Sports pages deserve top marks for digging

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: A free, enterprising and inquisitive media is policing sport around the globe, writes DAVID WALKER

It was during my five years as a working director in football that I arrived in a boardroom one Saturday afternoon to be welcomed with the words: “Here’s the press. Watch what you say.”

'And the winner is...' Sepp Blatter's downfall came after a decade of journalistic digging
‘And the winner is…’ Sepp Blatter’s downfall came after a decade of journalistic digging

I might add that the director making that comment was a colleague of mine from Barnsley. I suppose in one sense he was right. There weren’t many card-carrying members of the NUJ knocking around League One in those days.

I never lost my love of newspapers, in particular, and the workings of the media in general. And it’s after being back on what we once called Fleet Street as a sports editor for the past 11 years that another fundamental truth about the coverage of sport has been comprehensively endorsed.

Many of our sports administrators may not like this, but the fact is that a free, enterprising, inquisitive media effectively polices sport around the globe. Show me a scandal that undermined the intrinsic honesty of competition and the chances are it will have been the media, rather than the governing body of that sport, who exposed the wrong-doing.

For instance, for a decade or more the British press corps of all types have been in pursuit of a man we knew was guilty, at best, of mis-management. At worst he, and his organisation, were corrupt. Time will tell the precise level of Sepp Blatter’s maladministration at FIFA but things aren’t looking good for him and his stooges.

And while there was a widespread and sustained outcry against Blatter from these shores, others chose to support his unregulated regime in pursuit of the right to stage major tournaments like World Cup finals. Don’t forget, even our own FA made public their displeasure about a BBC Panorama documentary that critically investigated corruption inside FIFA five years ago this month.

Panorama alleged that three senior FIFA officials, who were voting to decide the host nations of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals, had accepted bribes in the 1990s. You will recall England were hoping to host the 2018 tournament.

He probably deeply regrets it now but Andy Anson, head of the England bid, said he was “disappointed with the timing” of the programme. “It is certainly not going to win us any votes so we just have to see what happens tonight and move on.”

England gleaned one vote as Russia won the right to stage the 2018 event and Qatar were chosen as hosts of 2022. Then the Sunday Times’s Insight team entered the debate and blew Septic’s scrambling defence to pieces.

News of the world front pageThe Sunday Times journalists have deservedly won a string of media trophies, including honours from our own SJA Journalism Awards. The depth of their indefatigable digging to expose wrong-doing played a critical role in justifying to the rest of the world what we, in Britain, had been saying for years.

It’s five years since the News of the World revealed that Pakistan players were taking bribes from a bookmaker to under-perform deliberately at set moments of a Test match. This led to four players being sentenced to prison sentences. It also led to the News of the World winning the SJA’s Scoop of the Year award. And cricket authorities duly tightened up their regulations about access to players during Test matches.

For years word has spread among those who know and understand athletics that the existing drug testing regime was simply not rigorous enough. German broadcasters ARD didn’t just deliver the data to prove that point but embarrassed too many governing bodies with the extent of their doping allegations.

Indeed, such was the magnitude of the drugs problem in athletics that we also discovered that international associations, epitomised by Russia, had actively covered up the illegal activities of their doping athletes. It took a few days for the penny to drop with many athletics administrators but eventually even the Russians realised their cover had been blown – by a diligent television documentary.

But we shouldn’t sit back on our laurels, especially when a football manager as shrewd and experienced as Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger flags up his concerns about drug abuse in his sport. We have been warned.

The track record of the British press exposing serious wrong-doing is impressive – and long-standing. It was back in 1962 that three Sheffield Wednesday players agreed to do their part in ensuring their team lost at Ipswich Town. The home side duly won 2-0.

It was thanks to an investigation in the Sunday People that a nationwide betting syndicate was exposed. There were a string of lower division players involved but the Wednesday three were the big names – Tony Kay and Peter Swan were England internationals while they were introduced to the ring leader by team-mate David Layne.

The Wednesday three were sent to prison for four months. In his searingly honest autobiography Setting the Record Straight, Swan even managed to reveal a humorous side to the story that was hailed in the early Sixties as the “Biggest Sports Scandal of the Century”.

The Sunday People was the first newspaper to carry player ratings with an individual mark out of 10. As Swan pointed out, Tony Kay was in on the bet yet was hailed by the People as Wednesday’s man of the match.

Well, as we all know, you can’t get everything right. But we can keep trying.

  • David Walker has been Chairman of the SJA since 2013. He is the sports editor of the Daily Mirror
  • Next week in View From The Pressbox: Randall Northam, sports book publisher
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