The Second Coming could hardly have been given greater billing by the BBC than its documentary about football "bungs". For days various BBC news outlets told us that the programme to end all programmes was pending. By the time the great day arrived, the press, which had been assiduously briefed by the corporation, was in a state of high excitement. I could barely contain myself as I sat, perched on the edge of my sofa, last Tuesday evening waiting for the Panorama special to start.
Within about 10 minutes I was beginning to have my doubts as to whether the documentary was everything it had been cracked up to be. Its presenter, Alex Millar, adopted a self-dramatising style calculated to set us on tenterhooks. He and his German undercover colleague, Knut auf dem Berge, had spent a year making the programme. Surely, after all that work they would have a startling revelation, and they were just building up to a climax.
But it slowly began to dawn that they had discovered very little indeed. All they really had was two low-level agents - men who, I think it is fair to say, few of us would trust with our life savings - suggesting that the Bolton manager Sam Allardyce had accepted bungs (these are, in effect, commission payments which agents supposedly pay managers when a player is transferred). The language they used to implicate him was not at all specific, and I doubt it would stand up in a court of law. Both agents have since retracted what they said.
Their allegations would, in any case, have to be taken with a largish pinch of salt given that they seemed boastful and flaky sort of people. After one year, and God knows how much expenditure, Mr Millar and Knut had little more than a couple of unsubstantiated allegations. The damning revelation we were hoping for - perhaps a football manager being filmed accepting a bung - never came.
It is true that there were a couple of examples of alleged "tapping up". The documentary showed Chelsea's director of youth football making an apparently illegal approach (illegal, that is, to Premiership bosses) by tapping up a 15-year-old Middlesbrough player. Harry Rednapp, the manager of Portsmouth, was filmed expressing an interest in the Blackburn defender, Andy Todd, of whom few of us had ever heard. Big deal! Tapping up may be regarded as a cardinal sin in the arcane world of football, but the rest of us are unlikely to lose much sleep over it, despite Mr Millar's show of outrage.
Of course, we should give the BBC half a pat on the back for trying to do some investigative journalism. The press doesn't undertake much of it nowadays because it is so expensive. That said, I can't imagine any newspaper putting a sizeable team on to a story for a whole year and coming up with so little. And yet the sports pages of these same newspapers cheerfully fuelled the hype before the Panorama documentary was broadcast and, with very few, if any, exceptions they then repeated the programme's pretty feeble allegations as though they amounted to something.
Panorama was once a great programme, and even now it occasionally hits the mark. I can recall an excellent documentary about binge drinking in Nottingham shown not very long ago. But the BBC has lost its bearings if it believes that this was searing journalism. If the programme was so weak as the result of the depredations of libel lawyers, it should not have been shown. We all blow our own trumpets, and so, perhaps, the BBC can be forgiven for trying to pass off base metal as gold. The collusion of the press in this fantasy is less easy to understand.
I imagine that there is corruption in football, very possibly a great deal of it. With the exception of the manager of Luton Town, a whistleblower called Mike Newell, all the representatives of the beautiful game in the documentary seemed pretty unappetising.
Maybe somebody will one day produce evidence that football really is a fetid swamp. Sadly, this wasn't it.
'Telegraph' should bank on its Barclay
Readers of this column will be aware of the admiration which I have long nursed for Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive of the Telegraph Group. At his previous job at Associated Newspapers, where he was managing director, he was widely respected as an unusual executive, though I never had the pleasure of meeting him. His affectionate sobriquet of Lord McGifty was bestowed in recognition of his remarkable personal generosity.
All this preamble is intended to emphasise just how keen I am - as well as confident - that Murdoch can sort out the problems at the Telegraph Group. It would be wrong, even for an ardent admirer, to pretend that everything in the garden is absolutely rosy. Since Murdoch took over two years ago, The Daily Telegraph has fired its editor, its deputy editor, and, more recently, its foreign editor and comment editor. At The Sunday Telegraph, two editors, a city editor, an assistant editor and an arts editor have bitten the dust.
Last week, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, John Bryant, and his counterpart at the Sunday Telegraph, Patience Wheatcroft, mounted what I suppose could be called a counter-coup. Previously the two editors had not been exactly close, but they joined forces to see off Murdoch's proposal that the ambitious young Will Lewis, the so-called managing director (editorial), should be given the power to hire and fire staff for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. Murdoch, who has himself hired several senior journalists, including the sparky columnist Simon Heffer, has withdrawn his proposal, at any rate for the time being.
All this is very good news, but it would be unwise to assume that perpetual peace is assured. Clashes of this magnitude between editors and chief executives are unusual. It is possible that ill-will resides in certain hearts. Meanwhile, as redundancies are announced, morale at both newspapers is said to be at rock bottom.
Greatly though I admire Murdoch, it seems unlikely that he can address these difficulties by himself. I have a solution. In the perfect newspaper set-up, editor and chief executive report separately to the proprietor or chairman. Editorial and commercial imperatives can be kept apart. Of course, the system does not work if there is no proprietor, or if he is far-away and pre-occupied with other matters.
On the face of it, the Telegraph Group might seem ill-placed to adapt itself to such arrangements. Its owners, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, are to be found in their Channel Island fortress. Aidan, Sir David's son, is chairman. Who, then, is in charge of the train? The waters may seem a little muddy, but so they were in the Telegraph's heyday in the sixties, when Michael Hartwell ran the show rather than his playboy elder brother, Viscount Camrose.
Aidan Barclay should assume the traditional role of a chairman-proprietor, and have Murdoch and the two editors report to him separately. I assume he is up to the job. If this happened, Murdoch and Will Lewis would resist any temptation to interfere in editorial matters, and order would be restored. Murdoch, I am absolutely certain, would be much happier in his re-defined role. John Bryant, who is only acting editor, might then stand aside in favour of a younger, more forceful candidate.
Maybe this is all pie in the sky, but I have a clear sense that something drastic has to be done if calamity is to be avoided.Reuse content