At a time when we are all being told newspapers are dead, there are definite signs of life with two recent undercover stings signaling significant trouble for England manager Sam Allardyce and Keith Vaz, the effusive Labour politician and until recently chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.
The Daily Telegraph (Allardyce) and Sunday Mirror (Vaz) both had difficult decisions to make, ethically and legally. Conducting undercover operations always come with it a vast array of moral questions.
Dealing with the most recent case; whether or not the FA was right to dispose of the services of Allardyce, (who ironically will go down as statistically the greatest ever England manager, with a 100% win ratio), is another argument. I have spent a few hours debating with colleagues this week over whether morally the Telegraph was right to covertly record him.
My initial reaction was yes, and nothing I have seen or heard yet has caused me to change my mind.
Central to the case isn’t the general wine-led pub gossip taking the rise out of Roy Hodgson. What actually matters is two things: the first is that Allardyce was prepared to offer a solution to circumvent his own employer’s rules and regulations on third-party ownership of players, and second that the FA has held itself up as a bastion of righteousness when criticizing FIFA after the lid blew off the world governing body’s corrupt activities.
If an organisation holds itself up as morally correct, its most high-profile employee must be aware that he cannot engage with third parties in the way that he did. And while so readily accepting £400,000 to art as consultant over and above his £3 million a year FA salary was not a crime, it again reflects badly on the FA’s ethics and plays into the hands of the public’s general distaste of the amount of money awash in football.
As England manager Allardyce is not only the FA’s most high profile employee, he is one of the highest profile figures in world football. It is a public role and as such open to scrutiny over its standards. This is at the crux of the argument over the Telegraph’s tactics.
In a world obsessed by football, what the England manager does and says in relation to his employers at the FA is certainly in the public interest, and as such the Telegraph has a strong defence to publish, as they do in the fact that Allardyce is not disputing what he said, just the manner in which it was captured.
A victory for entrapment, he said, rather biliously blaming the messenger and skirting over his own involvement. And yes, it was a controversial way to gather information. But having worked on stories where similar methods were discussed, I can tell you they are rarely black and white and never taken lightly. But sometimes there is no other way, and the exposure outweighs the method gained in achieving the information.
If nothing else, it has put newspapers back in the spotlight for something other than their own obituaries, and shone a light on the value of some good old investigative journalism.