Leisure Leagues, our team of experienced investigative journalists, coupled with our in-house TV production company, have made something of a reputation for themselves for exposing miscarriages of justice or malpractice, particularly when it relates to publicly funded organisations.
For instance, we liaised with ITN during their recent story about British Gymnastics and the culture of fear. We listened to the gymnasts who had terrible stories to tell and who were being silenced by British Gymnastics.
We were the first to start reporting on how British Gymnastics was trying to run an anti-competitive monopoly and close down gymnastics clubs who did not agree with them.
We exposed how the FA were discriminating against obese and older men, a campaign which resulted in the Government issuing new guidance last year which changed the way facilities were able to take bookings from members of the public, and not just those who paid money to the FA.
And throughout the gymnastics story, and the FA story, through our long investigations into both issues, and others, some labelled us ‘bullies’.
And maybe we are. Because it is not easy exposing the truth, particularly when the people that have got something to hide are desperate for it to stay hidden.
So when we were researching our new documentary about the Football Foundation, we literally stumbled across an unusual story developing in Tamworth.
Tamworth is a close knit community, and everybody has a story to tell, or seems to know something. So when, in the summer, Leisure Leagues were blocked from using a pitch to run the leagues at Tamworth Enterprise College, and nobody was saying why, we thought we had better start investigating.
The problem is that because a community like Tamworth is literally full of gossip, you get told lots of things and it takes time to research every bit of gossip or information that comes your way. Most of it turns out to be exactly that – gossip and not based in fact. But some of it leads somewhere. That is what investigating issues like the pitch bookings at Tamworth Enterprise College has been like. Slowly sifting through the half-truths, or who might have an agenda against whom, and getting to the facts and the evidence that might make up a story.
The Freedom of Information Act has been an enormous tool for journalists such as us. Our first request from Tamworth Borough Council, for instance, resulted in over 200 emails being sent to us, with much of the information redacted. But it is like a big jigsaw puzzle. With pieces missing. You have to put it all together and then you can start seeing the picture and try and fill in the gaps later.
And in Tamworth, the more we dug, the more surprised at what was going on we became.
The problem is, however, that when you start exposing the truth, the malpractice, the injustices, you tend to start hitting brick walls. People don’t want to talk.
It is tempting sometimes to behave exactly like those you are investigating. That is not the right approach. You have to keep being open even when the other party, whom you are trying to get information from, plainly isn’t.
You know that at some point, as you start revealing the evidence you have, that a malpractice has occurred, or public money might be being wasted, public servants tend to close down all communication, for fear of being exposed that they might’ve made a mistake, or worse.
And so it was with Tamworth Borough Council who, once we sent the evidence that their first-come first-served policy for the booking the pitch at the College was in tatters, and was being abused by officers in the Council itself, they simply stopped talking to us.
And when you don’t talk it is always a mistake, because investigative journalists like us always think when a public servant refuses to answer questions they have probably got something to hide, so we start digging deeper.
And not only do Council officers refused to talk or engage, they use the time honoured tradition of writing to all the elected councillors, usually along the lines of ‘you mustn’t say anything about this, you could get into trouble’, and give titbits of information which bear little resemblance to the actual issue, the facts being investigated, or what is going on. But it is usually enough to scare Councillors into keeping quiet. It is a tactic we have seen with Council officials all over the country every time we have exposed a malpractice within a Council. It is not new to us.
But what they don’t realise is that talking is the most sensible thing. We journalists are human beings too, and make our own mistakes. We know that people are fallible. And when people admit that they got something wrong, we are usually a lot easier on them.
Let’s go back to the British Gymnastics story for a moment. You may have seen on the news how an ITN reporter and cameraman invited British Gymnastics CEO Jane Allen to speak as she got out of her car and went into her house. She simply pretended they didn’t exist. ITN, who we were liaising with and helping with the story, told us that although they had waited outside her house for three days, if she had just come out and spoken to them in the first hour, and said something, they would have gone away. The fact she pretended they didn’t exist, and refuse to talk to them, made them even hungrier to know what was going on.
And when it was shown on the news it looks awful from Miss Allen. The fact that she didn’t want to say anything, and simply pretended the issue didn’t exist, told the whole story. It was an image that said to the public ‘I am guilty’, whether or not in reality she was guilty or not.
We don’t expect our public servants to spend lavish money on media spinners, for if they had then they would have told Tamworth Borough Council to simply be open, honest, transparent and talk to us and the whole thing would doubtless have been resolved in a matter of moments. But they reverted to type. Say nothing, and hope it all blows over.
The problem is, when you get into a story, and you start uncovering the things we have, you want answers. And if the Council don’t want to give the answers, then we’ll find out for ourselves, thank you very much.
And doing things such as, in the Council’s words, a scattergun approach, is your best option as an investigative journalist. You call people, you email people, yes, occasionally you rile people in order to get someone to take you a step closer to the evidence of the truth.
You write letters, sometimes harsh legal letters to try and elicit some answers. Sometimes you get something to go on, sometimes you don’t. It is a bit hit and miss.
And yes, sometimes when people refuse to speak, and they are in positions of power and responsibility, especially when they are in control of public money, you have to do what ITN ended up doing with Jane Allen and ask them the questions on behalf of the public in order to get to the truth directly.
But that is always a last resort. You try everything to get people to speak first of all. You have to. You have an obligation to do nothing less. You have to give people every opportunity, and every chance to answer your questions. But if you’ve got the evidence that shows there has been malpractice, and somebody doesn’t want to talk to you about it, then you simply have to to find some way of talking to them, however crude that may be.
It is called democracy. It is called exposing the truth. It is about making the public aware of something that they otherwise wouldn’t be aware of, but should certainly know about.
It is what we do. Call us bullies if you like. But as with the British Gymnastics story, when both us and ITN were called bullies, it is those who have no voice, in the gymnastics case being abused young child athletes, who need someone to grit their teeth and not rest until a malpractice has been exposed.
So our advice if you are the subject of an enquiry, and you are handling taxpayers money? Just pick up the phone and talk to us. You’ll find it is not quite as bad as you think.Back to Blog