger Woods was playing, and all the leading Australians, the request was surprisingly given the all-clear.

On the Sunday night, after having written up and filed a story about New Zealand’s Michael Campbell beating Tiger and Victorian Geoff Ogilvy over the closing holes, I got on the bus that ferried journalists and players back to the airport for the flight back to Melbourne. On to the bus staggered two leading golfers and their caddies, clearly the worse for wear. One player was from Victoria and is still among the top-ranked players in the world. The other was from New South Wales and, unsurprisingly given his lack of professionalism, has dropped off the face of the earth.

The four of them were friends of Campbell’s and, having finished their final rounds much earlier in the day, had been watching Campbell’s duel with Woods on the television in the clubhouse bar. And naturally they’d been drinking while cheering their man home. For about five hours solid. By the time they got on the bus, each carrying a half-full stubby of local lager, they were totally pissed and deeply obnoxious. They sat at the back, gurgling to each other.

Five minutes into the journey, the Victorian player shouted out to the Taiwanese driver: “Hey, mate, where’s the dunny in this bloody thing?” It was explained to him that while it was one of those luxury buses, there wasn’t a lavatory on board. “Oh, f-ck,” came the reply. So, amid much giggling, they each urinated into their by-now empty stubbies and sat them on the floor of the bus. Which was fine until the bus rounded a sharpish corner and, you guessed it, the contents of the bottles spilled everywhere and ran in a torrent down the walkway. The smell was foul.

And this is where the confession bit comes in. Did I write about this episode – as I’m sure one or two colleagues would have – and expose these (then) high-profile players as pissed, boorish buffoons? Or did I tell myself that it was adolescent behaviour committed away from the course, away from the general public’s gaze (there were about eight people on board: the driver, one or two golfers, the rest officials and caddies) and, as a result, hardly in the public interest? I mean, if they carried on like that at a barbecue in their own backyard, who’d have known and who’d have cared?

It was an interesting conundrum, and one faced by political correspondents, police reporters and business writers all the time. I knew I’d run into these players again and again over the coming years but the prospect of exposing them didn’t really bother me, it was more a question of how salacious and self-righteous I wanted to be. I mean, I’d been intoxicated in public once or twice myself.

The story is relevant in light of the sad case of Ben Cousins. How much did the sporting press, especially in Perth, know about Cousins’s “personal” problems? How much did they write about it, and how much did they choose to ignore?

Yes, he was photographed in a semi-comatose state outside Crown Casino, and there have been one or two insightful exposes into his troubled existence in recent weeks. But the silence in the West, until the last few days, has been deafening. It’s as though they all hoped the issue would sort itself out and go away. After all, which football reporter wants to be black-banned and bad-mouthed by one half of a two-team town?

Cases such as the Cousins one give rise to suspicions out there in readerland about the true nature of journalism: is it a nudge, nudge, wink, wink closed shop? Does it all stay in-house to the detriment of any sort of accountability? Has “publish and be damned” become a hopelessly quaint and outmoded concept? Reporters are faced with this problem all the time: in order to protect a valuable source or a friend, do they only tell three-quarters of a story and leave out the bit that upsets their contact? Of course some do. Only the most courageous and resilient of them write without any fear or favour.

This issue for sporting journalists, especially young impressionable ones, has long been a vexed one. They’ve grown up having Matthew Lloyd or Andrew Johns posters on their bedroom walls then one day they find themselves, pen and notepad in hand, actually interviewing their idols. Or drooling all over them in between questions. It’s very difficult to retain any objectivity in situations like this. I know, I’ve been there. It’s only after these young reporters have been in the caper for a few years that they realise sportspeople are often not the demi-gods they’re painted as. Or even one-third or one-fifth of a demi-god. They might be good at roosting or passing an inflated pigskin around a football field, sure, but are they really the sort of people you’d want to take home to meet mum?

Having worked in Perth, I can attest to the large number of professional journalists there trying to uphold the trade’s most noble ideals. But then there are some who’d prefer to be mates with the big-name footballers and cricketers, drink with them in bars and – joy of joys – be called over by their nickname, and taken into the sportsman’s confidence. They are not journalists so much as unpaid PR consultants. Groupies, I suppose, in grubby shirt and tie.

Still, who am I to be throwing stones? That noise I hear is probably my own glass house tinkling around me. With my own personal dilemma? Yep, after much thought, I chose discretion as the better part of valour, and opted not to write the story.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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