An ecological analysis of the Cole case

Ashley Cole, a well-known footballer, is sueing the News of the World, a rag, for libel, even though the paper hasn’t actually named him in a story alleging that a leading footballer is gay. Here’s the Observer‘s report:

The News of the World ran its first, heavily trailed, story about Premiership footballers on 12 February under the headline ‘Gay as you go’. The paper claimed to have seen pictures of two Premiership football stars, and a well-known male music industry figure, engaged in some bizarre sex acts with a mobile phone.

Although it didn’t name the men (and still hasn’t), it gave clues about their identity, and its sister paper the Sun ran a photo of Cole a few days later, implying (albeit jokingly) that he may have been involved. A second News of the World story a fortnight ago contained more allegations, and provided readers with further titillating clues about their identities. So far, so harmless, perhaps. But in the meantime, furious speculation about the incident had ended up on several websites, several of which named Cole as one of the men involved. A doctored photo of two of those involved, published in the NoW but blurred to hide their identities, was printed, uncensored, on the internet.

Why is this interesting? Well, if you take an ecological view of the media, you start to look for symbiotic relationships. It’s been obvious for a long time that certains kinds of blogs are, to a large extent, parasitic feeders on mainstream media (as the Trent Lott case demonstrated). But now we have an example of parasitism the other way round — mainstream media feeding off the Net. The News of the World didn’t dare to print the photograph it claimed supported its story, so it blurred the image and then left it to Internet speculation to de-Photoshop it, as it were.