In 2006, a Panorama documentary shown on the BBC inferred that many Premiership football managers had been involved in the seedy and murky underworld of football ‘bungs’ in relation to transfer deals, and also in the tapping up of young starlets. This chart, taken from a BBC Sport article at the time of the programme being made, showed the key terminology used and the explanations of the jargon which may not have been household words at the time.
The documentary implicitly implied that Sam Allardyce – then the manager of Bolton, had taken illegal payments from two different football agents. His comments at the time of “I am very angry at the lies told about me. The individuals who appeared in the programme making accusations against me have already confirmed in writing to my lawyers they lied to the BBC,” seemed to suggest that he certainly believed that he was innocent. However, although he had made his intentions clear of legal action against the BBC, he chose not to take up this option – which would have been a good case for libel had the BBC been dishonest with their documentary. Alas, the year long window for a libel case came and went, and no action was taken by Allardyce.
In the world of law – which is arguably more corrupt and miss-managed than even the crazy land of football and sport, “there is no set definition of defamation.” This is a problem, because it means that anybody can feel slighted at the slightest whiff of an insult. If David Beckham was called ‘an Essex ponce’ by a regional newspaper, the onus would be on the newspaper to clarify and defend their words, rather than Mr Beckham explaining why the words were clearly inappropriate. In a perfect world, libel, slander and defamation in general would not exist, because journalist would meticulously research their articles, and newspapers and television would exist purely for entertainment and learning rather than chasing the dollar, but whilst the world we live in remains transfixed with selling papers based on supercilious and spurious allegations, then people getting offended will always occur.
I feel that the actual documentary which caused on the strife and tribulations, was a perfect example of how sports news values should be, as opposed to the poor excuses of values and morals exhibited by many media outlets, be that tabloids like ‘The Sun,’ broadsheets like ‘The Times,’ and tabloids masquerading as broadsheets, like ‘The Guardian.’ The programme had a clear timeline of events, was researched thoroughly (as seen by the complete lack of legal action taken by any of the people accused and involved in the show – including Harry Redknapp), had a huge impact on sport which was shown when a Lord Stevens enquiry followed in 2006, and in the bluntest of values, the programme also bought to light an interesting and riveting story with facts, statistics and proof. Simply, it was the type of investigative journalist that newspapers used to pride themselves on, before they decided to focus on the mundane.
In terms of ethics, the programme was doing nothing new, and nothing really sacrilegious. Football has always been rife with alleged illicit dodgy dealings, and so any revelations that have been revealed for the right reasons – not just to sell papers or advertisements, should be welcomed. From Billy Meredith offering Aston Villa player Alec Leake a ten bob note in 1906 to throw a football match, right through to the infamous Bruce Grobbelaar, Hans Segars and John Fashunu allegations in 1994 of match fixing. Perhaps ethically the courts decision to award Grobbelaar a one pound reward for ‘libel’ after The Sun had made the claims against him and his cohorts was the right one, especially after they had initially given him £85,000 – which was changed to the pound after an appeal from the newspaper, which also resulted in Grobbelaar being forced to pay The Sun’s half a million pound legal costs. Almost quite literally a case of pick up a penny, pay a pound.
The BBC had previous form at annoying football managers. Another documentary, this time shown in 2004 infuriated Sir Alex Ferguson to such an extent that he refused to talk to the BBC again – a boycott that has continued to the present day. The documentary in question contained allegations against his football agent son Jason, and how Sir Alex had encouraged young players to sign with his son’s agent company ‘Elite’. Again defamation was the key legal term – and yet again nothing came out of it. Whilst it clearly makes sense for football managers, and those that are accused of being guilty to protest and proclaim their innocence, the very fact that very little usually happens at the end of these incidences is a testament to the idea that it’s almost always a case of a lot of bluster.
Overall, I feel that sports reporting should be more like the hard hitting documentaries that people like the BBC do so well, and less like the gaudy tabloid nonsense that infiltrates our footballing culture, with opinions masquerading as facts far too many times. From a purely legal standpoint, meticulously researched documentaries which have had reams of lawyers and folk that actually know what they are doing making sure that everything being said is above board, than a struggling journalist doctoring a grainy photo of Sam Allardyce with his son shaking hands. Because whilst sports reporting is a key form of reporting which gets the entire country interested in issues that perhaps would have been less gripping had it been an accountant doing it rather than a sportsman, it has to adhere to the same codes of conduct that every other form of reporting has to, and given no special favours.
Sports reporting (and the sports reporters) should not descend into lies and deceit just because the world of which they’re reporting has already lapsed into such a dark place.