If you were the Qatar World Cup Bid Committee, how would you generate some last minute favorable publicity before the votes were cast for the 2022 World Cup? One way would be to send journalists of influential newspapers on an all-expenses paid visit to Qatar. And then hope that the articles they write would put the 2022 Qatar World Cup bid in a positive light.
And that’s exactly what the Qatar World Cup Bid Committee did.
On Thursday, The Guardian published an article written by Louise Taylor entitled “Why the heat is on Fifa to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.” The headline alone was priceless. Even the Qatar 2022 PR team couldn’t have come up with one as “better” as that. The sub-head “The legacy of a World Cup in Doha would be far more than simply football” was equally a PR dream-come-true.
As for the article itself, it was a puff piece of the highest order. The closest The Guardian got to criticism or negativity is the mentions of the alcohol ban and Israeli passports (and passport stamps) not going down too well in Qatar, but both of these are brushed off with ease by Taylor. In her article, there’s no mention of Qatar’s foreign laborers, who would be responsible for helping to build the stadiums and infrastructure (Qatar’s strict laws regarding foreign laborers have been described by the United States Department of State as akin to modern-day slavery). Nor is there a mention of the discrimination and violence against women in Qatar.
Instead the article lauds Qatar’s “technological wizardry” for designing air-conditioned stadiums (even though the plans were announced last April), as well as touting the “fabulous beach-front hotels, ancient souks, modern shopping malls and the capital’s excellent Museum of Islamic Arts should provide high calibre relaxation.” Taylor goes even suggests that “With a successful tournament serving as a highly effective slap in the face of extremism, Islamic fundamentalists could even be in for some overdue marginalisation,” and then adds:
“It is surely not impossible that greater regional rapprochement could be achieved through impromptu political talking shops convened alongside the football fields of Doha than during countless conventional conferences in Washington, Jerusalem or Sharm el-Sheikh.”
A pipe dream, perhaps? But Taylor also managed to get a few quotes from Sir Alex Ferguson in the article, to add some weight and credibility to the argument why Qatar are deserving of hosting the tournament.
When Guardian Sports Editor Sean Ingle was asked Wednesday whether Taylor’s trip was paid by the Qatar World Cup Bid Committee, Ingle replied:
“She was on a press trip along with several other publications.”
Ingle, instead of answering the question directly, dodged it and implied that if other newspapers were on the same trip, then it was okay if The Guardian was part of the same expense-paid press junket.
Ingle added that I should refer to Guardian Sports Blog Editor Steve Busfield regarding the answer. However, Busfield regurgitated a similar response which neither confirmed or denied whether Louise Taylor’s trip had been paid by the Qatar World Cup Bid Committee or not. He deemed his response a “Full Disclosure” despite the fact that it never disclosed whether Taylor’s trip had been an expense-paid trip or not.
“Louise Taylor was on a press trip to Qatar with several other national newspaper and broadcasting journalists, ahead of the decision for the 2022 World Cup next week. During the trip Louise wrote news stories about the Brazil v Argentina match and on Alex Ferguson (“I’m in no mood for retiring at Manchester United“). She was asked to write a comment piece about her impressions of Qatar.”
The Guardian’s decision to have Taylor write other stories while she was in Qatar didn’t change the fact that her trip’s expenses were paid by Qatar 2022. Just because she wrote other articles while she was there shouldn’t forgive The Guardian‘s poor decision to accept the offer of the expense-paid sojourn in the first place.
Readers of Taylor’s “Why the heat is on Fifa to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar” article were quick to question The Guardian whether they would confirm or deny that Taylor’s trip had been paid for or not. Even after Busfield shared his poor attempt at a “Full Disclosure,” Guardian readers continued asking the same question over and over: “Was this press trip funded by the Qatari bid? If so, why was there no disclosure on the original article to this effect?”
Finally, almost four hours after Busfield included in his “Full Disclosure” comment, The Guardian Sports Blog Editor finally confirmed that, yes, “The trip was organised and paid for by the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid committee.”
Taylor’s article is a perfect example of why newspapers should never accept free trips from the people they cover. When journalists are sent on an all-expenses-paid trip, it’s human nature for them to feel that they “owe” the organization who sponsored the trip, in this case the 2022 Qatar World Cup Bid Committee, something. It’s why organizations such as the Qatar 2022 World Cup Bid Committee finance these trips because they know it’s the easiest way to garner positive PR. And it’s why some news organizations, such as The New York Times which has a strict business ethics policy, forbid journalists from accepting expense-paid trips.
For a newspaper as highly regarded as The Guardian, it made a critical mistake when deciding to accept the offer of an expense-paid trip to Doha. Not only that, but the newspaper didn’t, at first, reveal in the article that the Qatar World Cup Bid Committee had paid for Taylor’s trip. If it wasn’t for the prodding by The Guardian‘s own readers, it’s possible that the newspaper may never have revealed that the article had been written as a result of an expense-paid trip.
I’m sure it was tempting to send Louise Taylor from 41F in London to Doha, which is 86F this time of the year, but The Guardian should be more open when publishing articles in the future. Full disclosure should be revealed more transparently rather than trying to hide behind it and then burying the information deep on the second page of comments.
In this particular example, the readers of The Guardian are owed an apology. No media organizations are infallible, but it certainly seems that The Guardian made a mistake in this example by not providing a full disclosure with this article. And, it can be argued, by publishing an article that reads more like an advertorial than a journalist’s attempt to write about a topic with a critical eye. We expect more from The Guardian than this. In the world of football journalism, when The Guardian often shines as a leader in its field, it’s a rare mistake from the newspaper. Hopefully they’ll see the error of their ways and not repeat it again.