Have we completely missed the point? 

I watched investigative journalist Andrew Jennings’ Panorama programme on extensive bribe-taking among high-ranking FIFA executive committee members (unlike England 2018 bid chief Andy Anson, it would seem). So I find it hard to imagine that any of those named would vote for England to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and I doubt whether England will “get” any World Cup in the lifetime of Sepp Blatter or his fellow-travellers in the FIFA hierarchy – present and future.  But is that really the criteria by which we should be judging the programme? Over the last few days and weeks, the key question amongst many fans and journalists seems to have been, “will exposing a significant proportion of FIFA’s executive committee as bribe-takers mean that these bribe-takers won’t vote for us to have the 2018 World Cup?”, and I strongly believe it is the wrong question. 

Jennings’ programme was a good one, albeit with one David Mellor-sized flaw. It contained the new allegations which would justify the airing of such a programme. It exposed major hypocrisies among key players, from FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter to former sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe. And it put forward two clear reasons why it was in the public interest…and in the public interest before the World Cup vote. 

Old 

The programme’s allegations centred on events which took place between 1989 and 1999 – huge bribes paid by International Sports and Leisure (ISL), the Swiss-based firm with a long unbeaten record of winning marketing contracts from FIFA. ISL were so good that, despite these highly lucrative victories, it went bust in 2001, with millions of dollars of its expenditure being “kickbacks” and “bribes” to FIFA officials, named and un-named, in its last ten solvent years. The issues were dealt with by two Swiss court cases. One found six ISL managers guilty of financial mismanagement. The other, we’ll come to in a bit. Jennings has been on this case for years – it formed a significant part of his 2006 book “Foul – The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, vote-rigging and ticket scandals.” But he had not discovered the identities of all the bribe-takers, to use investigative documentary parlance…”until now.” 

New 

The list of names Jennings received from “a trusted source” last month, and the full extent of ISL’s payments, is new and significant. Previous names have been, in the context of world football’s power structure, minor players, strutting and fretting their hours upon the stage and then heard no more (a quote which will give the critics of the programme with a Shakespearean bent the chance to accuse Jennings of being “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”). 

But Ricardo Texeira is no minor player. He is a long-timer Sepp Blatter supporter and long-time head of the Brazilian Football Federation, the one in charge of the 2014 World Cup… although only a hopeless cynic would link those three facts. Issa Hayatou is both the biggest revelation and biggest disappointment, because he was the great hope of all those looking to expose Blatter at the time of the 2002 FIFA presidential elections, standing as a candidate against Blatter on a “clean up FIFA” platform. And Paraguay’s head of the South American football federation, Nicolas Leoz was named in the court case and shamed for taking $130m from ISL.  

A company which had a history of secretly channelling funds to Texeira, as a Brazilian senate investigation discovered in 2001, was paid $9.5m by ISL. Whether this was to Texeira or not wasn’t clear from the list. But the links between the company, Sanud, and Texeira were certainly worthy of a FIFA investigation…and still are. Hayatou received $100,000 from ISL, for reasons which Hayatou would not divulge when directly questioned by Jennings in the programme, shortly before trying to convince people to vote him in as FIFA President to “clean up” the organisation and rid it of people like…well…Issa Hayatou, it would seem. And Leoz, the list reveals, received $730m from ISL – almost six times what was revealed in court. 

The naming of Hayatou and Texeira and the revelation of Leoz’s extra cash are all new. Not a “rehash” in sight, and the very fact that FIFA officials did receive ISL “kickbacks” only came to light this June when a case against un-named FIFA officials was settled out of court after some of them paid back a combined total of, ulp, £3.5m, a clear admission of guilt. Blatter said it was “important to stress that no FIFA officials were accused of any criminal offence in these proceedings.” But, Jennings noted, Blatter was only referring to the proceedings against the ISL management. What he could have said, but chose not to, was, “but as a result of the other proceedings, FIFA officials have repaid the money they should not have accepted.”  

There were also allegations of attempted 2010 World Cup ticket-touting by FIFA vice-president, the repugnant Jack Warner. If these allegations were, as Warner so eloquently claimed, “just a rehash of the same old bullshit” then someone’s been travelling in time, as the 2010 World Cup only took place in 2010. These allegations were relatively minor, but provide a programme highlight – the look of utterly resigned despair on the face of the Norwegian journalist who asked Blatter why FIFA hadn’t investigated these fresh Warner allegations and got, ironically, the “same old bullshit”. “Should it become knowledgeable to us by official means,” Blatter declared, “we would have a look at that.” FIFA’s media office had “no idea” what these channels were. But the Norwegian (un-named by the documentary in a rare oversight) could clearly sense a Catch-22 situation emerging. How could Warner’s activities become known through official channels if official channels weren’t open? 

Borrowed 

The “secret” document is the cornerstone of any worthwhile investigation. If you are looking to expose something, it does rather need to be hidden from view in the first place. And regular followers of Jennings’ work on FIFA will know that he has been after the “list” of bribes paid by ISL. A month ago, he got it. In a sense, this is where the documentary is most open to criticism. For a good bit more than a month, the arguments about its advisability and credibility have raged. Without this document, the documentary would have deserved nothing like the billing or the attention it got.  

In the wake of the Sunday Times exposés, it would have added nothing worthwhile to the debate on FIFA corruption that couldn’t have just been another article on the repugnant Jack Warner and his World Cup ticketing “operations.” And for the BBC to justify the screening of a documentary without the ISL “list” was wrong. But once Jennings got the ISL list, the documentary was what the BBC claimed it to be. Not an exposé of the World Cup bid voting process – the Sunday Times did that – but an exposé of the previously unacknowledged history of corruption of three other voters. Between them, the newspaper and the documentary made accusations that over a fifth of FIFA’s executive committee were either open to bribery or had been bribed. With the evidence they had, they were right to do so. 

Blew 

Jennings neatly touched on the paradox at the centre of the arguments against the documentary. Why, he asked, wasn’t President Blatter grateful to the Sunday Times for its exposé of the corruption within his organisation? Blatter was filmed saying: “I am not pleased about that because this is not very fair.”  This has become an accepted attitude, which is bonkers. The punishments meted out to Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii, three-year and one-year bans respectively, acknowledge that the paper’s allegations were genuine. So why was Blatter so “not pleased?” Are people really saying that the paper and the documentary should be a part of the cover-up of bribery among voters on the World Cup bid, at least until after the voting is over? It would certainly appear so. 

The “Public Interest” 

The “public interest” argument in general is a long misunderstood one. It is a vital part of basic journalism training to drum into students the difference between the “public interest” and “what the public is interested in.” Too many people have entered the debate, shamefully including one or two bloggers with said journalism training, to say they aren’t interested in what FIFA’s executives may or may not have done in Switzerland a long time ago. 

But the public interest in the World Cup bid is the claimed benefit to the country of winning – the money we as a nation stand to make out of tourism, the jobs we stand to create (for a short while, anyway), the sports facilities we stand to gain and the sheer national pride, which may be unquantifiable on a balance sheet but isn’t unquantifiable in the heart and soul of the nation (cue stirring music…). Jennings expertly nailed that, with the help of documentation from the Dutch bid team and the calculations the Dutch government had, unlike the British one, been allowed to undertake. They showed the Netherlands would lose about £125m by staging the tournament. And, as Jennings said, how can we be sure the tournament will provide £3m of benefits to England when “even the government admits they don’t know all the costs?” 

The issue of FIFA “taking over” huge aspects of the very running of the host nation during and surrounding the tournament isn’t a new one – the BBC themselves highlighted it during their South African World Cup coverage. But the implications – for the advertised money and jobs benefit – don’t seem to have been fully grasped, not least because they are subject to secrecy. These are indisputably in the public interest. And while a few Tory eyes may have lit up at the thought of draconian labour laws being introduced (and maintained after FIFA have gone home) it was disappointing to hear a Labour former Sports Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, pass it all off as “similar to what other international bodies do,” and claim that “the benefits far outweigh the disbenefits.”  

And it was even more disappointing to hear that the bid team have signed up to tax benefits for FIFA, citing commercial confidentiality and “normal business practice” as justification for not even informing parliament of their actions. When my next tax bill comes in, I might try the same shtick and see how far I get. Quite how such things aren’t in the public interest escapes me. 

It’s All About The…

So, timing could the public interest and the programme’s credibility have been better served by transmitting it next Monday? If you believe that a programme exposing FIFA officials’ corruption will cost the bid the votes of key FIFA officials, then that is the logical extension of your argument. But if the contents of Jennings’ programme are so abhorrent to these people that they will vote against England’s bid regardless of technical and financial criteria, what does that say about those people?  

The more you think about that question, the more valid the programme becomes. We are talking about corruption among an electorate – over 20% of it. What purpose is served by covering-up that corruption until after the corrupt voters have voted? The only answer is that “we” would be better placed to win the bid. That’s not a moral stance I’m prepared to take.  

Conclusion 

You can’t let any programme off scot-free which includes former Tory MP David Mellor, especially when he’s bleating about people getting away with being corrupt. That shows, at the very least, a sense of irony deficit. Also, whilst they amuse me, I’d rather not see so many examples of Andrew Jennings pointless door-stepping of various protagonists. In a tight, 29 minute programme (Panorama used to be from 8.10pm until 9pm for a reason), it’s a waste of valuable time watching Jennings ask Ricardo Texeira if he received ISL bribes through a third-party… unless, of course, Texeira were to shout: “Yes, I did, $9.5m…up yours!!” 

But the programme did what it was supposed to do. It gave us new evidence of corruption and asked questions about further extensive corruption that need answering. Rehash? No. Not linked to the current bidding process? It talked about three of the electorate in that process – how direct a link do you want? An “embarrassment to the BBC?” Well, England’s bid chief Andy Anson thinks so – but he hadn’t watched the programme when he said that – and that certainly is an embarrassment.

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