Moral of the Story

The Lance Armstrong saga is finally over, laid to rest by the world's most successful talk show host on a channel whose most visible stars are lions, tigers, sharks and gerbils. The first part of Oprah Winfrey's "no holds barred worldwide exclusive" was aired by Discovery yesterday afternoon. In an interesting twist of fate, Armstrong has doped, raced and won in Discovery livery — the channel had backed his US Postal cycling team.

The interview was not news at all, but it was pretty riveting in comparison with the news of the day. The facts have been widely known but for the first time, after months of fruitless denial, here was the whole story, both sides of it. The news is not really about facts. Journalists call news reports 'stories' for a good reason. We can't make sense of facts until they are strung together into a narrative.

The Armstrong story is about ethics but Oprah elevates it to the status of a morality tale. Commercial breaks are introduced by a logo saying: "Will Lance Armstrong confess to Oprah?" The grim reference to the confessional is good theatre and the programme began with a clipped catechism. Oprah declared the terms: the interview, as negotiated with Armstrong a week earlier, would be "no holds barred, with no conditions" and on an "open field". The opening questions could only be answered 'yes' or 'no', and the very first was, "Did you ever use banned substances?" "Yes," answered Armstrong, reversing six months of denial. But even an hour later, that damned logo was breathlessly asking if he would confess to Oprah.

But this programme is made for modern, godless audiences, for whom the confessional is only an interesting anachronism. The real format of the programme is the shrink's couch. Armstrong steadfastly refused to rat on the people who were around him at the time when international cycling appears to have been taken over by a culture of illegal performance-enhancement. The facts of the case have been out for months. Numerous books and interviews have appeared over the years, detailing how performance-enhancing drugs were supplied and administered, and how the traces of the crime were removed. The only thing that Oprah could really poke about for was the motivation for the crime.

The show tries to do a prequel, so to speak, trying to go back to the moment when Armstrong chose to be corrupted, but talking to the protagonist is not really the best way to reconstruct the scene of the crime. Interviewing a bystander often elicits a clearer picture. Like an interview of David Walsh by the London radio station talkSPORT (clips available on YouTube and elsewhere), in which the veteran sports journalist described Armstrong peeling away from the pack on mountain roads in the 1999 Tour de France. "The journalists around me were laughing," he recalled, because it was impossible - Armstrong had just recovered from metastatic cancer.

But when they called in the story to their editorial offices, they were apparently told not to proceed on the doping angle because there was no proof. In fact, their editors saw it as a great inspirational story about a cancer survivor who just had to win. And thus the media became complicit in authoring the Armstrong legend.

Walsh is an indefatigable Armstrong hunter and in December, as the investigation he helped to keep alive headed for a predictable end, he was named Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards. But the story he had tracked for 13 years was finally put to bed by a talk show host. Ah, well…

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