South Africans remember well the build up to the 2010 Fifa World Cup. The country became a giant construction site, people registered and converted their homes to accommodate international visitors, the daily countdown to readiness, the stadiums and the flags all added to the excitement that soon would engulf the country.
What marred the anticipation of the experience was the negativity of the international press, and in particular the British media. They had pre determined that anyone visiting the country would be raped, robbed and murdered in their beds (perhaps not an unreasonable assumption given the countries crime statistics), they claimed that the stadiums would be ready in time and that the infrastructure would not cope under the strain. Day after day South Africans read and defended the accusations that were hurled their way by British media. They were wrong on all accounts and for a few blessed weeks South Africa (and even its criminals) not only behaved, but also managed to put on a spectacular event.
And that what makes the BBC’s trip the Qatar recently particularly interesting, and somewhat different in approach to that of 2010. The BBC, amongst others, was invited by the Prime Minister’s office on a PR exercise for a show case visit. The intention of the excursion was to display the improvements to migrant workers’ lives in the country and to prove the falsehood of the horrible claims of abuse, of poor working conditions and appalling living facilities. The BBC accepted. There was no pretence as to what this jaunt was. Respected London PR firm Portland Communications arranged the trip and everyone went, knowing full well why they were there.
Only it didn’t turn out that way. Because when the BBC crew did wonder off on their own, and when they did try to speak to migrant workers, they were arrested and interrogated for 2 days. They were held without explanation and told it was a matter of “National Security”. They were also shown photos of themselves taken a few days prior, proving that they had been under surveillance throughout their trip. Try as they did, the BBC could not give Qatar the benefit of the doubt, much as they would have liked to. Or in the now immortal words of the Qatari’s when interrogating the journalists, “This is not Disneyland!” Never was there a more apt description of the region.
Throw into this mix the recent visit by Tokyo Sexwale to Israel and the Palestinian areas earlier this month on the invitation of the Palestinian Football Federation. The trip was a “Fact finding” one and resulted out of the call and pressure for Israel to be expelled from Fifa, as a consequence of its “Human rights abuses”. Given Sexwale’s history as a well known anti apartheid activist in South Africa he seemed well equipped to take on the task. And indeed he was. Because on his return to South Africa May 8th, not only did he fail to endorse the PFF’s bid for Israel’s expulsion from Fifa, but he described the situation between Israel and the Palestinians as being “Two cheeks on the same face” swollen with tears. He was clearly moved by what he saw but did not place the blame at Israel’s door. He will present his findings later this month is Zurich.
The last few days have also seen the visit of none other that Sepp Blatter to Israel. His intention was to deflect a push for Israel’s expulsion and the fall out that will no doubt follow. Defending Israel’s expulsion, given the host choice of Qatar and their human rights record would drag Fifa into a mud brawl that would leave no one sparkling.
As the 2010 British media onslaught on the SA World cup failed, so too did the Qatar attempted PR exercise, as did the Palestinian attempt to show Sexwale a situation that didn’t exist. Media bias, expensive PR and political lobbying is potentially dangerous and very damaging, but the fiction can only be sustained for so long, because after all, only Disneyland is actually Disneyland.