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Tabloidese 101: how to read the back pages

"Better late than Tev-er."
“Fab: 2 weeks or else." They don't offer media studies courses in it but perhaps they should. How to Read the Redtops or, more precisely, How to Read the Back Pages during Football's Transfer Window would shed more light on the art of 21st-century tabloid journalism than any run-of-the-mill hacking scandal. A one-hour weekly lecture plus a dedicated reading list available daily at your local greasy spoon.

To those not familiar with these things, there are two transfer windows per season - a short, mid-season "bring and buy" in January and then a longer, more active window that's officially open between 1 July and 31 August. During those summer months there is no football (or at least not as much) to act as a distraction and so sports reporting becomes a study in the exchange of highly prized human capital. But the appointments section of the Daily Telegraph this is not.

Much of what is written is fluff and speculation and often dreadfully repetitive - "Fàbregas to Barcelona" and "Tévez to anywhere beyond the Greater Manchester Urban Area conurbation" are just the most recent examples of what are erroneously described as soap operas. Coronation Street has
plot, character development and overlapping narrative arcs; Tévez to Corinthians, by contrast, is a tedious "Will he? Won't he? Oh, who cares . . ."

Rumour mill

Certainly, few transfer stories rely on that old standard of investigative reporting - two independent sources. But it doesn't stop the pages being
read, nor the serious papers and the BBC website digesting the best of the "rumour mill".

And while one might describe this diet of supposition, hunches and wild stabs in the dark as the further debasement of newspaper journalism, most readers apply sophisticated filters when scanning the pages. Football fans know how to read the back pages.

They are not credulous consumers of the printed word: they know what's nonsense and they know what might have some merit.

How do they know?
Here's how:

Rule 1: Look for the quote. Scan the copy for tell-tell quotation marks. Nothing to read between single or double inverted commas? Move on.

Rule 2: Look at who has been quoted - the agent. You might be forgiven for believing that the very presence of quotation marks guarantees something approaching the truth. Wrong. If a player says "I'm moving to Melchester Rovers next Thursday", or if the manager of Melchester Rovers says, “Bob joins us next Thursday", then the story is worth taking seriously. But not if the quote comes from the player's agent, who is as likely to be agitating for an improved contract for his client as for a move away.

Rule 3: Look at who has been quoted - friends and family. Quotes from friends, always anonymous, may well represent an unspoken desire to move clubs. But the player's unwillingness to go on the record should act as a warning. Less reliable than friends are family, especially dads. Thomas Bendtner is the only person on the planet with a higher opinion of the (soon to be ex-) Arsenal striker Nicklas than the striker himself.

Rule 4: Decode the language. If a club is "weighing up a move for" player X, put the chances of the transfer happening at less than 20 per cent. Ditto, if the club "sets their sights on" or are "keeping tabs on" player Y. If, on the other hand, player Z is "due to hold talks" with club A, that probably means he is "due to hold talks", which in turn will lead to a transfer. Probably.

Rule 5: Beware the denial. A twist in the tabloid tale. Sometimes a story appears to underplay rather than overhype things. Taken at face value,
“He's not for sale" might sound definitive, but translate the gaffer-speak and you get: "He's definitely for sale but only if you add a few million quid." Similarly, "He's a smashing lad but, sadly, he's not coming here. That's the end of it" translates as: "That's not the end of it. He'll probably come here. He may or may not be a smashing lad."

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein.