The BBC is to screen a Panorama documentary titled Fifa's Dirty Secrets less than three days before football's global governing body votes on the venue for the 2018 World Cup.
The programme, presented by the veteran investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, is being billed within the BBC as an inquiry into "corruption allegations against some of the Fifa officials who will vote on England's World Cup bid", according to internal BBC emails seen by The Independent. Jennings "exposes new evidence of bribery and accuses some executives of taking kickbacks", the emails say.
The timing is hugely contentious. The BBC plans to transmit it at 8.30pm on 29 November, just as Fifa officials and representatives of candidate countries – including Prince William, David Cameron and David Beckham – gather in Zurich for the vote.
The England 2018 bid team, which is due to make its presentation at 11am on 2 December, is fearful that the programme could scupper hopes of winning a tournament which is estimated to be worth £3bn to the British economy. "This could be the final nail in the coffin," said a source last night.
The bid team will be concerned to learn that Panorama promises that its investigation also covers the "Fifa financial bonanza if England hosts the World Cup" – suggesting the England bid itself comes under scrutiny.
The Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who has the deciding vote in the event of a tied ballot, has a long-held animosity towards Jennings, who is author of a book called Foul! The Secret World of Fifa: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals. Jennings describes how he confronted the head of Fifa at the Abou Nawas Hotel in Tunisia in 2004, asking difficult questions about payments made to a Fifa official. "I'm not his favourite reporter," he wrote of his relationship with Blatter.
Such is the bid team's concern about the impact of the programme that its chief executive, Andy Anson, visited BBC director general Mark Thompson last week to ask him to move the transmission date. He was given short shrift. "We have been absolutely clear that the editorial independence and impartiality of the BBC is critical and sacrosanct," said a BBC source.
Mr Cameron has been desperately trying to shore up the England bid, mindful of the kudos that Tony Blair enjoyed after helping to win the 2012 Olympics for London. Yesterday in Seoul he went out of his way to meet Chung Mong-joon, vice-president of Fifa and, as president of Korea's FA, one of the 24 members of the executive committee who will decide where the 2018 tournament is played. "I was spending much more time on the World Cup than on the G20," said Mr Cameron.
Mr Blatter was invited to Downing Street last month to hear a presentation on England's bid and meet a delegation that included the Prime Minister, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the England manager Fabio Capello.
Following an investigation by The Sunday Times last month into alleged Fifa corruption – leading to two executive committee members being suspended – the Fifa president made dark comments about the British media. "One can ask whether such an action is appropriate, trying to set traps for people. It is a deeply rooted problem [with the UK media]," he said. "Who is benefiting from this situation and who is being harmed? We are asking ourselves why did it happen and why did it happen specifically by English journalists? We are looking at that."
The former sports minister Richard Caborn claimed the BBC's decision to screen the programme so close to the crucial vote showed that schedulers were primarily concerned with ratings. He has lobbied the programme makers to delay the transmission date.
Andrew Jennings: The journalist Sepp Blatter loves to hate
Distinguished by his mop of grey hair, Andrew Jennings is a buccaneering investigative reporter with 30 years' experience. He has made sport, and in particular the political chicanery of staging the Olympic Games and the World Cup, his specialist subject. As such he has become the bête noire of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the late former president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and more recently of Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, who has banned him from his press conferences.
Jennings delights in confronting targets on camera and once challenged a Scotland Yard detective by ambushing him on a country jog and running alongside him in a suit, firing off questions. His award-winning investigation into Olympics corruption in 2000 led to a book, The Great Olympic Swindle. His Panorama programme in 2004 exposed a Bulgarian IOC member accepting bribes for London's Olympic bid.
In his investigations into FIFA, Jennings has previously targeted Jack Warner, the Trinidad & Tobago football executive, who featured in a Panorama investigation, The Beautiful Bung: Corruption and the World Cup, in 2006.
In that programme, over images of Blatter, Jennings said: "This is one of the most unpopular men in world football, and he controls it. His name is Sepp Blatter and his organisation is in a bit of trouble, and I'm another. My name is Andrew Jennings and Mr Blatter can't stand me." After the broadcast of Panorama's FIFA's Dirty Secrets, Blatter is likely to like Jennings even less.
- More about:
- FIFA Confederations Cup
- FIFA World Cup
- International Olympic Committee - IOC
- Sepp Blatter