MPs quiz Sunday Times pair on FIFA corruption: 'You have done your profession a lot of good'

MPs yesterday praised The Sunday Times for its "outstanding" work exposing corruption at football world governing body FIFA.

Sunday Times Insight Team journalists Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake yesterday gave evidence to the Commons media select committee in a session prompted by their investigation into corruption around Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

Last month the paper published an 11-page investigation prompted by documents leaked by a whistleblower which revealed how the desert state spent millions corruptly winning the 2022 World Cup via its representative Mohamed bin Hammam.

Football Association chairman Greg Dyke told the committee that England would not be bidding for any future World Cup because of the FIFA under the current leadership. And he said in any case, the probing nature of the British media meant that FIFA president Sepp Blatter did not want to take the tournament to England.

Dyke said: “The problem we’ve got — the problem England’s got — is that it’s certainly Mr Blatter’s view that the English media is such that, 'Why would you want to take it to England?' He made that very clear at the bid last time. As I say, he saw what I thought was a perfectly legitimate piece of journalism by The Sunday Times as an attack on FIFA. He then — that was what really upset me — started accusing The Sunday Times of racism in front of the African nations. It seemed to me that it was nothing to do with racism. it was to do with corruption.”

Paying tribute to the work of The Sunday Times, committee chairman John Whittingdale said: “I would like to make an observation. On many occasions, this committee has been extremely critical of the press and we have spent a lot of time examining abuses by the press, but I want to say that I thought it was an outstanding piece of work done by The Sunday Times."

And Labour’s Jim Sheridan said: "This has been excellent investigative journalism. You have certainly done your profession a lot of good.”

Asked to respond to Qatar’s claim that payments made by Mohammed bin Hammam were about furthering his own ambition, Blake told the committee: “We find that quite an extraordinary claim, because we have reviewed a huge volume of material, including bin Hammam’s personal correspondence from his email account throughout the entire period leading up to the bid, and then during his presidential campaign, and it is absolutely crystal clear that almost his sole focus in the two years in the lead-up to the bid was that he was campaigning for Qatar to win the 2022 World Cup.”

Calvert and Blake revealed that both Qatar and FIFA have “stonewalled” in the face of their extensive revelations. And even FIFA’s investigator Michael Garcia, who is looking into the World Cup bidding process, appears to have ignored their evidence.

Of Garcia, Calvert said: “We rang one of his assistants on Monday morning and we talked to them, and they said they had not actually read our report, but Garcia would be making a statement that afternoon.

“Garcia made a statement in which he announced, out of the blue, that he was just cutting short the evidence-taking part of his investigation — in other words, sort of suggesting to us that he was not going to look at our allegations at all, and also suggesting that he had all the evidence that we had, which we find extraordinary. If he really had all that evidence, then he would not be doing what he is doing at the moment, which is sort of ruling out Mohamed bin Hammam from the whole inquiry.”

The Sunday Times pair revealed how both FIFA and Qatar have refused to engage with them over the investigation.

On FIFA, Calvert said: “We have had no contact whatever. Each week — we did four weeks of articles — we dutifully went through the process of sending all the allegations to them and inviting them to comment on them. We just got bizarre responses from their press office, saying that they cannot be bothered to go through all this.”

Blake: “The responses became increasingly sublime as we went through the process. They began by ignoring us and ended by saying, ;We cannot comment on every piece of paper that you pick out of your documents. This is ridiculous. This could go on week after week.' We kept thinking, 'Yes, it could….

“FIFA and the Qatar bid have entirely stonewalled this. They have not responded to any of the allegations raised. They have come out with blanket statements and have just stonewalled, and they have been allowed to do that.”

Asked whether corruption in FIFA is just a case of a few rotten apples, Blake said: “I think corruption is endemic in FIFA, and the fact that the report [by Michael Garcia] will not be published is a big part of the reason. It is the culture of secrecy which allows corruption to flourish unchecked.”

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