Like so many long-running feuds, Sir Alex Ferguson's boycott of the BBC, which came to an end yesterday after more than seven years, had been going on for so long, and been through so many failed attempts to broker peace, that many people had forgotten how it started in the first place.
The details of Ferguson’s conversation with the BBC director-general Mark Thompson that led to yesterday’s rapprochement are unlikely ever to be made public, with both parties having agreed not to comment. The prospect of the Premier League finally imposing a fine on Ferguson for every time he failed to talk to the corporation, a rights holder, is not thought to have been a key factor.
But arguably the most curious aspect of this particular grudge is that Ferguson himself has never gone into specifics as to what exactly it was he objected to in the BBC documentary Fergie and Son that was broadcast on 27 May 2004 on BBC3 and was the sole reason for his boycott.
The only time Ferguson has spoken at any length about the BBC was in September 2007 when, in a question-and-answer session in Glasgow, he accused the corporation of being “arrogant beyond belief”. Complaining that the BBC would “never apologise” he said: “They did a story about my son [Jason] that was a whole lot of nonsense. It was all made-up stuff and ‘brown paper bags’ and all that kind of carry-on. It was a horrible attack on my son’s honour and he should never have been accused of that.”
The questions touched on by Fergie and Son were much more complex and came amid one of the most tumultuous years in Ferguson’s career. The documentary was produced by Alex Millar, an investigative reporter who had already worked as chief researcher on Michael Crick’s acclaimed unauthorised Ferguson biography The Boss.
Millar based his material on Jason, and Jason’s involvement with the Elite Sports agency, on the chapter he and Crick, now the Channel 4 chief political correspondent and a lifelong United fan, had written in The Boss entitled “Jason and the Larger Noughts”. In his documentary, Millar went back to the Crick revelations that L’Attitude [the agents Jason worked for before founding Elite] had been paid £25,000 for their involvement in the transfer of goalkeeper Massimo Taibi to Reggina in 2000. Both the Italian club’s president and the player’s agent were on record saying that they played no role in the deal.
Fergie and Son also revisited the deal to sell Jaap Stam to Lazio in 2001, and there were further disclosures about the number of United players represented by Elite.
However, by 2004, these revelations from The Boss, published two years earlier, were being overtaken by Ferguson’s dispute with the club’s then-majority shareholders
J P McManus and John Magnier – former friends of his – over stud rights for the Rock of Gibraltar racehorse, which had started to turn nasty at the start of the year.
In January 2004, McManus and Magnier had posed 99 questions about the club’s financial propriety to the board. These questions found their way into the Daily Mail which increased the scrutiny around United. In response the club announced a review of their transfer dealings from January 2001 to January 2004, to be carried out by then finance director Nick Humby.
As it got closer to the broadcast of the Fergie and Son documentary, and the BBC publicity department released some of Millar’s findings, the tension around the club rose. Then, two days before the broadcast of Fergie and Son, United unexpectedly went public with the details of Humby’s transfer review in a move that looked designed to spike the BBC’s guns.
Of all the United board’s conclusions, the one that made the headlines was that Jason and Elite would never again be permitted to “act for the club”, although United admitted that they could not stop him representing United players who were existing clients – there were 13 of them. The club cleared themselves, Sir Alex, Jason and Elite of any wrongdoing in transfers, and revealed hitherto unpublished details of payments to agents. United also set out a new proviso that, in the future, agents should declare any connection to employees of United.
The transfer review – and its implications for Ferguson and his son Jason – was back-page news. The producers of Fergie and Son were forced into a hasty editing of their material to include this latest development.
That is the unusual part of the story. By the time Fergie and Son was broadcast it had made only small advances from the Crick book and was overshadowed by the impact of the club’s own transfer review. The animation-style presentation of the documentary might have been construed as “disrespectful” by Ferguson but it paled in comparison to the severity of the dispute he was involved in with McManus and Magnier.
So why did Ferguson turn against the BBC when the story itself had effectively already broken? The theory is that he felt victimised by the national broadcaster. His attack on them in Glasgow four years ago has clues to his feelings and those who may have influenced his thinking.
“I think the BBC is the kind of company that never apologise and they never will apologise,” Ferguson said then. “They are arrogant beyond belief. I read Alastair Campbell’s [a friend of Ferguson] diaries recently and he’s written a fantastic piece explaining the arrogance and their inability to apologise.”
He added: “But it is such a huge organisation that they will never apologise. They don’t even care if you sue them or whatever, because they are so huge and have insurance. They carry on regardless and it’s breathtaking.”
Millar is still working for the BBC and the corporation have backed him to the extent that he was the producer of the Panorama investigation Undercover: Football’s Dirty Secrets in September 2006, that went undercover to film managers, including Harry Redknapp, a far more aggressive approach than the one employed in Fergie and Son.
Redknapp and Sam Allardyce, whose son Craig was targeted by Panorama, both imposed their own BBC boycotts but neither had the longevity of Ferguson. Over seven years he held out with his usual intransigence, neither compromising nor explaining.
Perhaps we may have to wait for that eagerly awaited second volume of Ferguson's memoirs for all the answers.Reuse content