In today’s edition of The Times print newspaper, Football Editor Tony Evans has written a column admitting that the paper made a mistake in publishing their article about the Dream Football League.
One week ago, the exclusive article by Oliver Kay in The Times set the soccer world alight, claiming that the Qatari royal family was planning on launching a 24-team club tournament every two years in the Middle East. But within 24 hours, the article was adjudged to be a fake. Despite the mounting evidence and bizarre coincidences, Tony Evans and The Times stood by the story and Kay, claiming that their sources were trusted and that the story was, in fact, true.
Today’s column will hopefully put this story to bed. And, according to Evans, the paper will change their editorial policies to make sure that hoax articles like the DFL don’t happen again.
The article in The Times yesterday is behind a paywall, but here’s the full text of the article that’s published in today’s print version of the newspaper.
When we are wrong, we will hold our hands up. It’s the right thing to do
By Tony Evans
Football Editor of The Times
There are times when all you can do is admit you were wrong. Last week, Times football ran a story that we thought was a blockbuster. The state of Qatar was proposing a new summer tournament that would offer stunning financial rewards to the teams who participated.
It was a horrible prospect that threatened to transform the sport but appeared to be a brilliant story. The Dream Football League (DFL) would turn into a journalistic nightmare.
How it came about tells you something about the state of the game and the difficulties of football journalism. Oliver Kay developed a relationship with a contact who appeared to be connected with the Qatari ownership at Paris Saint-Germain.
Over the months, this contact provided information that subsequently turned out to be right. Kay did not use any of this knowledge because he could not back it up with secondary sources. However, each time a tip-off turned into a fact, an element of trust grew.
After the event, it is easy to look into the background of an individual and proclaim that minimal research would have unmasked an unreliable source. This is to misunderstand the world of football. All kinds of chancers attach themselves to the game. As the sport becomes ever more bloated by money, these dubious characters are drawn to the periphery of the game, attracted by the opportunity of a share of the cash.
It is not unusual for football journalists to have a contact whose past looks murky under close scrutiny. Some turn out to be useful sources of information, some to be not quite what they seem. Even then, it does not always mean that they are wrong. This means that every story needs checking. Much was plausible about the suggestions that Qatar was planning a new tournament. The Gulf state has become a serious player on the world scene over the past decade and is keen to continue developing its role in football. Plans to gather the game’s top teams in the Middle East have been mooted before. If any nation has the resources to pull off this sort of competition, it is Qatar.
Kay began to call some of Europe’s biggest clubs. The answers were off the record and fell into two categories. Some made it clear that they had no knowledge of the concept. The others said, yes, they had heard talk about such an idea, yes, £175 million was about the figure mentioned but, no, they did not think it was going to happen and could not see themselves being involved.
These secondary sources treated the questions seriously. And here is where The Times made a massive mistake. Because so many significant people in football did not laugh off the idea, it seemed that the story could be genuine.
The warning signs – that no one had heard specific details of the DFL or seen its plans – were missed. In principle, the idea was possible. There were plenty to attest to that.
In reality, the story appears to have been invented and had just enough plausibility to be seductive.
Initially, The Times launched a strong defence of the story and the reporter. However, the paper also launched an investigation by its internal ombudsman.
Over the three days that followed the publication of the story, it appeared increasingly clear that Kay and the paper had been duped. And that the checks from the office in London had not been stringent enough in the rush to publication.
This is an unusual situation. Normally, when a story is disputed, lawyers become involved. Individuals and organisations demand retractions and writs are issued. Here, it did not happen. It would have been possible to ride out the storm, tell the world that time would vindicate the newspaper and allow memories of the furore to fade away.
But that is not how The Times does things. We value our reputation. There will be changes now to the way we operate, and an extra level of scepticism will be incorporated into our working practices.
But one thing will not change. If we get it wrong, we will hold our hands up and admit it.