Euro expose earns Beeb a red card
'Panorama' documentary purporting to uncover football hooliganism in Poland was dishonest, writes Louis Jacob
Last Monday night, BBC's Panorama aired a documentary entitled Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate, which was packed with the narrow agenda-driven sensationalism that has become so prevalent in documentary making.
Stadiums of Hate refers to the fact that Polish football has endured the same type of hooliganism that plagued the British game in the Eighties and early Nineties. The premise of the documentary was that fans, particularly those of "ethnic origin", will be putting their lives in danger by travelling to Euro 2012.
The next day, understandably panicked Irish fans were texting the Ray D'Arcy Show on Today FM to say that they were contacting Uefa about the true extent of the 'threat' which awaits them in Poland. Irish fans would have been better off contacting the BBC to ask them what exactly they were playing at.
This kind of documentary really isn't all that far removed from the type of thing Sasha Baron Cohen comes up with through characters like Ali G or Borat.
Here's what I mean: of the four cities which will be hosting the Euros in Poland this month, the BBC only visited one, Warsaw. The BBC had no option but to cover Warsaw because it is the capital.
Why did Panorama not visit any of the other three cities, Gdansk, Poznan or Wroclaw? Bearing in mind that this documentary was supposed to be a specific warning on the dangers of travelling to the Euros and that they had three months to gather their 'evidence', this should be considered bizarre.
In Warsaw the only real 'evidence' they found of this supposed racism and hooliganism, was racist graffiti on walls in undisclosed areas around the city. The stadium footage they did show was of local club Legia Warsaw's hardcore fans (known as ultras) burning a flag -- footage which may have come from an archive.
Strangely enough one city the BBC did visit was Kracow. In Kracow, the local teams Wisla and Cracovia are known for their fierce rivalry. It is a deep-rooted rivalry similar to that which exists between Rangers and Celtic. The hatred between the two clubs is such that away fans are not allowed to attend the other's home games. But Kracow was not chosen as one of the venues for Euro 2012.
So what the BBC did was akin to making a documentary about the dangers of travelling to a game at Wembley, and then showing sectarian hatred at an Old Firm game as evidence. Basically, when Panorama set off to Poland and Ukraine to make a documentary about the dangers of football hooliganism, they weren't coming back empty-handed. The levels of dishonesty involved in this type of thing are extraordinarily high.
There is a more serious problem here. Much of the racism Panorama reported in Poland was actually anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism in Poland is a major issue. It is a complex and real one and merits its own platform.
The BBC would be doing the Poles a real service if they exposed the gravity of that situation with proper investigation, honesty and clarity. On this there is a serious documentary to be made, but it would take more than three months to make and would have to cover a far broader spectrum than sport.
But that's not what this documentary was supposed to be about and the BBC has undermined a real issue by fudging the lines. Now when fans travel to Poland and realise that the issue of hooliganism appears to have been massively overstated, they will assume that the problem of anti-Semitism has also been overstated. This is the kind of damage irresponsible documentaries do.
Here's the thing: with the possible exception of the Danes, the Irish football fans have the best reputation in European football. This reputation has been earned over decades of travelling to away games in large numbers, behaving ourselves with dignity and still managing to liven up a place and charm the locals. I know because I've been to my fair share of these games and have had some of the best nights of my life while never experiencing trouble. This is the type of Irish fan the Poles are expecting.
Recently, however, reports from cities like Sydney, Australia, have opened our eyes to the fact that the new breed of Irish tourist may not be so inclined towards behaving themselves.
Poznan and Gdansk are proud old cities. Like every other great city in Europe they deserve the type of respect the Irish football fan has always shown when abroad. If we bring with us this new-found obnoxious attitude, the same mentality the more extreme English fans have historically taken with them, we may experience difficulty.
Poland is the same as anywhere else in the world. Every city has an underbelly. If you go looking for it (the way BBC's Panorama did so diligently with their documentary), you will find it.