By Lars Andersson*
They are few and far between, but they are there nevertheless…
The tradition of investigative journalism is largely absent from the sports world. Perhaps it is because international sports organisations have the monopoly on sport. But over the last 20 years we have seen the occasional ground-breaking news story emerge that has shaken sport’s otherwise mythical and captivating world. Most often the sources are lone wolves who have not been able to conceal the truth. And most of the time they are delivering the information under harsh conditions and with significant personal and economic costs.
“The common trait that has characterised these ground-breaking journalists and whistle-blowers is that they have all been lone wolves,” says Jens Sejer Andersen, international director at Play the Game, who has followed critical journalism for decades.
“They work under harsh conditions. Consequently, they expose themselves to tough situations, and so does the outside world,” Andersen continues.
One of them is Canadian journalist Laura Robinson, who is currently involved in a gruelling defamation suit with John Furlong, the former CEO of the Vancouver Organising Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC), because of an article about his past as a teacher – and allegations of violent and repressive conduct against First Nation children.
“My partner and I have paid 160,000 Canadian dollars so far. My lawyer has advised me we will probably spend another 160,000 by the end of the trial. But this is the only way I can prove that my story is based on truth and responsible journalism,” says Robinson, who has literally paid a price for telling the painful story of Canada’s dark past.
But it has not only been her personal finances that have come under pressure. The personal strain has also been arduous:
“My partner has been incredible and has footed most of the bill. Friends, family, colleagues and people I do not know, but who believe in freedom of expression and the telling of truths, have been extraordinarily generous. But for my partner John this has also meant that he feels he cannot take time off work, cannot go anywhere for a holiday and will have to work for several years past his retirement, which was supposed to happen in the next couple of years. Because he has the greatest financial burden and can’t look forward to retirement like he used to, I believe he suffers more stress than I do,” she says.
The personal costs
It is not the first time that Laura Robinson has been the instigator of strong, controversial articles. Her work in uncovering sexual abuse in Canada’s national sport, ice hockey, brought not only accolades, such as the first Play the Game award in 2002, but also several enemies.
“Of course I feel at risk. I am very careful about where I live because ever since I starting writing about sexual abuse in hockey, there have been men who have been extremely angry at me. I read similar things about myself in certain blogs about the Furlong story. So of course I feel at risk,” she says.
German journalist Jens Weinreich also knows about the personal costs of investigative journalism. For decades he has followed and written about international sports organisations’ conduct in a market that has gradually evolved into ‘big business’.
“My job dominates my life. But it is a duty; an obligation. In democratic countries journalists must fight without any excuses. But human pressure is always there. You must learn to live with it. Sometimes it’s difficult; other times it’s easier. Legal attacks always cause agitation,” says Weinreich, who has also been subject to legal attacks.
“For example I had a juridical fight in 2008/2009 with the then president of the German Football Federation (DFB) and now FIFA Executive Committee member, Theo Zwanziger. For a half a year this fight was quite a topic not only in social media, but also in old media. There were six court decisions at the end – I ‘won’ all six. Then we made a settlement simply because the other side had split the case into three different cases and was ready to go to the highest court in all three cases – DFB has money enough,” tells Weinreich, who at that time owed his lawyers 20,000 euro.
“I could not pay, so what happened? I asked the readers of my blog. They paid; it became a wonderful crowd-funding lesson. Within a few days, I could pay the bills and I had more than 3,000 euro left – I donated the money to a journalistic organisation for freelance journalists. Why did people pay? I think the main reason was that I have made the whole procedure of the court cases public from the beginning. I published all decisions on my blog. This kind of transparency can help freelancers against bigger opponents. It was a great experience,” says Weinreich.
In Singapore, James M. Dorsey, who has primarily worked with football’s political landscape in Asia and the Middle East, has also gone through gruelling litigation cases. The most recent of which has been with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), when he revealed “severe irregularity in AFC management and financial dealings” under Mohamed Bin Hammam’s leadership.
“Obviously, legal costs are high and that can create financial pressure. The stress factor differs from case to case and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In Singapore (his latest case, red.), that meant for a period of time the threat that my computer and files could be confiscated and one needed to take precautionary measures,” he says, continuing:
“But to be fair, my last case that I won in a landmark decision in Singapore earlier this year was the first case where I was not backed by a media organisation and therefore had to manage my lawyers and fund the case without support.”
Financial ‘brakes’ bring journalists to a halt
Robinson, Weinreich and Dorsey all identify the enormous financial risks involved in their work as the independent investigative journalist’s worst enemy:
“Financial risk is the biggest problem. As a freelance journalist in Germany, I have no financial safety net when it comes to legal clashes. So opponents always know how they can threaten and silence freelance journalists – even if the journalists make no or only minor errors,” Weinreich explains.
But he carries on regardless of the threats:
“Because I love the profession. Because the topics I have been working with for more than 20 years fascinate me. Because I do not get bored with my work. Because I know that I can only tackle and handle a fraction of what a journalist could work up. And because, from my point of view, investigating, revealing, publishing scandals, etc., are the main tasks of journalism,” Weinreich says and is backed up by Robinson:
“I realised early on in my journalism career that writing about the dark side of hockey wasn’t going to win me powerful friends in a country where it is the national religion. There is a blind spot here. No matter how many cases come forward about sexual assault in hockey, the arena is still a shrine,” she says.
Dorsey echoes the others’ motivation to keep pursuing the profession they love:
“I deal with issues that fundamentally interest me and have the luxury of occupying a front seat as history unfolds. I would like to think that I am able to give my readers the tools and insight they need to understand situations and put events in a context. I would like to also believe that it allows me to inform the formulation and execution of policies and give a voice to those who often are not heard,” Dorsey says.
However, despite their drive to defy the risks associated with their work, all of them are experiencing that the conditions are generally getting more and more difficult:
“From 1990 to around 2007 there was quite a bit of freelance work. But like everywhere else, traditional media outlets are squeezed now. Adding the huge legal bills and travel costs, it means I am in a serious financial position. Since the lawsuit commenced in the fall of 2012, work for me has virtually dried up. I was asked if I would cover Sochi from Canada, but had to do it as a ‘ghost-writer’,” Robinson says.
“But I have never believed that any other profession would be easier than a really hard race and of course, really well investigated stories are just as difficult as an elite level of sports competition. I believed I should research at the same level I trained at as an athlete. But even more importantly, I have a deep respect for all of those who fought for freedom of expression in history. So many voices were silenced in the past because writers and journalists were killed. They are still killed today. And I know that I pay my respect to those people by doing the best job I can do as a journalist,” she states.
An uncertain future for investigative journalism
But for how long can they do it? As Laura Robinson’s case illustrates, investigative journalism in the sporting world can bear huge personal and financial costs.
“I am very worried about sports journalism and journalism in general. Sports journalism is nearly entirely an oxymoron. There is little to separate ‘journalism’ for PR now. I hope out of Play the Game comes an organisation of investigate sports journalists. We really do have to work together,” she says.
Jens Weinreich is also concerned:
“The decisive question, again, is: How do we finance our work? It costs money. The old media don’t do that with necessary concentration, professionalism and radicalism. But where are the solutions? There is a lot of money on the table for international scientific co-operations and projects in the field of sport – but not for the hard hitting and digging journalistic work. It’s a shame. I do see just two ways: Crowd funding on a regular basis – if this is not possible, there will be no digging journalism anymore. Or a patronage like the Pierre Omidyar has shown with his new First Look Media project.”
Pierre Omidyar is an Iranian-American businessman and philanthropist who has actively chosen to support independent investigative journalism. In October 2013 he founded First Look Media and in February 2014 he launched its first online publication, The Intercept, which initially dealt with Edward Snowden’s disclosed documents and now aims to “produce fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues”.
So there still appears to be some hope, but Dorsey is not convinced:
“On the one hand I am not optimistic. We live in a period in which the role of the fourth estate is being undermined and journalists are targets. On the other hand, the responses I get to my coverage are encouraging. They tell me that there is widespread interest, that others are picking up the ball and that policy and decision makers are unable to ignore solid reporting. The impact of The Guardian on the plight of foreign workers in Qatar is an obvious example,” he says.
Or, as Weinreich concludes his thoughts on journalism’s future:
“Once again: It is not about some single projects every few years when it comes to mega-events. It is about following a global business every day, every week, every hour. If you don’t do that – you don’t get your work done; you don’t have a clue about the real things going on.”
“I cannot accept mendacious excuses… In democratic countries journalists must fight without any excuse…”
*Lars Andersson is co-editor of the Danish sports political magazine Sport Executive, http://www.sportexecutive.dk.
Read Part Two of the series, Sports journalism – an adult fairy-tale