Panorama caught a few people making embarrassing statements, but David Stubbs wonders if the producers should have done better and if they were looking at the right targets

The way the BBC flagged up Alex Millar’s exposé of bungs in football like an overexcited linesman may have been an attempt to reflate the reputation of the beleaguered Panorama, or because they had struck serious dirt. The lack of advance tapes heightened the air of expectation. It was enough, evidently, to unnerve Harry Redknapp, who protested that he was an astonishing “one million per cent” clean as a whistle and any attempt to suggest otherwise would incur his legal wrath. In the event, all they had on Harry was footage of him putting up a jowly stonewall as he was offered a free trip to the 2006 World Cup to view some players. “Sounds fantastic,” he remarked, non-incriminatingly. What could he possibly have been worried about?

The secretly filmed scenes with Redknapp occurred at the climax of the programme and were so unrevealing that the immediate verdict on the programme was generally negative. A damp squib. No smoking gun. Nothing we didn’t know already.

Certainly, investigative programmes such as Panorama are up against it nowadays, not least because, post The Day Today, they can’t escape looking like parodies of themselves. Millar’s self-important voice-over often made you twitch with mirth; as when agent Peter Harrison rejects a £150,000 offer for an academy player in his charge. “Even that sort of money wasn’t enough for a 15-year-old boy,” snorts Millar, as if Harrison were engaged in child male prostitute trafficking.

Ramming home the fact that Craig Allardyce was the Bolton manager’s son, Millar could not resist emphasising the words “the son of Sam” with such scorn you might have thought serial murder was indeed among the programme’s allegations. It didn’t help that some of the names of those involved – Knut Auf dem Berge, the main undercover operative, and Nathan Porritt, the rising star at Middlesbrough and subject of that £150,000 offer – sounded like Chris Morris inventions.

Shots of Millar and Berge making mobile phone calls on Waterloo Bridge, meanwhile, had less to do with discretion, more with providing a backdrop of the Big City, awash with money and corruption, an effect heightened by the use of CSI-type processed heavy metal guitars and what sounded like a snatch of Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver soundtrack.

Beneath that, the programme was enterprising, setting up a fictional “Mr Big” by the name of Peter Silverman, a US-based tycoon looking to establish links with corrupt agents who in turn would liaise with corrupt managers. What seemed remarkable was how agents ranging from Craig Allardyce to Peter Harrison, the latter already £1 million the richer following his cut of Eidur Gudjohnsen’s transfer to Chelsea, were so thirsty for ackers that they jumped at the bait without checking out whether the guy existed. What they got on tape with them, as well as Charles Collymore and Teni Yerima, certainly appeared to give a fair indication as to their characters, though of course they came up with the explanation later that they were playing along with Berge, operating a counter-sting of their own.

The central, unfortunate irony of the programme was that, just as they were about to set up an actual meeting with an actual manager with piles of actual money on a hotel bed, Mike Newell’s whistleblowing to the FA about corruption in the game capsized their whole operation, their target scurrying fearfully back to the undergrowth.

For all that, the programme has had consequences – Kevin Bond was sacked by Newcastle and Craig Allardyce has wondered whether his actions cost his father the England job – and intensified the heat on wrongdoers.

All the specific allegations have been denied. But if anyone was engaged in such activities they would still be relatively small beer, despite the monies managers like “XXXX” and “XXXXX”, as Panorama had it, are sapping from the game. I was reminded of a similar, recent Post Office exposé that, rather than go to the top, concentrated mostly on harrying a couple of scamming Nigerian postmen. Conversely, Panorama’s aspersions have failed, it seems, to dislodge the view held by many fans that there’s nothing wrong with managers being duckers and divers, muckers and thrivers.

The true scandals in modern football are those that have occurred legitimately, such as the Glazers’ takeover of Manchester United and, worse, that of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, wafting through doors left negligently open by the FA. As for bungs, it speaks volumes about their institutional indifference to corruption that they have had a task force of one person dedicated to investigating the area these past ten years. These failings are so widespread as to border on the abstract, however, and therefore don’t lend themselves to TV investigations. Still, a little shake-up is a start.

From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month

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