Speech

British High Commissioner to Ghana's speech at the SWAG Awards

British High Commissioner to Ghana, Jon Benjamin, delivered the following speech at the SWAG (Sports Writers Association of Ghana) Awards.

I am so delighted to have been asked to speak here today and thank the Sportwriters Association of Ghana for their kind invitation.

The British High Commission is committed to partnership with Ghanaian media houses. Indeed, we regard our collaboration with you as an essential part of our work here.

I’d particularly like to greet my friend the Honourable Minister for Youth and Sports, as this is my first chance to thank him publicly for the time and effort he spent last week in accompanying our royal visitor, HRH Prince Edward during his visit to Ghana. HRH was mostly here to promote the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme and its Ghanaian affiliate, the Head of State Awards Scheme. And that served as useful reminder that the Minister oversees the Ministry of Youth and Sport, not just the Ministry of Sport, so I really hope the visit was useful for your important task, too, Honourable: thank you again.

But it is, indeed, sport that brings us together this evening. And sport is about its players and participants, its administrators, its followers, indeed all those who are passionate about it, and above all, this evening, it is about those who write about it.

When I say sport, I do mean all sport, not just football. But, let’s face it, it’s scarcely a secret - in Ghana, in the UK and in a clear majority of all the countries around the world, football is the number one sport, and often by a very large distance. So, let’s start with football.

My own single earliest memory is from when I was just 3 ½, the same age my own son is now. I recall vaguely people jumping up and down in the front room of our then house in front of the TV - an unfeasibly chunky and not very reliable box with an unstable, grainy black and white picture - as England won the World Cup. It was 1966.

And of course, England won particularly thanks to the efforts of three players – Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, all of whom played for West Ham United at the time. So, completely neutrally and objectively of course, I think it’s fair to say that, in fact, West Ham won the World Cup. That’s what I choose to believe anyway!

But it’s been a very long wait since then, exactly half a century in fact for England to win anything else. But I know that all of you sportswriters here are about confidently to write or broadcast next week that England will win Euro 2016. Just as I know that many of you predicted last August that Leicester City were going to win the English Premier League – I know that because some of you have claimed to me recently that you did, indeed, tip Leicester, though I am struggling to find the evidence!

In fact, how could England not win the Euros with 18-year old wonder kid Marcus Rashford up front? And, yes, Ladies and Gentlemen – 18 year old Marcus, really is … 18. A player’s football and official age should of course always happily coincide.

Now, I expect that all of you here are of the common opinion that sports writing plays a vital role in Ghanaian journalism. And of course sports journalism is journalism: it is one branch of it, not a different profession. So, like all journalists, sports writers have - in my humble opinion - both a duty and a responsibility.

Their duty - again this is just my view - is to report accurately, inform and entertain their audience, encourage deliberation and debate on sports-related matters, and serve the public interest. These duties will sometimes include a requirement for journalists to reveal bad practices in sport, investigate abuses of power and expose wrong-doing. That is, or should be, part of the nature of the work. Put it another way, if sports journalists know something is wrong in their sport and say nothing about it, then they are falling down on the job.

And that investigative side of their work makes them an essential part of a democratic, open and free society. They embody the need to hold accountable those who govern our sports, by seeking and reporting the truth, always of course in a responsible way, including by admitting it honestly when they get things wrong.

But we know that it is not always easy to uphold these virtues. Acting as an independent voice for the public, journalists should not be intimidated by power or influenced by special interests, advertisers or news sources. The independence of journalism ought not be compromised by conflicts of interest. Instead, journalists should ideally report what they believe to be the facts, not what someone pays them to say – or at least not unless they are planning a career move to the PR or advertising world!

Let me tell you two anecdotes from my last posting in Chile that demonstrate the importance and consequences of principled, questioning, hard-hitting journalism.

In Chile, I met a remarkable visiting British investigative sports journalist called Andrew Jennings. He’s the man who 10 years ago and more started an, at first very lonely, battle to reveal the stink at the heart of the world’s governing body, FIFA. He was at times lambasted, abused, ridiculed but … he never gave up. In my personal opinion, Andrew is a hero – without him, and then the other campaigning journalists convinced by the veracity of the information he was bringing to light, the old order within FIFA might still be with us and a new chapter of hopefully much greater transparency might never have begun.

And of course the revelations at FIFA continue: only yesterday it was revealed that Sepp Blatter and two of his top lieutenants awarded themselves over US $80m in pay and bonuses in just 5 years. Perhaps the salaries and perks of every senior FIFA official, even every national FA President should be transparently published, as well as accounts showing in detail how FAs spend every penny and pesewa of FIFA grant money?

My second recollection is that in the course of my business there, I got to know the head of the Chilean FA, a man called Sergio Jadue, who appeared to reign supreme and be untouchable. I’m talking about just 3 or 4 years ago. Do you know where he is now? He is on trial in Miami for various charges to do with gross corruption, much of which was revealed by the diligence and fearlessness of journalists in the country which I previously called home.

Several other recent former FA heads and FIFA officials from that same part of the world are now either in prison or on trial and have been publicly disgraced, as I’m sure you know. Personally, I would like to think that any current or former FA head anywhere - anywhere - who well knows that they have engaged in practices they would prefer to keep hidden and from which they have personally hugely enriched themselves might have increasingly good reason to look over their shoulders now and worry. All the more so if they know that journalists in their countries are doing their work, without fear and with strong ethics, and real perseverance.

So, I humbly encourage you sportswriters to work with those values in mind.

Now, here’s the thing: I have heard from some Ghanaian sportswriters privately and directly about this or that alleged transgression, some of them very serious ones, like: match-fixing; the suborning of referees; players or their families paying coaches to be selected; deliberate age and even name falsification, in order to increase the chances of a player being signed overseas, and more. But I almost never see any of that subsequently reported publicly by the same people who seem to have this knowledge privately.

Let me stress clearly here, lest anyone misquote me - I am not saying I think or know that any of that ever happens. I have not come here to offer any evidence that it does.

I am, however, saying that several Ghanaian sportswriters have unambiguously claimed to me that these things sometimes do happen, not just historically but in the here and now. But if you have that information - and I stress if - why talk about it privately to foreigners like me, but never publicly to Ghanaians, your audience?

Why? Is it fear? Is it a lack of support from media employers?

Is it, as I have heard alleged much more than once, because there are lists of quote unquote ‘tame’ journalists who pretend to be independent but are in fact in the pay of football authorities whose direct bidding they do, instead of reporting on them objectively?

Is it, perhaps, because one or two prominent and supposedly neutral football websites here were in fact set up, and are still owned by, someone in authority, as a supposedly neutral cover for putting out propaganda favourable to them?

In short, are there some deep conflicts of interest at play here which prevent transparent reporting? I only know some of the questions. I think you know all of the answers. I’m sure millions of ardent Ghanaian football fans would be a willing audience, if you wanted to share those answers fearlessly, as part of a new era of sports transparency and accountability.

After two years in Ghana, a country I have come to love deeply, it seems to me that some of those alleged football-related transgressions are ones everyone seems to know about, but hardly anyone is willing to talk openly about them, as if the subject of corruption in football is at the same time both an open secret and a huge taboo. Where are the Andrew Jennings of Ghanaian football journalism? Perhaps they are in this hall this evening?

Now, having said all that, of course we recognise that many sports journalists work under extremely tough conditions and are paid extremely poorly in a highly competitive and crowded media market which tends to push salaries down. That can in turn inadvertently increase temptations for some to neglect their own professional values and thereby affect their ability to remain neutral. So, it is appropriate, I think, strongly to urge the owners and management of Ghana’s many media houses to pay their journalists a decent living wage. To repeat, we know that journalists need, and deserve, to make a proper living. But accepting a secret, second income to produce unobjective propaganda is not the answer.

As I move towards a close, I said earlier that sport isn’t all about just football. But so far I have only really spoken about football. So I’ve fallen into that same trap. Allow me please to make a self-correction.

I would appeal to you, the sportswriters of Ghana to do a little more to balance reporting across the entire spectrum of Ghanaian sport. For example, I bet everyone in this room could hazard a guess at Avram Grant’s starting eleven for the next Black Stars fixture against Mauritius tomorrow. And, incidentally, on that I hold the very old-fashioned view that already highly paid footballers given the high and patriotic honour of representing their countries should not also expect large appearance bonuses for doing so.

But, back to the point, how many of you could tell me immediately which teams will be representing Ghana in Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games which start in just two months from tomorrow?

Now let me make a complete confession: I had to research the answer to that myself yesterday in writing this speech. But now I know that Ghana will be sending boxers, weightlifters, track and field athletes, and a judoka. So, let’s all get behind them, cheer them on and encourage them along the way! Giving them the oxygen of media coverage they are normally starved of is one way of doing just that.

Another similar question: how many people in this room know how many athletes Ghana will send to the Paralympic Games, also of course in Rio?

The answer, I’m told at the moment is two. I know that Charles Narh Teye will represent Ghana at weightlifting. And after meeting him in Kumasi alongside His Royal Highness Prince Edward last week, I know that Alem Mumuni will represent Ghana at cycling. Charles and Alem are real Ghanaian sporting heroes. Indeed, I’d venture to say that they are simply national heroes. They are not paid thousands of dollars; they have overcome the huge challenges of their disabilities to be world class sportsmen; they train night and day in obscurity and in sub-optimal conditions - yet we hear so little about them. We should hear more. And we should vigorously support them when they fly high the flag of Ghana on the international stage. I lay down a friendly challenge to those sportswriters here inclined to do so please to give Charles and Alem the prominent coverage they richly deserve in the next few weeks, and indeed to all the athletes representing Ghana in the main Olympic Games too.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I began this speech by referencing how important sport is to all of us: it is hardwired into the fabric of our national, social and private lives. Like my own country’s, Ghana’s national identity has in a small but important way been forged through sporting achievement; dating back to the late eighteen hundreds and Arthur Wharton – who left Jamestown for the UK to become the world’s first ever black professional footballer – through to Azuma Nelson and right on up to the present day Black Stars who represent Ghana in football leagues all over the world. That sporting identity can be both a source of huge national pride and a great advertisement for Ghana.

So, it is vital that we never lose the love of sport, the joy and innocence of sport, the pure excitement of the unscripted drama of sport, however intense and sophisticated the competition becomes. We mustn’t lose the essence of sport, the simplicity of sport that we can see every weekend morning, in every public space, on the streets and in every school yard. We must work assiduously to preserve the beauty, integrity and unique characteristics and appeal of sport…..and no-one can do that more or better than sports journalists.

Good sports journalism is simply an inherent positive for all. Many of you here today are the future of sports journalism in Ghana. A free sports press plays a key role in sustaining and monitoring a healthy sports industry. And precisely because sport is so important to so many, you are important guardians of keeping sport healthy in every sense of that word.

I hope I’ve made a small contribution here to push this debate forward. It’s complex, I know. I am more than aware that some journalists may hate me for even raising some of the more sensitive subjects I’ve alluded to this evening. And of course I am just a foreign guest passing through your wonderful country for a brief moment in time. It doesn’t really matter what I think. But it does hugely matter what you think and what you report.

So, to those of you who are dedicating your lives in this country to the noble cause of honest, informative and entertaining sports journalism, I say the very best of luck to you. Be brave, be daring, be the Andrew Jennings of the future. More power to you!

Thank you very much for your time.