Hidden away in a specialist magazine is an article by Andrew Jennings. For those of you who find the name unfamiliar he is the man who has done more than anyone to expose the wrongdoings at the International Olympic Committee and FIFA. He is a dogged and excellent investigative reporter. Within the article, ‘Spinning the Olympics’ is a tale to concern anyone who cares for the BBC.
“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.” Andrew Jennings, British Journalism Review (Vol 23 No.2,2012)
So there you have it. A wealthy sheikh blows his top that he is shelling out squillions for his vanity project and Qatar does not even get a mention. He rings his fixer who promptly puts the squeeze on someone at BBC Sports and lo! There is a change. To a quite magnificently ludicrous headline, ‘Batistuta keen to avoid Qatar v England in 2022 Cup bid.’
Run that around your brain for a few moments and ponder. What on earth does it mean? More seriously, what the hell went on? Were Qatari dollars laid out to ease the vanity? Who was the spineless/gutless/clueless/brainless (pick one or more) toerag who changed the headline? What did the BBC do about it? Or are they so far up corporate sports collective arses they cannot tell shit from sugar? Or even worse......are some of these so-called journalists in the corporate trough?
If like me you find the whole thing disturbing, do not sit back and wait for the good fairies to sort it out. Hit the keyboard and write a stinging letter to the BBC. Use the quoted bits above to add weight to your missive. Here are some of the questions I am asking:
- Are the facts regarding the changed headline substantially correct?
- If so, what kind of investigation went on to determine the chain of events?
- Who was the principal investigator?
- Who had the telephone conversation with the PR company?
- Who actually changed the headline?
- Did money change hands? Or was it a favour? Or a pre-emptive cringe?
- What happened to them? Was any form of disciplinary action taken?
- If so what?
- If not why not?
- What was the outcome of the investigation for the sports department?
- As a senior BBC Executive were you aware of this incident?
- What will you be doing to make the sports department more robust and less prone to churnalism?
For the record I am sending letters to George Entwistle, the designate DG; Lord Patten, the Chairman of the BBC Trust; and to Barbara Slater (so she knows the senior cheeses know....) and to Andrew Jennings so he knows he has support.
We will see what they come up with. It will not be quick. These things never are. Behind the scenes though the wheels should be grinding. Let us see what emerges and then if necessary revisit the issue using Freedom of Information.
Director of Sport
BBC Trust Chairman
BBC Trust Unit
180 Great Portland Street