In September 2016 the Telegraph brought about the departure of the England football manager, Sam Allardyce, after publishing a story based on covert recordings of two meetings he had with reporters posing as businessmen.
Headlined ‘England manager Sam Allardyce for sale’ and presented as part of an investigation into ‘corruption in English football’, the Telegraph story alleged that Allardyce (1) used his England position to negotiate a £400,000 speaking deal, and (2) ‘offered advice to businessmen on how to “get around” FA rules on player transfers’.
This piece of journalism is now the subject of a long and tangled ruling by IPSO that sheds light on two things: the fundamental weakness of the Telegraph’s ethics and the fundamental weakness of IPSO.
There was always a bad smell about it. As the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor pointed out at the time, despite the near-hysterical tone of the Telegraph’s reporting its story hardly rated in the grand scheme of football scandals, and the paper also contrived to bury near the bottom some comments by Allardyce at the meetings which cast doubt on whether there was any scandal at all.
The speaking deal
The paper’s account of the £400,000 speaking deal – supposedly to involve trips to Hong Kong for private meetings to talk football with business people – was seriously unbalanced. It was made very clear to the undercover reporters at the time that if Allardyce did this it would only be in his own time and if his employer, the FA, knew about and approved it.
In consequence, if it had gone ahead, the deal would have been legal, consistent with Allardyce’s contract and known to his employer. This meant the Telegraph had difficulty claiming it was seriously improper, so instead it presented it both as a piece of greed – readers were reminded forcefully that he already earned a salary of £3m – and as a potential conflict of interest.
You might agree on the greed point, but it was strange coming from the Telegraph. Normally this is a paper that applauds the accumulation of wealth – its owners, the billionaire Barclay brothers, did not stop when their incomes reached £3m, and it was after all the Telegraph that paid Boris Johnson £250,000 a year for a weekly column while he served, with full taxpayer-funded salary, as Mayor of London.
As for a potential conflict of interest (again something that has not apparently troubled the paper in its dealings with Johnson), could there have been a real danger when both Allardyce and his associates insisted that any arrangement must be cleared with the FA – in other words, when the body at risk from any conflict would have been fully aware of it and would have given its consent?
IPSO has now found, on the narrowest of grounds, that there was such a danger: ‘Mr Allardyce’s conduct demonstrated that he personally had failed to give proper consideration to potential conflicts of interest; the newspaper’s characterisation could be justified and was not significantly misleading.’ (Paragraph 100).
This is a characteristically contorted argument from IPSO, characteristically designed to give the newspaper the most generous benefit of any possible doubt. What it means is that, even though the manager insisted he would do nothing to which the FA objected, thus obviating any risk that a conflict of interest could actually arise, IPSO found that the paper was free to suggest he was guilty of wrongdoing because he personally had not raised concerns in the course of the recorded meetings about possible conflicts of interest. And bear in mind that his associates did raise the issue of possible conflict.
It is hard to believe that any reasonable person outside IPSO and the corporate press would accept that kind of logic.
The second allegation in the Telegraph’s story, relating to third party ownership of players and the transfer market, was more complex, but significant new light has been shed on it in the ruling by IPSO, which ordered the paper to print three corrections. Those corrections are:
‘Allardyce did not suggest a model by which a third party could benefit from transfer fees.
He did not brief undercover reporters on breaking the rules.
He did not enter negotiations to provide guidance on how to get around rules on third party ownership.’
Consider the allegations in the original story: Allardyce, it was claimed, ‘offered advice to businessmen on how to “get around” FA rules on player transfers’ and ‘told the fictitious businessmen that it was “not a problem” to bypass the rules’. The corrections – read them again – appear to state the polar opposite.
The IPSO ruling labours over this in a manner that suggests the regulator was desperate to find any grounds to throw out Allardyce’s complaint, but in the end it was forced to concede that the paper was wrong. (Paragraphs 95 and 97)
Allardyce’s characterisation of the affair was blunt. The Telegraph, he said, had put words into his mouth.
On the face of it, and despite the tangled verbiage of IPSO, the corrections suggest that the Telegraph, far from having the scoop of the year as a result of its sting (and it actually won such an award), did not have any story about Allardyce that was worth publishing.
The fruit of their alleged 11-month investigation and two recorded undercover meetings seems to have been this:
– the England manager said he was available for well-paid private chats about football in his own time providing his employer, the Football Association, approved the arrangement;
– despite the best efforts of undercover reporters over two lengthy encounters he could not be induced to suggest a model by which a third party could benefit from transfer fees.
That’s not a story at all. And without those elements all the Telegraph was left with were some tactless remarks from Allardyce that were nothing more than standard football chatter and perfectly consistent with his well-known views and style.
It doesn’t end there. The Telegraph published more than a dozen articles on this subject over a week or so, and most of them, including the first, came with the word ‘corruption’ prominently attached.
Readers were told again and again that this was part of an investigation into ‘corruption in English football’; Allardyce’s photograph appeared alongside a headline referring to corruption; a leading article mentioning Allardyce called on the authorities to deploy the laws against corruption. And so on. No reasonable person could believe anything other than that the Telegraph was associating the England manager with corruption.
It may thus be a surprise to some that the IPSO ruling quotes the Telegraph as insisting that ‘at no point had it accused him [Allardyce] of corruption’. Less surprising is that this was good enough to satisfy IPSO, which concluded: ‘. . . by publishing the articles as part of the wider coverage, the newspaper had not accused the complainants of corruption which amounted to illegality.’ (Para 86)
So, although the paper admitted Allardyce could not be accused of doing anything corrupt, IPSO found nothing wrong with the idea that it had freely and liberally associated his name with corruption. This was permissible, IPSO argued, because the Telegraph was intending to publish other articles about other people who really were corrupt. (In fact the entire investigation turned up very little, which may be why so much was invested, so desperately, in ‘getting’ Allardyce.)
Moreover, in one of the most perverse passages of the ruling, IPSO decided that in fact there was something corrupt in what Allardyce had done: he had shown himself ready to engage in behaviour ‘which could be considered inappropriate for somebody in his position’. <>(Para 86)
<>Just give that a moment’s thought. According to IPSO it is legitimate to associate a person with corruption if they have committed any act which anyone might consider inappropriate,<> given<> their position. Could it possibly be ‘considered inappropriate’, for example, for IPSO, in its position, to justify the conduct of the Telegraph in this case? If so, it must follow, on IPSO’s own reasoning, that IPSO is corrupt.
Believe it or not, an even more unbalanced approach is evident in IPSO’s treatment of that part of Allardyce’s complaint which challenged the covert tactics used by the Telegraph. Ethically and under the relevant code, subterfuge can only be justified where journalists have strong evidence beforehand that they are likely to uncover proof of wrongdoing.
In rejecting this part of the complaint, it is clear that IPSO required little more from the Telegraph in terms of justification than the assertion that it had had such evidence. The evidence itself, if it existed, never had to be produced.
On these terms it is very hard to see how any complainant could ever secure a ruling that subterfuge was not justified – all any news publisher need do to secure a favourable ruling is tick a box saying yes, there was evidence. And it’s worth noting that the finding against Allardyce on this point has enabled the Telegraph to brush off the whole affair with a headline claim that IPSO found its story was justified.
Now consider the time all this took. Somehow the ‘regulator’ needed six months to extract from the Telegraph the principal substantive evidence in the case: the transcripts of the recorded meetings. And then it took another 15 months to produce a ruling which, while it demands corrections, includes every kind of verbal contortion in favour of the paper and betrays the most grudging of attitudes to the complainants’ arguments.
If there was no real story in 2016, there are two now. First, IPSO’s ruling provides an insight into how far the Telegraph will go to flam up a front-page story from little or no evidence and then to press its flimsy case so hard that its target loses his job.
And second, we see how hard IPSO, supposedly ‘the toughest regulator in the western world’, works to protect the interests of a newspaper which is the subject of complaint. The toughness is all directed at the complainant.
Sam Allardyce is a rich man who can afford the best legal advice in fighting his corner, for as long as it takes. And even now, having secured three significant corrections, he can hardly feel fully vindicated since most of the press have artfully contrived to present the outcome as a defeat for him.
If this is what happens to such a person, what hope is there for a complainant of ordinary means who tackles a paper through IPSO alone, while holding down a full-time job and perhaps helping to feed a family?