20 Nov 2022

Media wrestle with ‘sportswashing’ Qatar’s World Cup

From Mediawatch, 3:00 pm on 20 November 2022

The FIFA World Cup in Qatar was already controversial before this weekend’s kick-off. Organisers have told the media to ‘focus on the football’ but human rights, workers’ suffering and and allegations of corruption in securing the tournament in the first place are impossible to ignore. Will media draw attention to that while the planet’s best players are on show?

A man walks outside the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on November 8, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

Photo: AFP

When NZ Rugby carelessly overlapped an All Black test with the Black Ferns quarter final during the Women’s Rugby World Cup here earlier this month, cabinet minister Kiri Allan urged them to “take some tips from FIFA ... on how to plan a world standard World Cup.” 

“FIFA set the standard last weekend with their draw,” she said, referring to  the somewhat stodgy ceremony in Auckland recently which decided who plays who when the women’s football World Cup plays out in New Zealand and in Australia next year. 

But those who follow the tortured politics of world football know its governing body is no ethical benchmark for tournaments. 

The FIFA  World Cup which kicks off in Qatar in the early hours of Monday has been controversial ever since FIFA picked the tiny Gulf state as host more than a decade ago. 

The decision expedited the downfall of FIFA’s long-serving - and,according to many, self-serving - president Sepp Blatter. 

Last week he called the Qatar decision “a mistake” but almost every pundit and commentator not beholden to FIFA or Qatar has been saying that ever since allegations of corruption in the bidding process which Blatter and his colleagues oversaw.

Critics have called Qatar 2022 the world’s costliest ‘sportswashing’ exercise, putting the Beijing Olympics of 2008 in the shade. Some even compared it to the Berlin Olympics 70 years earlier as a sports event that will end up on the wrong side of history.  

"Politics has not only gatecrashed this party, it is marching its host around the carpark in a headlock, emptying the fridge of beer and trashing the stereo. Hands up who actually wanted it in the first place?" said The Guardian's Barney Ronay in Doha, in response to calls to 'keep politics out of sport.' 

But Qatar's budget includes millions for celebrities’ endorsements, such as former England captain David Beckham who was reportedly paid millions to puff up Qatar’s tourist attractions.  

Qatar is also covering the costs of entire squads of fans traveling from England, the Netherlands, Australia and other countries in return for posting glowing praise of Qatar on social media. Fake fans have been turning up outside teams hotels to simulate enthusiasm, including ‘England fans’ who turned out to be from India.  

These are far from the most serious of Qatar’s PR own goals. 

Same-sex relationships are illegal so gay fans are effectively excluded - or invited only on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis. This contradicts FIFA’s own anti-discrimination obligations, but it didn't prevent Qatar securing the tournament.  

FIFA has also denied some teams permission to wear pro-human rights slogans, and while sportswear manufacturers usually pay handsomely to turn a nation’s players into human billboards for the product, Denmark’s supplier Hummel has removed its logo from the players’ gear to preserve its reputation. 

The most direct response so far came from 16 of Australia’s World Cup footballers who used social media to highlight human rights problems and the plight of poorly-paid migrant workers, about 6000 of whom died building the stadiums under appalling conditions. 

“We try to respect all opinions and beliefs without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world. Please, let’s now focus on the football!” FIFA top brass pleaded as the international media arrived in Qatar this week. 

Should they? Will they? 

“Does looking forward to the World Cup make me a bad person?” Newstalk ZB sportscaster Jason Pine asked himself in a New Zealand Herald article on Thursday. He concluded he could not turn away from “the beautiful game . . . even when played the ugliest of theatres.” 

The UK’s Guardian has a section embedded in its World Cup site - Qatar Beyond the Football - exposing those just browsing for football reports to the background issues. 

The frontperson for the BBC’s comprehensive coverage - former England striker Gary Lineker - has insisted the BBC Qatar coverage won’t be focused only on football and no-one at the BBC, FIFA or Qatar has told him what not to say on the air. 

Lineker - and the BBC - will certainly be expected to live up to that. 

Watching from afar - and up close 

Coen Lammers

Coen Lammers Photo: Supplied

New Zealand’s All Whites aren’t in Qatar. They fell short in a one-off play-off in Qatar back in June. 

Reporter Coen Lammers was there for that and is now in Qatar reporting for RNZ and other outlets on the main event. 

In June, he pointed out on RNZ’s website the previous tournaments in Brazil and Russia also has problems with corruption and organisation. 

“Qatar will no doubt be different to previous events  - and judging by those experiences that could in fact be a good thing,” he wrote. 

He mentioned the culture clash around alcohol for sale (Qatar's organisers banished beer in the stadiums just two days out from the tournament) but made no mention of the suffering and deaths among migrant labourers, or oppressive laws curtailing human rights and press freedom.

Will such ethical and moral controversies feature in his reporting? 

“If appropriate, there is absolutely no no reason not to not to do it . . . within the confines of what or how much reporting I will be doing from from Qatar,” he told Mediawatch

“Most questions will be about the games that are going on, because that's right in front of me. It's quite pretty hard as a one man band compared to some of the investigative teams from the bigger outlets in Europe, who can actually spend a lot of time now with these stories.

“I'm lucky that I'm staying with Qatari local. It's been really helpful to get background information on how what's going on every day there. So I've got a fairly good idea of how the workers work.

“It's pretty obvious when we were there (in June). It was 51 degrees and we saw the mainly Nepalese and Bangladeshi and Indian workers getting bused in from the worker villages on the outskirts of Doha in the morning.

“They all get put back on the bus and they go off in the midday heat to eat and sleep and then they all come back about four o'clock in the afternoon and they they do the rest of the shift. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out that that's pretty insane in that heat.

“I was talking to too a few locals about this and the comment that was made is that the Qatari government ... have improved under pressure from FIFA and from the international media and the international community ... creating a minimum wage and tidying up their worker rights,” he said. 

“The BBC, or German, French, Dutch TV will be there with multiple news crews. And they'll be looking for news from what's going on in Qatar.

“The majority of fans will be aware of the issues in Qatar. You need to live under a rock if you haven't seen or read about the workers’ rights or the human rights issues  - as well as alcohol and all the other issues that are different from from previous places where the World Cup was hosted.

“But it’s unclear how much that will influence how they're going to experience the tournament. The experience at home would be exactly the same the moment you switch on your TV,” he said. 

In recent years FIFA, not the host country, has come to control the entire zone around the stadia when matches are played and broadcast. 

Given Qatar has spent a reported US$200 billion not just to host a tournament, but to burnish and elevate the profile of the country, will they expect positive coverage from the global media?  

“It’s going to be really interesting how that's going to work. During the Intercontinental playoff, they would change the FIFA rules and say 'We're not doing that.' The paperwork, and the demands and the visas and the permits that you need in Qatar (is) way beyond anything I've seen in China or even in Russia," he said.

A Danish TV crew its first day in the country were confronted by security guards refusing permission to film in the street - and threatening to damage the camera - all live in TV in Denmark. 

There's been an apology, but it's a warning of what could happen to foreign reporters operating outside of the football 'bubble.' 

“I think there'll be hundreds of incidents like that,” said Coen Lammers who also experienced intransigent security officers in June making illogical and frustrating decisions. 

“The closest thing that I can compare it to is the Beijing Olympics, which was very much like that. Some security guard or a commander of the police or a traffic officer decided suddenly two kilometers from the stadium that he's going to block that road off, and you'll have to start walking. That's going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, especially if you've got 200 kilos of camera equipment with you.

“We are used to going anywhere and filming anywhere. But in the accreditation documents that everyone had to sign (had) quite clear instructions that you need to have permission to film in a lot of public areas and government buildings and property. I fear that they'll try and clamp down on that. But the whole international media will start ganging up on them and they might have to relax that a bit,” Lammers said. 

Lammers told Mediawatch he feels under no pressure to include Qatar's daily PR messages in his reports.

"They're trying really, really hard to obviously sell their own country  - which is what every country does when it hosts a World Cup. But a lot of the things that they're trying to promote are probably not of much interest to most foreign visitors,” he said.