Wednesday 05 August 2020

Don’t hold your breath waiting for corruption to be tackled

There have been a number of high profile cases or allegations of corruption in sport in recent weeks. Mike Newell, manager of Luton Town football club in England has just blown the whistle on the culture of bungs, bribes and backhanders which he claims is rife in football. Agents of players have offered him substantial sums of money for participating in transfer deals. He has now talked to the Football Association about his information, but the governing body is not revealing what was discussed at this stage. He has been supported by another club manager, Ian Holloway of Queens Park Rangers and by England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, himself under fire after giving an indiscreet interview to a journalist from the News of the World posing as an Arab sheikh. In Germany, a referee has been found guilty of match fixing on behalf of Croatian gambling interests.

All this is not new and not restricted to English or even European football. We had a case in Geelong some years ago, when a supporter, acting independently of his club, tried to bribe an opposition goalkeeper to throw a game. When an official of the goalkeeper’s club encouraged the keeper to persist with the negotiations in order to obtain physical evidence of the transaction, (a cheque was offered!) the tribunal found that official and the keeper guilty of an offence as well as the original briber.

Corruption goes a long way back in football history. My grandfather remains the only football manager to be suspended for life for refusing to apologise, after he accused a director of his club of trying to bribe a referee in 1926. He too claimed to have written evidence, but could not produce it at the tribunal and was told to withdraw the allegation and apologise. The man he accused was not only a club director but had been treasurer of the Scottish Football Association for twenty years. The next year the treasurer was voted out of that position and my grandfather was offered reinstatement. As I say, when you find a trout in the milk, it is circumstantial evidence that someone has been watering the product.

But it is not in sport that the biggest corruption goes on. The Australian Wheat Board is being investigated for indirectly bankrolling the Saddam Hussein regime under the United Nations oil for food program. Internal Memoranda produced to the Cole inquiry show officials were briefed on where the money was going. But how high in the chain did knowledge of this undercover payment go? Were Ministers involved directly or indirectly? The terms of reference were carefully drawn up to prevent scrutiny of government, though the Department of Foreign Affairs has said it will forward all material requested.

Late in 2004, the Australian Ambassador, Michael Thawley, acting on instructions from the government, took steps to head off an inquiry into the matter, because of fears that the US Senate was influenced by American wheat growers who were trying to break into Australian export markets. Now Norm Coleman, the US Senator, is claiming that he has been snowed by the ambassador and current incumbent, Denis Richardson, former head of ASIO, has been asked to ‘Please Explain’.

What is particularly galling is that it is Australia’s reputation which is in tatters as a result of this imbroglio, though the Prime Minister appears to be only concerned with his and the government’s appearance. His reputation is not the same as the country’s despite his claim to speak in the national interest. If he did not know, he should have known and he has let every Australian down. This is particularly sad because he has been trying to take the high ground on a whole series of international and moral issues, contrasting Australia’s conduct with that of other lesser nations who failed to live up to standards of probity and ethical behaviour espoused by the people of this country. So we are exposed to charges of hypocrisy and double standards once again.

Even the Attorney General has said paying ‘modest facilitation’ to sweeten trade deals is permissible. How he regards the Wheat Board’s subventions will be interesting to see given that this was the biggest payment of its kind according to the United Nations.

Where does trade and commerce stop and corruption begin? Is this the tip of the iceberg or the actions of a small minority of rogues? And what of our responses? Are we exhibiting hypocrisy or is this the necessary reining in of the feral elements on the margins of our otherwise functioning economy and society. The private sector has had its Alan Bond, Christopher Skase, Rene Rivkin, Larry Adler and a number of others.

It is easy to get things out of proportion when a particularly heinous case is revealed, yet you always wonder whether the extreme examples are just that: normal practice but pushed a little further than is acceptable at any particular time. I have often suggested, not entirely facetiously, that capitalism only functions because people at the margins are always breaking the rules under which the rest of us are expected and constrained to operate. And it is the same in sport, as Judge Robert Read who was a member of the last bungs inquiry in England put it, ‘It is very difficult to stop an agent from choosing to offer a bribe, very difficult to stop somebody from accepting a bribe. How they then conceal that will cause a few more ruses to be discovered, and new and more exciting methods of doing the dirty will be found’.

(Quote by Judge Robert Reid in the Electronic Telegraph, 2 February 2006. Reid was a member of the last bungs inquiry in England in 1993 after which George Graham was suspended but Brian Clough was not, primarily because of his failing health, according to Reid.)

An edited version of this article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 4 February 2006, p. 31 under the headline: Double Standards: Corruption and Commerce.

My grandfather’s story can be found in Roy Hay, James Dun Hay, 1881-1940: The Story of a Footballer, available from SESA, Griffiths Bookshop, Geelong, or Melbourne Sports Books at RRP of $25.00.

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