Neither the FA nor the BBC

In the war of the World Cup between the England bid elite and Panorama, neither team of self-righteous Soccerists seems supportable.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Sorry, but following the great debate between the top brass of the English Football Association and the BBC, over the Panorama ‘exposé’ of corruption in FIFA, is rather like watching a match between two teams you don’t support. I cannot really get excited about either side, and would not care too much if they both disappeared down a hole in the pitch.

There has been high-falutin’ talk on both sides of this elite match. The FA has accused the BBC of being unpatriotic and damaging the national interest, by broadcasting its Panorama report into FIFA committee members in the week that those same people will vote on England’s bid to stage the 2018 World Cup. For its part, the BBC has insisted that broadcasting its allegations of corruption at the very top of world football this week was timely and in the ‘public interest’.

As Harry Hill of TV Burp might say, faced with such mutual pomposity over a little-watched television programme: ‘Well, I like the National Interest. And I like the Public Interest. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out: Fight!’

You say national interest, I say public interest: these are just weasel words to disguise the way that both the FA and the BBC are pursuing their own sectional interests, neither of which is quite as noble as they might have us believe.

The English FA and the British authorities are so desperate to get the World Cup for financial and political reasons, and so fearful that anything might rock FIFA’s rotting hulk before the vote, that they seriously suggest that an investigation into corruption in high places should be canned, not for being inaccurate, but for being ‘unpatriotic’. In other words, there should be censorship – or at least self-censorship – in the ‘national interest’. This is the sort of demand one might historically associate with the likes of Joseph Stalin, or more recently Silvio Berlusconi (or maybe Prince Andrew), rather than with a trendy FA bid team fronted by Prince William and David Beckham.

The job of journalists in an allegedly free society is to tell the truth as they understand it, not to tell governments or officials what they want to hear or keep embarrassing facts under wraps. So yes, Panorama had the right to broadcast this week.

But that does not give them the right to demand that the world turn on their word, or to pose as defenders of the public interest. Claiming that a documentary is on the side of Good does not make it a good piece of investigative journalism. The contents of the Panorama programme, which focused on allegations of corruption against three FIFA committee members dating from the 1990s, hardly lived up to its grandiose billing. It had little of the impact of the recent Sunday Times undercover report that led to the suspension of two other FIFA committee members.

So why did the BBC chiefs choose to exercise their right to broadcast such a poor show in this sensitive week? Because they too are pursuing their own narrow agenda, seeking to reassert the BBC’s and Panorama’s badly tarnished reputation as a fearless seeker of wisdom and a speaker of ‘truth to power’. See, we don’t just do dancing celebrities and camp antique dealers, we do proper radical stuff, too! There are liberal bosses at Television Centre who like to imagine themselves as some sort of opposition parties. However, the England bid team’s accusation that they were being ‘unpatriotic’ served as a reminder to them that the British Broadcasting Corporation remains a part of the state machine, not a maverick media outlet, and has always been expected to toe the official line in times of trouble.

So no, some of us are not going to cheer for either the high-powered World Cup bid team or the BBC bosses. Especially as in effect each side is pursuing a variant of the modern ideological ailment I call Soccerism – the attempt to inflate the importance of the game of football to fill the gap where our political and public life ought to be.

In recent years, politicians and public figures of every stripe have latched on to Our National Game as (they hope) one thing that can still unite the fragmented nation (or at least the English part of it). Even posh boy David Cameron now plays this game, flying the Cross of St George flag over Downing Street during the World Cup earlier this year (when it surely should have been at half-mast for the death of English football), and abandoning the mounting crisis at home to fly out and spend days glad-handing FIFA committee members before Thursday’s vote.

It is bad enough for our leaders to fantasise about how England winning the World Cup might magically boost their support despite everything happening in the real world. But it is truly pathetic to imagine that winning a vote to stage the World Cup among 22 unsavoury committee men will have the same effect. Yeah, just look at how Blair schmoozing the 2012 Olympics for London won the last election for New Labour.

Yet the BBC bosses and the rest of the media are just as bad a bunch of deluded Soccerists. So big and important do they now imagine football – a faraway game of which most of them know little – to be, that many see the World Cup vote and FIFA shenanigans as the political story of the moment. Thus the Panorama crusaders and their champions act as if, in exposing some alleged past dodgy dealings with sponsors among some faceless committee members, they are striking a major blow against international tyranny and capitalist corruption. Such self-deluded, self-righteous guff, to update an old Marxist maxim, is the Soccerism of fools.

If England were to get the 2018 World Cup, fair enough. Though to be honest, I am not that bothered; contrary to the impression widely given, winning a little committee vote is a far cry from winning the big trophy itself, the miracle of 1966 notwithstanding. The bid has been pitched in Whitehall more as a potential boost for hard-pressed British capitalism than for exhausted-looking English football.

Some of us, however, have long suspected England are unlikely to win that vote – and not because of anything our journalists get up to. The politics of FIFA has been a right carry-on since the days when they allowed Italy’s fascist Il Duce Benito Mussolini to run the second-ever World Cup in 1934, and were considering giving the 1942 World Cup to Hitler’s Germany before the inconvenient intervention of the Second World War caused the game to be abandoned. (Not that the English FA has been any less political: it quit FIFA after the First World War because it did not want to mix with the Germans and was worried about the growing foreign influence over ‘our’ game – the same concern that meant England did not deign to enter the World Cup until 1950.) The political runes this time suggest that FIFA president Sepp Blatter wants to give it to Russia as part of his master plan for global domination, marching his forces from Japan and South Korea (2002) to South Africa (2010) and on to Moscow, conquering where past dictators failed. We shall see.

But whatever result the FIFA political manoeuvring brings on Thursday, the politics of Soccerism remains a bigger problem for the future of both football and wider society. Turning the issue of who sold a few World Cup seats to who into the stuff of political scandal and international diplomacy is definitely not the ticket.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

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Topics Politics


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