26 Sep 2014

FA chief slams attacks made on blog set up by Qatar’s PR

The head of the FA condemns Qatar’s PR firm after a Channel 4 News investigation finds it set up a sports blog that attacks critics of its World Cup bid.

Lobbyists for the state of Qatar set up a football blog that has attacked critics of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, including Greg Dyke, Gary Lineker, and journalists working for the Sunday Times.

A Channel 4 News investigation has found that the British public relations and lobbying firm Portland Communications set up the site without declaring any interest on the site or elsewhere.

As well as attacking critics, the site has sought to influence public opinion and whitewash the controversial decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup, with articles such as “Winter Wonderplan”, which makes the case for the Qatar 2022 World Cup being held in winter.

The only named authors on the site are former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell and his son Rory, who have both written for The Pressing Game, a site that poses as a normal sports blog. Alastair Campbell sat on Portland Communications’ strategic council until recently.

‘Not fans at all’

Greg Dyke, chairman of the Football Association, said: “It’s a bit surprising to discover it’s not fans at all, it’s a PR agency. And then to discover that public relations agency’s biggest client is the Qataris. You wonder what’s going on here.

“I mean, ethically it’s serious, it’ll make no difference and they’re wasting their clients’ money. There are a number of us who have questioned the Qatari bid… one has to assume that this is part of the response to that.”

Portland said: “The site was created by a former employee, and our digital team gave some technical help when the platform was built, but Portland does not run it. It is not part of our work for the Government of Qatar.”

Alastair Campbell told this programme that he was a senior adviser at Portland when he was writing for The Pressing Game site. He said he does not accept that the site is just a front for Portland Communications and accused Channel 4 News of chasing “an über non-story”.

He said: “If I recall correctly I wrote a piece for The Pressing Game about how badly wrong the pundits got the World Cup which for obvious reasons I couldn’t get placed in most media outlets … I also put my son in touch with them.”

Fifa’s executive committee is due to today hold a session in Zurich to receive updates about preparations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, with the debate likely to focus on the possible publication of the report by Michael Garcia, chairman of the investigatory chamber of Fifa’s ethics committee.

The Pressing Game

The Pressing Game blog describes itself on its Twitter profile as “Taking a stand against hypocrisy in football” and on the site’s About page it says “We cut through the bulls*** and try to shine a spotlight on what’s really going on behind the scenes of the beautiful game.”

But the majority of the blog and Twitter content when it launched focused on attacking critics of the controversy over Qatar’s winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

In the last few weeks the blog has attacked Greg Dyke’s judgment, his grasp of reality, and has previously suggested England’s 2018 World Cup bid may have been trying to influence Fifa officials.

The use of a blog that masks the organisation which set up or runs the site is a practice known as “Astroturfing”, where companies will try to create a false of a sense of a grass-roots movement.

Portland is a member of the Public Relations Consultants Association, which has a professional charter that seems to forbid such practices.

It states that members “have a duty to ensure that the actual interest of any organisation with which they may be professionally concerned is adequately declared.”

Hidden creation

Portland Communication’s role in setting up the site was deleted when the lobbying firm removed its name from the website’s registration details the day after the site was set up.

Mark Flanagan, a partner at Portland who leads the firm’s digital strategy unit, was the first person to tweet a link to a story by The Pressing Game. He recently deleted the tweet.

The website’s registration details now use privacy protection, which means the creator of the site is hidden.

And on a test page on the site is a map which is itself hosted on a domain named “Produced-by-Portland.com”.

Alastair Campbell wrote a post about pundits always getting predictions wrong. Campbell is one of the most prolific tweeter of the links to the blog, sharing articles from the site and talking to Gary Lineker, Robbie Savage, Joey Barton and Piers Morgan about his article on pundits. Alastair Campbell’s son Rory is billed as the site’s data analyst.

Attacks on critics

Three out of the first five blog posts on the site attack either the Sunday Times, Fifa sponsors such as Adidas and Visa, or say what a good job Qatar is doing in seeking to head off the crisis. And three of first four tweets from the site’s Twitter feed are about Qatar 2022.

One post on the site attacks Fifa’s corporate World Cup sponsors who came out to demand action over allegations in the Sunday Times of corruption in the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup.

The post written anonymously reads: “The ‘Golden Boot’ of pomposity goes to Adidas” and continues “The ‘ooh get her’ award for macho language tied to nothing goes to Visa’s Antonio Lucio.”

In a post about the Sunday Times, an anonymous author writes: “Is there another agenda at play here? … less like a legitimate investigation and more like a witch hunt.”

Another post questions the ethics of the England World Cup bid team, saying: “These latest allegations appear to fit a pattern of behaviour by an English bid team that infamously sought to curry favour with Jack Warner.”

‘Derogatory’ Lineker

When Gary Lineker came out against the bid, some posted: “Would Lineker have been so derogatory about his employers a few years ago, when he still had the gig? Very unlikely. But then he hasn’t always displayed a great deal of sensitivity.”

The blog’s second post was largely composed of a copy of Qatar’s official response to the Sunday Times investigation.

It also last week tweeted a picture of Greg Dyke captioned with the words “I have no idea what I’m doing” and tweeted: “How can someone as out of touch with reality as Greg Dyke be trusted to improve the English game?”