The main problem was that it was highly confused in its targets. Their inside man was involved in a number of deals, but they focused on two quite different sets of alleged activities; the first is tapping up – i.e. approaching a player without the permission of his club. The second is more serious, of bungs, i.e. that managers are being given a cut of agent’s fees to sign particular players.
Of the two, you’d think tapping-up would be easier to prove, not least because clubs as big as Chelsea have been caught doing it red-handed, but the programme’s undercover work was poor – all it was was an ambiguous discussion with several senior officials of various clubs, who expressed in an interest in signing players offered to them by an agent actively soliciting for business. That was it. Nothing that suggested that the clubs mentioned were actually involved in tapping up players; the evidence was pathetically flimsy.
The coverage of these affairs diluted out the real blood and guts story of allegations of bung-taking by a Premiership manager, as related by several agents. While tapping-up is unethical at worst, bung-taking is basically a nice way of saying bribery. Levelling charges of corruption against a major figure in the game is a serious undertaking, yet the BBC crowded it out with side stories of little relevance and even less substance. This was probably in an attempt to broaden the scope of the documentary so they could say they had exposed the entire workings of football, so as to live up to its overblown title.
It’s a classic case of trying to make news more like entertainment – you always end up overstating what you’ve actually got, and you end up overplaying your hand. No surprise then, that the reaction from this morning’s newspapers is a touch cooler than it really should be – substantial bung allegations haven’t been made against a top flight manager for a decade, but the overexpectation has subdued the effect. Investigative journalism, especially into closed and secretive worlds such as football deals, is unlikely to produce smoking guns; without the resources of an official or police investigation that’s understandable, of course it is going to rely by a large part on circumstantial evidence and unreliable testimony. By making the mistake of presenting this as earth-shattering hard evidence that will rock the entire system, rather than acknowledging all you have is circumstantial evidence about the activities of a few individuals, you only undermine your already weak case even further. A little more perspective and self-restraint from the BBC’s investigative teams is needed, or else sooner or later they will make a terrible mistake at someone’s expense.