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Andrew Jennings

Journalists? They’re media masseurs

British Journalism Review
Vol. 23, No. 2, 2012, pages 25-31


Andrew Jennings is an investigative reporter best known for his work discovering and writing about corruption in the IOC and FIFA. He and German journalists Jens Weinreich were awarded the 2011 Play the Game Award in recognition of their investigations into mismanagement and corruption in sport.


Contents - Vol 23, No 2, 2012

Editorial - Whistling in the wind? 3


Not finally... Subjective views on matters journalistic
John Nathan, Roy Greenslade, Joy Johnson - 5

Steve Barnett - BJR/YouGov poll on public interest and the press 15

Sport
Andrew Jennings - Journalists? They’re media masseurs 25

Charles Lambert - Why the press pack must raise its game 32


Chris Moss - Is time running out for Time Out? 39

Ian Cobain - When justice won’t be seen to be done 47

Steve Schifferes - Trust-meltdown for business reporting 55

Daniel Bennett, Judith Townend - Scandal of selective reporting 60

Chris Elliott - Small earthquake at BJR 67

Peter Hain - Time to prick the Westminster bubble 74

Nicholas Jones - A question of conscience 78

BOOK REVIEWS
Tony Brenton on Luke Harding 84
Ruth Dudley Edwards on Joel H Weiner 86
Michael Leapman on Arthur Butler 88
Cristina Odone on Nick Cohen 90
Will Wyatt on Steven Barnett 92
Bill Hagerty on Stephen Glover 94


Quotes of the Quarter 1 - 14
Quotes of the Quarter 2 - 24
Ten years ago - The way we were - 46
News - Cudlipp Award 80
Postscript - ibc


Cover illustration: MARTIN ROWSON


 

Why were sports spin doctors and “image consultants” in a private club for Olympic reporters? asks a leading investigative journalist


There’s a private club of sports reporters who bring us the news and write about the Olympics. It is called the Olympic Journalists’ Association. Run your eye down the membership list and you’ll recognise many of the bylines from the sports pages, radio, television and the wires: Mihir Bose, David Bond, Paul Kelso and Ashling O’Connor – people who cover not just the Olympics, but also FIFA and the other international sports federations. But take a look at a membership list from 2009, the year before the last Winter Olympics, in Vancouver. Hang on a minute, here’s Jon Tibbs. He’s not a journalist. He’s a sports spin doctor out of Bell Pottinger and Hill & Knowlton, whose eponymous consultancy, JTA, offers “strategic brand-building and communications consultancy for clients in the international sports movement”. Tibbs has worked on Olympic Games bids by Athens, Beijing and Sochi, helped clean up reputations after the Salt Lake City Olympic bid sex-and-bribery scandal – 10 members of the International Committee were either expelled or resigned – and played flak-catcher for the Glazer family, unpopular owners of Manchester United.

And here’s Charles Battle. No journalist, he. He’s a Georgia lawyer turned Olympic consultant who suitcased thousands of dollars in cash from the Caribbean to Florida to win an IOC member’s vote for Atlanta’s bid to host the 1996 Olympics. And then there’s John Boulter, former British 800-metre runner, a past member of the once-powerful Adidas International Relations Team and a member of Lord Coe’s hearts and minds persuasion squad for London 2012. And Jean-Claude Schupp, also one of the Adidas team that, from the 1970s, intervened in leadership elections at the International Olympic Committee, at FIFA and the International Athletics Federation.

What on earth were those people doing in the reporters’ club? Whatever happened to journalists’ independence, keeping a distance from the people we write about? The membership list says a lot about what is wrong with sports journalism, the lack of scrutiny and scepticism that is its hallmark. I have written about the image-hawkers on a number of occasions, yet they were purged only after German investigative reporter Jens Weinreich kicked up a fuss. But some of their logos now grace the cover of the club’s handbook.

Who else was in the journalists’ club before Jens blew the whistle? New Jersey-based Sead Dizdarevic admitted to FBI agents 1999 that he supplied bags of cash to be bunged to members of the International Olympic Committee voting on who would host the Winter Games of 2002. His Jet Set Sports company backed the Utah bid. He wanted the Olympic Hospitality franchise and he got it – for Utah, for Beijing, the Vancouver Games and again in London this year. Channel 4’s Dispatches programme went undercover in February and filmed a Jet Set spokesman offering reporters posing as wealthy clients unauthorised access to the Olympic traffic lanes during the Games. Jet Set’s logo is stamped on the 2011 reporters’ club handbook.


He handed over $100 million in bribes

Jean-Marie Weber was another member of the reporters’ club. I’ve doorstepped him for BBC’s Panorama. Weber was the bagman for the discredited ISL sports marketing company, handing over $100 million in bribes to top sports officials in return for multi-billion dollar marketing contracts for the Olympics and football’s World Cup. Yet here he is in the Olympic Journalists’ Association a year after admitting in a Swiss court that he had paid these contract kickbacks. It was claimed that one of those bribes – for $1million – went to former FIFA president Joao Havelange. After our programme, the bribe was investigated by the International Olympic Committee’s ethics commission. Havelange resigned from the IOC in a hurry late last year.

Mike Lee was voted PR Week’s Public Relations Professional of the Year in 2005 and awarded an OBE in that year’s New Year’s Honours list. Mike spun for the Labour Party, the Premier League and UEFA before joining Lord Coe’s London bid to stage this summer’s Olympics. Off the back of London’s success he launched Vero Communications, helping win the 2016 Summer Olympics for Rio de Janeiro and the 2018 Winter Games for Pyeongchang, South Korea. Mike’s mission is, he says: “To tell the most compelling, creative and true story to help our clients win, whatever their goal.” There’s a positive, upbeat book recording how Mike won it for London – The Race for the 2012 Olympics. Mike is named as author but it was written for him by David Bond, now the BBC’s sports editor, and Adrian Warner, now BBC London’s Olympics correspondent. On page 21 the book tells us: “Inside sport he [Lee] had become recognised as a loyal and trusted operator who was prepared to get his hands dirty and work tirelessly to promote and defend those he represented.”

Mike Lee was on the payroll of Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In January 2010, nine months before the vote, he brought former Argentine star and Qatar “ambassador” Gabriel Batistuta – plus translator – to London on a brief promotional visit. BBC Sport interviewed Batistuta for their website. There was deep scepticism among fans and football officials about staging the World Cup in Qatar’s scalding heat. “I’m sure the climate won’t be a problem,” insisted Batistuta, “I played there for two years and played a few matches in the heat but it was possible to play.

“Currently there are stadiums that enjoy a cooling system and you can choose the temperature at which you play the match,” he explained. “So, as you can imagine, in 10 years’ time the technology would have improved so each of the stadiums that will be used will have it.” Batistuta was selling Qatar’s bid hard but he wasn’t an independent, unbiased source – he was being paid millions of dollars to read Qatar’s script. A year later at a House of Commons select committee hearing, Tory MP Damian Collins asked Mike Lee: “Seven million dollars was spent on hiring Gabriel Batistuta?” Lee replied: “That was a report. It’s never been proven or substantiated, but I am aware of the report. I think it is true.”

The BBC website headline “Batistuta backs England 2018 bid” wasn’t to the Qataris’ liking. Bid chief executive Hassan al-Thawadi, sitting in his office on the 26th floor of the Qatar Olympic Committee Building in West Bay, Doha, read it and hated it. “He was screaming,” says someone who was in the office at the time. Hassan sent a message to Mike Lee: get the headline changed. For most who don’t like something the BBC reports on, an online form can be filled in or a complaints line called. A reply might be received in ten days. For Mike Lee, OBE, husband of former BBC Governor Heather Rabbatts, it’s not like that.

Barbara Slater, the BBC’s director of sport, confirmed to me by email: “Mr Lee contacted the BBC shortly after the article was published on the BBC Sport website. We do not have a written account of that conversation but the journalist concerned does recall Mr Lee being unhappy with the report.” A few minutes later one of Mike Lee’s colleagues, John Zerafa, was emailing Doha, triumphantly: “We’ve got it changed... The header is much better we think. Realistically the BBC won’t move any more. ‘Batistuta keen to avoid Qatar v England in 2022 Cup bid’.” The original headline, “Batistuta backs England…”, remained, but as a link in the BBC search engine. “The journalists involved with the story have no record or recollection of changing the headline,” said Ms Slater. “It is common practice to have slightly different headlines on summary and full articles, in particular as there is space for more characters on the latter. The two headlines are entirely consistent with each other and accurately reflect the content of the interview with Mr Batistuta.”


He was held as a flight risk

She went on: “The interview with Mr Batistuta was consistent with the BBC’s editorial strategy of providing a balanced, impartial and detailed account of the bidding process. Everyone in BBC Sport recognises the importance of upholding the integrity and independence of the BBC. These are values that BBC Sport journalists live and breathe every day, and [were] applied appropriately to the handling of the interview in January 2010 with Mr Batistuta.” I emailed Mike Lee and asked him if it was correct that as a result of his call the headline on the substantive story was changed to “Batistuta keen to avoid Qatar v England in 2022 Cup bid”? He emailed back: “Hi Andrew, who am I to doubt your word? Hope all well, best wishes, Mike.” Mike Lee’s company, Vero, is now promoting Doha’s Olympic bid for 2020.

Outside the Olympics Journalists’ Association but a member of this circle of movers and shakers is Peter Hargitay, the Swiss-Hungarian “crisis manager” relied on by FIFA President Sepp Blatter to deal with corruption allegations. He’s been acquitted – twice – of cocaine trafficking, held in custody in Miami for seven months as a flight risk, was a partner in a Zurich “dirty tricks” private detective agency, boasted he could hack bank accounts, and was being pursued by a Swiss businessman claiming to be owed £2 million. Hargitay defended the Union Carbide company after the Bhopal disaster at Christmas 1984, and represented fugitive tax-dodger and sanctions-buster Marc Rich, branded as one of “America’s most-wanted”. He has homes in London, Zurich and Jamaica. And Hargitay is another man who boasts that he can manage the media. On one of his many websites Peter Hargitay solicited “high net-worth individuals”, claiming: “If the client had big problems the answer was powerful strategies to ‘stay out of the media’ and to prepare such briefs, news items and alternative scoops that would divert, detract and destabilise imminent media interest.”

Hargitay seeks to impress potential clients by boasting of his close relations with sports reporters, sometimes forwarding private correspondence as evidence. “I have read virtually all articles [on England’s World Cup bid] out of professional curiosity and have concluded that your reports were the soundest, best quality and solid,” Hargitay informed a wellknown London sports reporter. “Peter, thanks very much for the note, you’re very kind,” replied the hack, in an exchange that was then sent to a Hargitay client.

My own experience with Hargitay provides some illumination of how things work at the murky intersection between sport journalism and PR. In 2006 I researched and presented a BBC Panorama – “The Beautiful Bung” – reporting that in 1997 Sepp Blatter, then FIFA general secretary, had been aware of a $1million bribe on its way to President Havelange. The following year, on the eve of the launching of campaigns for the World Cups of 2018 and 2022, I reported for Panorama that bribes had been paid to get the 2006 tournament to Germany. In another Panorama I reported on the vast ticket rackets run by FIFA vice-president Jack Warner. Viewers saw him threaten to spit on me at Zurich airport. In another encounter, on the street in Trinidad, Warner told me: “Go fuck yourself.” More Panoramas were to be expected on Blatter and FIFA corruption.

In May 2008 Hargitay contacted the then sports editor of The Daily Telegraph, David Bond, with a stunning exclusive. It was no secret that FA chairman and 2018 World Cup bid leader Lord David Triesman had been a member of the Communist Party and, in the 1960s, a student agitator at Essex University before going to become general secretary of the Labour Party, but Hargitay’s story was that Panorama reporter Andrew Jennings had been a member of the Communist Party with Triesman at Essex University and that Jennings had written for a communist newspaper!

David Bond called and confronted me with Hargitay’s allegations. “No, I didn’t go to Essex, David. I went to Hull University. Five years earlier. Yes, Hull. No, I was never in the Communist Party. I’ve never met David Triesman. Not at university. Not since. I’ve never met him, David. Did I ever write for what? A ‘communist paper’ called the Tribune? Do you mean the Tribune that was edited by Michael Foot? Yes, David, it’s a Labour Partysupporting paper. That’s right. No, I didn’t write for it.” A couple of days later David Bond emailed me, confirming Hargitay was his source. The Telegraph didn’t publish.

But here’s what Daily Mail sports columnist Charles Sale ran a couple of weeks later: “The PR spin already circling feverishly around England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup is now suggesting that FA chairman Lord Triesman has a long friendship with investigative sports journalist Andrew Jennings, who might, as a result, now have some unlikely influence on the FA decisionmaking process. However, Triesman insists he wouldn’t even recognise Jennings, who makes a habit on his BBC Panorama programmes about sports corruption of popping out of the shrubbery in his white raincoat to confront targets.” Charlie’s got my phone number, but he didn’t call.


Sport should be properly scrutinised

In May 2011 Triesman testified to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee about the failed England bid. He explained that in the early days of the bid he visited Blatter in Zurich. “The first part of it involved him interrogating me as to whether Andrew Jennings was one of my very close friends and whether we had been to university together. I think he was surprised to hear, because he had been briefed that that was the case, that we didn’t know each other at all. Anyway, he was deeply concerned about that and he pressed that point at some length.” Hargitay, who was hired, briefly, to advise the England bid, was let go when Triesman arrived as the new FA chairman. According to Private Eye in January 2011, Hargitay had wanted £4million in cash, claiming it was to bribe FIFA’s leaders. Hargitay remains a trusted source for many of London’s sports news reporters across the media.

That reporters let the media masseurs into their private club is just one symptom of a much bigger problem: lack of scrutiny. Sport is big business, holds huge sway over politicians, and, as London has learned, can be used to eat up acres of land, destroy public spaces, suspend civil liberties and grant preferential tax deals. It is in the public interest that sport should be properly scrutinised. Quite apart from all that, it’s really not very dignified to be taking dictation from Hargitay and his chums.

It’s so much more fun on the other side. I’ve had a hoot exposing sports secrets over the years. I got a suspended jail sentence in Switzerland for saying that International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch was corrupt – I’m really proud of that. I’m quite chuffed to have been banned from FIFA press conferences and premises since 2003, when I published a documented story about a big secret bonus Blatter paid himself. Of course, FIFA shouldn’t have done that. It’s authoritarian, pure censorship. Still, I take it as a compliment.

And that’s another thing. You meet the nicest, funniest people – and the finest journalists – outside the club. There’s Jean-Francois Tanda in Zurich, lawyer turned reporter using the courts to force FIFA’s leaders to publish a devastating criminal investigation into who got the $100million in contract kickbacks – from Jean-Marie Weber! There’s The Sunday Times Insight team of Claire Newell and Jonathan Calvert, who covertly recorded some FIFA leaders soliciting bribes – and forced their expulsion. Further afield it’s fun collaborating with two of Brazil’s leading sports investigative reporters, Juca Kfouri and Rodrigo Mattos, digging into some of the shady characters involved in the next World Cup and Olympics.

When I visit British journalism schools I quote the late Louis Heren’s advice to a young reporter to find out “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”, and Lord Northcliffe’s “News is what somebody, somewhere, wants to suppress. Everything else is advertising.” I invite the students to chant these calls to arms back at me – and they do. It’s very heartening.