Less Best would have been better

On The Press: Coverage of legendary footballer's death left younger readers baffled
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The Independent Online

We were wedged together on the Stamford Bridge terraces, men and boys mostly, unable to do anything about the rather frightening sway of the crowd. It was the first and only time that I saw George Best live, although there was the occasion...

"Enough. Stop right there. How many more of you have to drone on about that magical moment when with a jinx and flick he was past the defender? The flawed genius with alcohol in his veins, sex on his mind and football in his feet?"

Sorry, but I really did see him play against Chelsea. True, I have left it a little late to mention, but there have been other things going on. Anyway, he is buried now after a funeral that approached a state occasion, with media of all forms giving the occasion the full treatment, and more. Rest in peace George Best. We shall not see the like of the coverage you received again.

Death is infected with celebrity like everything else, and the media treat dead celebs much as they treat live ones - excessively, intrusively and disproportionately. Is this in response to demand or have the media become dislocated from their audiences?

This newspaper, which last weekend was no more restrained (six full pages on Best) than any other, has received letters from readers unhappy with the coverage . Sara Neill, whose letter is published today, feels that the eulogies to the football legend are entirely inappropriate to an "irresponsible, woman-beating, self-indulgent wastrel".

The comments I have heard have been of a more quantitative nature. Plenty of younger people accept that George was a great but cannot understand the volume of the coverage. They feel that it is orchestrated by a bunch of male media fiftysomethings most comfortable when dealing with their own contemporaries and contemporary heroes, alive or dead.

This generation is surprised to find pages on Peel, the Pope and Best. They assume it is for the fiftysomethings, not them. Some had heard of John Peel because he was still broadcasting, and they liked his eclectic taste in music. The amount of space and time given to the Pope utterly baffled them. The Queen Mother they could understand because they had heard that there was once a time when people were interested in the royals.

A high proportion of them are very interested in football and know a great deal about the game in Europe. But George Best was approaching 40 when these young people were born. They do not think of him as a footballer, only as a sad, faded celebrity.

It was in the nature of Best's condition that his dying went on for a long time. Worse, he had a physician with a liking for issuing bulletins when there was nothing to report. When the rolling news crossed to the Cromwell Hospital and the usual two minutes saying there was nothing to report, occasionally there was Professor Roger Williams saying that we were reaching the end.

It resulted in two days reporting the death of George Best, because Professor Williams had announced it would happen the day before it did. The Friday papers, instead of running with the conventional formula - "George Best was close to death last night" news story, and no more - did that, and the first tranche of background tributes and analysis.

Best's Friday death was reported lengthily in the Saturday papers, leaving the Sundays to find new angles, reminiscences, acquaintances and girls. To take The Daily Telegraph as an example. Friday, front page story and the whole of pages two and three. Saturday, front page, whole of page four, three pages of sports section. The Sunday Telegraph was still to come. The other papers behaved similarly.

Editorsjudge the space to record the death of famous people by their significance and the amount of reader interest. These are not the same thing, and the order should be reversed. Sometimes judgements can be awry. I sense that in the case of George Best a little less would have done, and there would be no disrespect to his talent in that.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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