Op-Ed: Truth, Lies, & Useful Idiots

06/23/2013 @ 9:27 pm, by David Emmett22 COMMENTS


In 1952, Doris Lessing, a Nobel prize-winning author, was one of a group of writers and prominent intellectuals who visited the Soviet Union, then in the iron grip of Joseph Stalin, one of history’s greatest criminals and murderers. She was introduced to the political leaders of the country, and escorted around the nation by the Russian secret police. Lessing, along with the others on the trip, returned home to write gushing praise of the Soviet Union, describing it as ‘a land of hope.’

In her later years, Lessing wrote a damning condemnation of her own naiveté during the visit. “I was taken around and shown things as a ‘useful idiot’… that’s what my role was. I can’t understand why I was so gullible.” She had seen only what had been shown to her, believed what her guides – all of whom worked for the secret police – told her, and accepted the testimony of the workers she spoke to, workers who had been carefully selected, and briefed to project the right message, or sufficiently intimidated to not let any of the real truth slip.

A ‘useful idiot’ is exactly how I feel all too often working in the MotoGP paddock. With no formal training in journalism, and only my gut instinct to follow, it is hard to sift out the underlying facts from the fiction being projected all around me. Most of motorcycle racing journalism – in fact, most of sports journalism – relies almost entirely on the word of others.

A journalist will speak to a rider, or a team manager, or an engineer, or a press officer, and write a news story based on what they have just been told. If they are a good journalist, they will try and verify what they have been told by checking with other sources. If they want to sell newspapers, they will write what suits them, and let the checking be damned.

Even checking may not get you very far, if the people you are checking your story with are in the pay of the same team or factory as your original source. Team members are either briefed with a company line, or understand from long experience what they can and can’t reveal, and just what they should be giving away.

Should you wish to know about Yamaha’s engine situation, for example, you can check with Lin Jarvis, who will tell you they have the situation under control. You can double check that story with Ramon Forcada, or Jeremy Burgess, or Maio Meregalli, or Wilco Zeelenberg, but all those men know exactly what they are expected to say as well. You can ask the riders, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, but they will only tell you what they have been told by their team managers or crew chiefs.

The underlying truth of the situation is hard, or more accurately, almost impossible to get at, as reporters simply have no direct access to the data, other than the published engine lists, which show only which engines have been used, not their mileage or their power output.

You could turn to an engineer from another factory for a comment or advice, but what they tell you is colored by their situation as well. While Yamaha want to convince you that they are not having problems with their engines, so that their riders do not worry about the situation, Honda or Ducati engineers may want you to believe that Yamaha are in trouble for exactly the opposite reason. With so much of motorcycle racing a matter of mental stability and strength, planting the seeds of doubt into the minds of your opponents can be a very useful strategy.

The question of Yamaha’s engines is just an example. There are countless other subjects where the truth is hard to come by, and the information you are being fed is both hard to check and potentially unreliable. A team manager may tell you he is talking to rider A about next year, because he may genuinely have an interest in signing rider A. But he may tell you he is talking to rider A in the hope that you tell his current rider, B, or rider C from another team, in order to force their hand.

By feigning interest in one rider, they may be trying to pressure another rider into signing a contract. If you as a journalist write ‘Team X is close to signing rider A,’ rider C may fear that he could miss out on the seat at Team X, and agree to ride for less money, or with fewer conditions.

Riders play exactly the same game, telling you they are talking to lots of teams in the paddock – maybe even close to signing with a particular team – as a means to put pressure on the team they would really like to sign for. The courteous team managers will tell you when this is what they are doing, but courteous team managers are few and far between.

So how do you know what to believe? And even if you do believe the information being passed to you, how do you know you aren’t being used? The answer to both those question is that you don’t.

You try to check, you try to dig, you ask everyone and anyone you can find if they know anything about the situation. The trouble is, of course, that the people you try to check the information with may also have their own motives for their reply, meaning that your efforts to check may be as unreliable as the original source.

This is the aspect of writing about MotoGP which I find hardest of all. Naturally, the longer you are in the paddock, the better your contacts and the stronger your network, but even then, it is never 100% reliable. Anything you learn cannot be trusted, and may have been revealed to serve a specific purpose.

Throughout my previous occupations (which have been many and varied) a sense of paranoia has been surplus to requirements. When someone told me something, then 99 times out of 100, I could simply rely on it being true. Now, I have to wander through information which is simultaneously swamp and minefield. What you see may not be what you think you see, and it could turn out to be very harmful indeed.

And so I serve my apprenticeship as a useful idiot, learning what I can, trying to verify what I can, and running it past the most cynical part of my soul to see if it passes the smell test. Trying to figure out if I have been told something because the person who told me is trying to use me as a conduit, to transmit a message to someone else, the contents of which I am ignorant of. Or just because they have no objection to the information they have just told you becoming public.

Even the traditional warning ‘of course, this is all off the record’ is of no use. I have been given a frosty reception a couple of times after failing to reveal information which had been told me ‘off the record’. I took the injunction to keep information to myself literally; the person who had passed me that information had intended just the opposite.

So next time you read anything I have written, either here on this site or elsewhere, bear in mind that, although I have done my very best to ensure what I write is accurate, and that I only write what I believe to be true, what I think I am reporting may not necessarily be what is going on.

I do as much as I can to get to the truth of a story, but even then, I sometimes find myself unwittingly passing on coded messages, the true meaning of which remains obscured to all but the intended recipient. ‘Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone.’

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.

  • Rauken

    So what you’re saying is… Kawasaki has signed Marquez and will be on the grid in 2014! :O

  • smiler

    Isn’t this like most parts of our world now? Not just motogp. Thought clearly DORNA like to keep the media sown up like kippers and regulate the flow of news through their own monopoly as possible.

  • TexusTim

    ok I get it no one is telling the same story and you have to weed out the truth….sounds like being married….lol…
    so Honda and Yamaha are in talks to bring redding up next year as if they have room somewere ? fact or fiction ?

  • TexusTim

    seems ducati is interested also….so who is going to move away and make room for this kid on any of these teams for 2014 ? let the games begin.

  • ‘Useful Idiot’

  • Shawn

    So what are you saying? D-Day is in 48 hours?

  • Shawn

    Unless you’re giving Randy de Puniet a secret message to begin sabotaging the railroads on Wednesday, what exactly is the purpose of this op-ed? To tell us that sometimes you’re played like a pawn and make mistakes? That isn’t news.

  • Old Guy

    Gone are the days of “racing improves the breed.” Modern motorsports is simply another entertainment product where the fastest bikes and the most skillful riders take a back seat to putting on a good show. Currently it’s all about getting backmarkers’ sponsors TV time while Ezpeleta diminishes the sport saying things like, “Maybe we don’t have to go so fast.”

    Meanwhile, all journalists need to be useful idiots to some degree. It’s the price they have to pay for access.

  • Zookiman

    Very well said.
    Thank you for your honesty and insight.
    It is articles like this that keep you at the top of my news list.
    The whole business is a shell game but you play it so well.

  • Spamtasticus

    Shawn, If I had to guess, the purpose of this story is to inform us that the author just found out he was used. I’m guessing on the Yammaha engine story. The reason he is not rebuffing or specifying is because he has doubts about what is real and not real now and, rightfully, thinks that the reveletions themselves have a hidden intent, even if true. This phenomenon is not unique to sports reporting. Sit down and watch mass media news and ask yourself, “why did they run thay story and not another?”. “Why did that reporter use that wordd imstead of this other word that means almost the same but seems to fit better than the une they used?”. “Why did that reporter just call the suspect a gunman imstead of mentally disturbed man?”. Reporters also have hidden agendas or subtle bias as well as their souces. It is up to readers to filter out as much crap and do our own critical investigations if we really want to know what is real and what is being fed to us for manipulation.

  • Richard Gozinya

    Great to see a journalist with some integrity, whether it be in motorsports, politics, or whatever. It’s a hard road, but worthwhile. Too many journalists are flat out owned by those who control the purse strings, so it’s refreshing to see something like this.

  • No One

    I have it on good authority that one of those who leaked info to you received almost immediate blowback from their employer. I assume either because of a lack of tact on your part or because you tried to ingratiate yourself to the brand in question.

    Anyways, back to comparing Yamaha to Stalin….

  • chaz Michael Michaels

    we’re all useful idiots to the man behind the curtain.

    Emmett, if you actually did get to the bottom of Yamaha’s engine situation they’d tap your phones and send the drones. You’d be hiding in Equador in no time.

  • The point of this story was just to vent. It gets very tedious, trying to figure out who is playing which quintuple bluff on whom, like starring in a Le Carre novel. I needed to get it off my chest, nothing more.

    This story is not related to anything specific I have written recently. If anything, it has more to do with events of a year or more ago.

  • Jorge

    Integrity is important and we don’t have it where it counts, but comparing your situation as you did shows immaturity. If this was about rider safety being put at risk I might understand the serious tone. I like this blog but hopefully there will be less over-the-top comparisons with significant figures who rightly had a reason to be upset. Find a journalist you respect and ask them how they have navigated these issues over the years.

  • Spamtasticus

    David, don’t sweat it. And if you ever want to come in from the cold I can certainly introduce you to some great people in Ecuador.

  • Chaz Michael Michaels

    This just in:

    Emmett is on the lam and allegedly hiding at Ben Spies’ villa at Via Antonio Cavalieri Ducati, 3
    40132 Bologna (Emilia Romagna), Italy.

    While the Russians and Chinese want no part of this delicate situation, Lin Jarvis appears to be lobbying the Italians for Emmett’s return to 10-1, Nakazawa-cho, Naka-ku,Hamamatsu Shizuoka, Japan where Emmett could be tried for MotoGP-treason.

    No word yet if officials at 1-1, 2-chome, Minami- Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo will try to run interference.

  • Slangbuster

    Interesting read David. I have some experience in this area that I would be happy to share with you if you like….”tools for the belt” so to speak. You guys have my email. Keep up the good work.

  • M

    Jorge: <>
    That is Emmett’s way.

  • M

    “over-the-top comparisons”

  • jzj

    All of which explains the rules, which are:
    1. Know as much as possible about your subject matter (so you can smell a rat);
    2. Seek independent confirmation — and multiple sources from the same side don’t count;
    3. Consider long-term integrity as your paramount asset.

    Good article, good reminder, and good perspective.

  • mike

    So basically MotoGP needs a Snowden or Assange to wikileak a bit of news: )