by Paul Sandford, ASM Plus’s Director and convenor of its Sports Team and Brendan Schutte, the convenor of ASM Plus’s Workplace and Employment Team

Time was when you opened the sports pages of a newspaper you would find an abundance of material: results, match reports, the tables, fixtures and photographs of sports people scoring goals or jumping on trampolines. There would be the occasional reference to doping or match fixing but by and large the sports pages were a relative haven of calm. Incidents of football hooliganism or events of particular significance such as Hillsborough would primarily be covered on the main news pages. In short, whilst the sports section was not exactly sanity personified it had an order and calmness about it that was noticeably absent on the political or world news pages. How things have changed in recent years, particularly midweek when there are fewer sports events.

At present, Brexit and all the attendant political wrangling seems to dominate the main pages and as ever there are any number of divorces or relationship breakups salaciously reported on the social and entertainment pages. However, all of this reported material is now rivalled by what one reads about in the sports pages. In recent months, controversies such as the sacking of an English football manager for alleged racism, allegations of impropriety in cycling, long standing concerns about Millwall Football Club’s ground and more recently illicit betting on some professional tennis matches rival what has been written elsewhere about British political parties and prominent US personalities.

In some respects, this type of reporting may be no bad thing. Issues that a decade or so ago were all too often swept under the carpet or ignored are now covered and it could be argued that there is much more transparency in sport. However, whatever the quality of the reporting, one cannot help but question whether there is a strong element of the same trial by media that one sees in other spheres. Editors will argue that the public interest is paramount but to what extent?

The Ben Stokes cricketing issue is a case in point. Not for the first time, some if not all of the main UK newspapers appear to have indulged in a great deal of highly speculative conjecture. In cases such as this, given the extent of the media coverage one must question whether the “innocent until proven guilty” maxim was really upheld. An objective observer may rightly be concerned that some or all of the sports people involved in such controversies may never get a fair hearing. Equally, the truth has a habit of not emerging and those who have a genuine interest in the outcome may never be properly informed. Wrongdoers who ought to be held to account can use flurries of press speculation and sensationalism as a smokescreen, even an escape mechanism. There is also the distinct possibility that unwelcome publicity may discourage the victims wrongdoing or those who have witnessed it from coming forward, particularly in circumstances where an alleged wrong doer has a high public profile.

It also seems that internal investigations are often strongly criticised, sometimes held to ridicule. Even in cases where the reverse is true, it is often claimed that internal investigative processes and procedures are insufficiently robust and lack transparency, sometimes in circumstances where those making such claims have no real insight to what has happened and may be basing their views on subjective conjecture. At the same time, one suspects sports people and sports organisations can be very complacent and, in some instances, there may be a need for greater transparency.

Is there another way?

What should happen when there is a genuine perception that a particular sporting body or organisation be it a local tennis club or an international federation cannot regulate itself properly?

In our view, the answer is a truly, independently constituted investigation conducted by appropriately skilled and knowledgeable outsiders who have no particular connection with the sport, institution or personnel involved in a particular case. The initial terms of reference should be made public and findings should be published in clear, accessible and properly explained reports. In these reports, investigators should demonstrate that they have made adequate findings of fact, and weighed and balanced all of the attendant factors. They will then be able to objectively demonstrate how conclusions have been reached without being tainted by accusations of closing ranks or lack of robustness. Evidence and guidance can be taken from witnesses and if necessary, appropriately qualified experts. In appropriate cases, it is entirely conceivable that arrangements could be made to ensure anonymity.

Importantly, save in exceptional circumstances, the investigative process conducted by independent enquirers would remain private until the publication of the full findings. Those involved should be directed to observe confidentiality and any perceived press interference should be dealt with by way of a referral to the Press Complaints Commission. Initial publication of terms of reference will have the galvanizing effect of ensuring ultimate transparency, particularly if witnesses and possible victims can be sure that their confidentiality and good names will be assured.

Additionally, the neutrality of investigators should be shared by them having no role in any investigation sanctioning processes. The bodies commissioning investigations such as sporting associations or regulatory bodies should address such issues themselves as soon as possible after reports have been finalised. This will ensure that investigators are not distracted from their important primary roles and that the all-important clear, transparent fact-finding process cannot be compromised or seen as biased.

Investigators and investigation panels should be drawn from a very wide cross-section not just lawyers. Medical practitioners, people with requisite financial or other relevant expertise and sportspeople should all be considered.

The combination of true independence and a lack of unwarranted press intrusion will ensure that, particularly in cases where there are very significant concerns, all those affected will get a fair hearing. In instances where sanctions of one form or another maybe appropriate sporting organisations and other official bodies will have the means at their disposal to make sensible, balanced decisions.

One might argue that the recent racism related FA controversy that has been attracting a lot of press coverage was effectively dealt with by a robust parliamentary committee questioning session. However, we would argue that matters should never really have got that far and there is an element of “last resort” or “too little too late”. In any event, this matter is not settled. There have been recent press reports of damages claims and suchlike and one suspects that the whole, messy saga will drag on for years to come.

“Effective” Parliamentary interventions should not be seen as a given. This process which many see as “lacking teeth” does not in any way guarantee satisfactory outcomes. In another long-running matter, ostensibly robust parliamentary questioning did not satisfactorily counter what some would see as unacceptable levels of evasiveness and subterfuge on the part of those being questioned. If press reports are to be believed, the matter in question may be “settled” by changes in personnel and one suspects that the all-important truth will never come out. One cannot help reflecting that unwarranted levels of press input are at the very least, partly to blame for this.

When freed from the shackles of speculation and unwarranted press intrusion, confidentially conducted enquiries will demonstrate themselves to be not only judicially effective but cost-effective. In some instances, mediation, itself a very cost-effective process could be used either as an alternative or an adjunct to an investigation. These investigations will not provide wrong doers with a covering smokescreen and where appropriate referrals could be made to the police or another body such as HM Revenue and Customs.

The net effect of the proposals put forward in this article will be greater transparency and a lot more honesty. Journalists who rely on a daily dose of speculation may be disappointed but the majority of innocent sports people and sports lovers will be both better informed and very relieved. We at ASM PLUS firmly believe that sport matters and that the controversies that unfortunately beset it should be addressed both fairly and expeditiously. Genuine independent investigation is the way ahead.