Editor’s Introduction: This article is about events that took place in 2012, but anyone who follows the news closely knows that nothing has changed. This is a remarkable account by someone who had an inside look at deliberate falsifications by what was once one of the most respected names in journalism.
In May of 2012, the BBC Panorama program broadcast a documentary about “racism” in the host countries of the 2012 European soccer championship: Poland and Ukraine. Those two countries were about to stage the second biggest event in the sport after the World Cup, and legions of journalists had arrived to cover it. The purpose of the BBC program—aired strategically one week before the opening match—was to argue that neither country was qualified to host the tournament because of their “hateful” soccer cultures. The message: All-white countries are hotbeds of violent racism, and non-white fans and players would be in danger.
I know a lot about the Panorama program because I helped produce it. I saw what is arguably the world’s most famous and trusted media organization fabricate a false, sensationalist story. Through outright distortion - and by using only those pieces that fit its predetermined views - the BBC “documented” the vicious attitudes of people who live in countries that are not sufficiently “diverse.” The program had a scripted conclusion before a single camera was turned on.
Panorama is the BBC’s flagship investigative program. It is the longest-running such production in the world, having been on the air since 1953. The closest thing to it on American television is probably 60 Minutes. Panorama enjoys a reputation for hard-hitting and serious investigative journalism.
About three months before the tournament began, a BBC journalist got in touch with me through mutual media contacts and asked me to help with the part to be filmed in Poland. He said the program would be about aspects of the football culture—hooliganism, trouble at stadiums, etc.—that could cause problems for players and fans alike. This topic is something of a hobby of mine, and I have followed it carefully during my time in Poland. The BBC wanted me to be a “fixer”—the person on the ground who arranges things in advance for the production team. That meant setting up interviews, scouting filming locations, getting press passes and access to events, arranging transport, and a hundred other odds and ends. I was also expected to contribute ideas based on my knowledge.
I suspected right from the start that they wanted things that make for good television rather than a true investigation—conflict, tension, etc.—but I was somewhat reassured because this was the BBC. Despite my reservations, I never thought they would make the television equivalent of sensationalist trashy tabloid headlines.
The producer and a cameraman made their first trip to Poland in March 2012. They had asked me to arrange an interview with Aviram Baruchian, an Israeli who played with Polonia Warsaw. They said the interview was supposed to be about “his experience as a football player in Poland,” but the fact that they asked for him by name suggested they assumed he would have horror stories about being mistreated by fans because he is Jewish.
The press officer for Polonia was very accommodating, something I found again and again when dealing with officials from football clubs. People automatically trusted the BBC and went to extraordinary lengths to give them what they wanted.
I met the production crew for the first time the day after the interview. When I asked how it went, they joked about how useless it was. I was confused by their dismissive attitude and felt a bit responsible, but they told me not to worry. I learned later from the Polonia media spokesman that Mr. Baruchian had nothing but appreciative things to say about the fans and his experience in Warsaw—which is exactly why he isn’t in the final program.
There is a curious “Jewish” angle to Polish football that is easily misunderstood. Fans chant nasty things about Jews, but, strange as it may seem, it’s not accurate to call it serious anti-Semitism.
Many of the older clubs originally had or are thought to have had Jewish financial backing. This is almost certainly true of the team in Lodz—called Widzew Łódź—since that city had a large Jewish population before the Second World War. These origins have become a source of cheap name calling for people who seize on any excuse to trade insults. When fans chant “death to the Jews,” it sounds shocking—and it certainly is brutish—but this is mainly a way of attacking the other team rather than Jews.
There has been a similar situation with the London football club Tottenham Hotspur, which has had Jewish owners. Fans of rival clubs started chanting about the “Jewish” team. Tottenham supporters eventually embraced this and some even call themselves the “Yid Army.” The fans of one Polish club, Cracovia, were in the same position and did the same thing, now proudly calling themselves the “Jewish Sons of Bitches.” When I told the BBC about that, they weren’t interested.
Needless to say, there is a lot of anti-Jewish chanting in the final Panorama program, but it is presented without explanation. It falsely makes the fans look as though they want to send Jews to the ovens.
The Star of David is now used so much in soccer graffiti that a Polish teacher I met told me that the children in his class associate it with the sport. He also had a friend from Israel, so this seemed like gold for the BBC: a poignant combination of children, the star of David, racism, and a chance to talk to another Israeli and get what they missed from Aviram Baruchian.
I set up the interview, but it was another disaster. Both the teacher and his Israeli friend said that, yes, while there certainly are boorish people, just as there are in every country, most Poles are very nice etc. Again and again, the Israeli put a positive spin on things, even when asked melodramatic questions about the Second World War. It was another “useless” interview that didn’t make the final cut. I remember that when we got back to the van everyone burst out laughing about what a complete waste of time it had been.
The first actual match we went to film was Legia Warsaw vs. Polonia Warsaw. This contest had an excellent chance of including all the things that make for great television, and it was before I understood what the real focus of the program was, so I was sure the BBC crew would not be disappointed. For about five hours, they filmed an army of police in full riot gear, flares and firecrackers being thrown around the stands and onto the field, an enormous banner unfurled by the home Legia fans declaring that Warsaw belonged to them, and a reply spelled out by the small but brave contingent of visiting Polonia supporters, who held up cards to form one big reply: “FUCK LEGIA.” There was a hooligan with a bullhorn on an elevated platform and countless examples of a well-known hand gesture delivered straight into the camera. A section of the stadium was burned black by a flare that set fire to a banner.
The entire contingent of Polonia fans was still in that blackened section after the match, surrounded by hundreds of security guards who would escort them out of the stadium perhaps an hour or two later. This was to minimize the chance of contact with Legia hooligans who might be waiting for them. It was easy to capture the violent atmosphere of the game, and I was confident the production team was happy. As we made our way back to the van, I asked the assistant producer if he was pleased. He made a face that said “not really,” and then out of nowhere asked, “Did you hear any racist or anti-Semitic chants?” He was visibly disappointed when I said I hadn’t.
The lead producer said he was more or less satisfied with the “visuals” but was disappointed with the “substance.” He asked again about something I had been unable to do: get one of the more committed hooligan types to go on camera. This time he explicitly said he wanted someone involved in “right-wing politics” as well as hooliganism.
I said it wasn’t easy to get inside a violent crime syndicate. The higher-ups in any hooligan organization are wanted by the police, and anyone further down is too scared to speak to the media for fear of the “leaders.” Believe me, anyone who goes on camera and says he’s a hooligan is either a wannabe or gets a very personal lesson in media relations from his former friends. I did the best I could, striking up awkward and even dangerous conversations on dark streets, and I visited dodgy clubs in four different cities, but I never delivered. The closest I got was a conversation with the head of one club’s “supporters organization,” who demanded a “fee” for “security.” To its credit, the BBC refused to pay.
Time to get serious
The team went back to London, and I continued to look into leads. I began to realize that what they wanted was bananas thrown at black players, Nazi salutes from the stands, and maybe some brutal beatings to add color.
In a phone conversation with the assistant producer at the end of March, I detected a note of urgency and in April, I got an e-mail message from him that said, “Our Executive Producer, Karen Wightman [who was in charge of the entire Panoramaseries], wants us to film black players and their experience of racism in Poland as a priority.”
The BBC had dropped all pretense about what they were after—at least with me—though they kept up the charade of a neutral investigation with others.
The crew decided to come see a match in the city of Łódź between ŁKS Łódź and Widzew Łódź. Like the previous game in Warsaw, this was a derby, that is to say, a contest between two clubs in the same city. Derbies typically have the most intense atmosphere, and thus an elevated chance of the kind of incident the BBC was looking for.
Widzew had two Nigerian players, Princewill Okachi and Ugo Ukah, and the BBC wanted first-hand accounts of mistreatment. Mr. Ukah was of particular interest because he had played for Queens Park Rangers in London and could compare his treatment in diverse, tolerant, multicultural England with that of all-white, wicked Poland. Also, there would be two black men on the visiting team in a contest famous for its wild fans. Everything was lined up perfectly to provide the missing “substance.”
I asked the BBC specifically what they wanted me to tell the press officer of Widzew and they told me to say we were interested in Poland’s preparation for the Euro 2012 tournament. Someone else on the production team, who had also been in contact with Widzew by e-mail, sent me this note:
They don’t know at this stage we want to specifically talk about racism in Polish football and their [the black players’] own personal experiences of abuse, so be prepared to schmuz [sic] and impress.
“At this stage” was after the club had agreed to make the players available—on Easter Sunday, no less, to fit our tight schedule. We were supposed to “schmuz and impress” rather than be forthright about the reason for the interview. I remember wondering how often the BBC gets access and interviews under false pretenses. To my shame, I was helping set the trap.
Łódź was the BBC’s last chance to find anti-black “racism.” The broadcast date for the final program was already booked and Panorama was fully committed to a headline-grabbing account of the dark, racist side of what was soon to be Europe’s biggest sporting stage. But they had no racism.
It was in Łódź that the host, Chris Rogers, finally parachuted into his own program. He was the one who had sold the BBC on the idea months earlier, and the entire Panorama episode is presented as “his” investigation. Mr. Rogers made something of a name for himself in 2007 with an undercover investigation of Romania’s orphanages, and he has been dining out on it ever since.
He flew in to interview the two Nigerian players and to do PTC’s (pieces to camera) the following day at the match to add to footage shot in Warsaw without him. He came across as a typical media type who was good at fake sincerity and spent a little too much time on his hair.
We went to the Widzew Łódź office to interview Mr. Okachi and Mr. Ukah. Mr. Rogers started with softball questions, such as how long the players had been in Poland, where else they had played professionally, etc. He turned things up a notch by asking about the reception they had received in Poland. Both players gave positive answers. Time and again Rogers dangled the carrot and time and again no one reached for it. Suddenly Rogers put on his best journalist Serious Face, turned to Mr. Ukah, and said “Why has Polish football been hijacked by racism?”
There was nothing in the interview up to that point to justify that question. It was so unexpected that Mr. Ukah was taken aback for a moment before he was finally able to give a suitably noncommittal answer. The next few minutes consisted of both Mr. Ukah and Mr. Okachi repeatedly stating that though they had heard of things happening to other people, they had never heard or seen anything that could be interpreted as racist abuse in Poland.
This went on for a few more minutes until both players had run out of nice ways to say “no” to the same question. Mr. Rogers had no choice but to wrap it up.
“For the hundredth time: No.”
The players left quickly to enjoy what was left of Easter. I distinctly remember Mr. Rogers and the producer agreeing that they had “material to work with.”
If you watch the final version of the program, you will see how they “worked” with it. They made it sound as though the players were talking about horrible things that happened to them. I was in the room the whole time, paying careful attention, and those bits were taken from rambling answers they gave about things they had heard happened to others. I was amazed at how editing and voice-overs transformed the interview into something I couldn’t recognize. Needless to say, those were the only parts of the interview that were used.
I heard it. Trust me. Let’s go.
The next day was the match. After filming the police using water cannons on fans, we went inside the stadium. We set up a camera behind one of the goals and a microphone at midfield in front the home fans. Mr. Rogers instructed me to be on the lookout for “anything good,” and by then I knew what he meant. He also told me to keep an eye on the Nigerian players and look for any nastiness from the crowd. He constantly disappeared to sneak cigarettes and text his friends in England. He wasn’t even there for the kickoff. When he finally reappeared he asked if I had seen or heard anything useful. When I said I hadn’t, he disappeared again.
About 30 minutes in to the first half, we were still waiting for “something good,” and Mr. Rogers was visibly anxious. He paced back and forth, checking his phone more than he watched the crowd or the match. Once, just to break the silence between us as we stood on the sidelines or maybe to vent his frustration, he actually said out loud “Come on! Sing some Jewish songs!”
At halftime, the five of us who were there got together to trade notes and suggestions, and we decided to switch places to maybe improve our “luck.” I was with the producer and one cameraman; the other cameraman was high above the crowd on the opposite stand. Chris Rogers was . . . somewhere.
The second half kicked off and we went back to work. There was plenty of thuggishness in the stands—you see a lot of it in the final version—but still not what they wanted. There was a palpable feeling of frustration and hopelessness as another 30 or so minutes passed.
That’s when Chris Rogers walked up and said he had heard monkey sounds coming from the crowd. No one knew quite what to say, but this certainly wasn’t greeted with the kind of relief and interest you would have expected. For a moment it seemed as though we were just waiting for someone to say “Um . . . really?” but we just waited for Mr. Rogers to tell us exactly what happened. All he said was that the microphone at midfield had probably picked it up, and he told the producer to get ready to do a PTC about it. Thirty second later he was in Serious Face mode, intoning that he had just heard monkey sounds directed at a black player. I kept waiting for him to tell our cameramen what part of the stands the sounds came from so they could zoom in on it. Surely he wanted to watch those fans in the hopes that they would do it again, this time on camera?
No. Chris Rogers made no effort to get visual material for what was to be a key moment in a television program. And it wasn’t as if we were in a massive stadium with 60,000 people, where it would be hard to pinpoint where sounds came from. The photo below is of the stadium, and the picture captures about 80 percent of the length of the stand from which the monkey sounds allegedly came. The banner says “This is how we have fun in Łódź.” Not one of the BBC crew said, “OK, Chris, where should we look?”
The recording from the microphone is in the final version of the program, and I challenge anyone to detect what Chris Rogers claims to have heard. You might be at a loss to describe exactly what the noise is, but “monkey sounds” is way, way down on the list of possibilities.
In the broadcast version, this part of the recording is played over a shot they had taken earlier in the match of Ugo Ukah attacking the ball. However, the audio is from a microphone planted at the edge of the field. When they went back and “found” those sounds, they had no idea what was going on in the match at that moment. But in the program, the sounds start the moment Mr. Ukah is on the ball. The BBC took the audio from one moment and played it over a video from another moment. I would expect that from the North Korean press, not the BBC.
When we packed up to leave, we had to walk through the part of the stadium where the post-match press conference was to be held. It hadn’t started, but print and video journalists were waiting. The BBC producer saw this, and asked Mr. Rogers if we should stop and ask about what he had heard at the match. What more perfect, made-for-television scene could there be? He could have walked into the after-match press conference and announced dramatically, “I’m Chris Rogers from the BBC and I want to know how it’s possible that a black player was racially abused in a country that will be hosting the European Championships.” That would be the dramatic moment they were looking for. But no, Mr. Rogers said we needn’t waste the time. He wanted to go back to the hotel for dinner. He did not speak with Ugo Ukah after the match or the following day while we were still in Lodz.
Mr. Ukah never said anything about hearing monkey noises. No player from either team ever did. Nor did any of the many journalists from the Polish media, nor did a German television crew that was there.
I cannot say what Chris Rogers did or did not hear. However, I do know that in a stadium of around 5,000 people the only person who claims to have heard monkey sounds was the one person who flew to Poland for three days with the sole purpose of finding “racism.”
The final version of the program stretches the truth in other ways. For example, Mr. Rogers says he has spent months on location studying local football culture, whereas he spent just a few days in the country. There is also a scene in which a British “anti-racist” named Nick Lowles is shown scanning the crowd with binoculars, looking for “hate.” The voiceover says that “he has flown out to see what British fans can expect in Poland,” and he obligingly gives an interview. The program makes it look as though the camera crew just stumbled onto him in the stands. In fact, the BBC flew him in just for that scene.
The team certainly didn’t mind spending money. I was with the producer when he got a message from London telling him that they were well over budget. He said they had spent around £150,000 pounds (about $230,000). They stayed in expensive hotels and never thought about costs. I was amazed by how much they spent in restaurants and hotel bars. Remember: This is the BBC, to which mandatory payments of £150 pounds a year must be made if you own a television set in Britain. It is a criminal offense not to pay.
Just days before the broadcast, the BBC showed some of the footage to Sol Campbell, son of Jamaican immigrants and former captain of the English national football team. They happily filmed him claiming - predictably - to be shocked. He said it was enough to convince him not to go to the tournament and to warn other non-whites not to go.
This was brilliant publicity for Panorama. Polish and Ukrainian media picked up Mr. Campbell’s comments, which pushed “racism” to the forefront of any British discussion of the tournament. The program cast a pall over the tournament before the first match was even played, and put a small army of journalists on alert, scanning the stands for “hate.”
I watched the show when it first aired at the end of May. I had been dreading it, but my dread turned to shock when I heard what the episode was called: “Stadiums of Hate.” They had come up with a suitably provocative title for their contrived, deliberately misleading fairy tale about a football culture permeated with vile racism.
The program has disappeared from YouTube; it appears to be available only this much less trafficked site. But when it was broadcast, it made national headlines in Poland. The country’s biggest television channel took the extraordinary step of broadcasting it just days later, dubbed in Polish.
Many Poles were outraged at what they recognized as a vicious smear. It is worth noting that within a week or so, every single person who appeared on camera in the Polish part of the program claimed publicly to have been misrepresented. This includes Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow. I was present for the interview with him, and he gave thoughtful answers to all of Chris Rogers’ questions, always emphasizing that ugly graffiti and idiots making trouble at stadiums do not represent larger Polish attitudes. In the program, however, he seems to be leading the charge against horrible, hateful, anti-Semitic Poland. Mr. Ornstein told me personally how disgusted he was by how his interview was cut apart and stitched back together.
Even Jacek Purski, director of Never Again, an organization dedicated to monitoring racism in Poland, says the program was one-sided. When a “watchdog” group calls a television program “one-sided,” you can be sure it was outrageous.
The Polish government demanded a clarification from the BBC, and even the foreign minister complained. Newspapers throughout Europe expressed skepticism, and reader comments left online were overwhelmingly outraged. The BBC took the very unusual step of publicly responding to criticism.
Then the BBC got a huge break from Barack Obama, of all people. During a ceremony at the White House honoring someone who had survived Auschwitz, Mr. Obama referred to it as a “Polish death camp” rather than a Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. Angry demands for an apology from the US government pushed “Stadiums of Hate” off the front page. After that, the relentless media cycle quickly relegated the whole affair to yesterday’s news.
Today, criticism of the “Stadiums of Hate” episode takes up more space on the Wikipedia page for Panorama than any other episode in its history. As the doubts and questions mounted, the BBC seems to have taken pains to get copies off the internet. There are any number of other full episodes of Panorama on YouTube, but not this one.
I was the least important man on the production crew and had no editorial influence, but I still felt responsible the episode that millions of people ultimately watched. At the height of the furor I got in touch with the Polish and foreign press. Their reaction was always the same: intense initial interest that quickly faded after a better understanding of what was involved. The explanation I heard over and over was that attacking a program that attacked racism looks like you’re defending racism.
One editor of a major UK newspaper told me it was hard to attack Panorama without a smoking gun. When I asked for an example, he said one would be someone who admitted he was paid by the BBC to pretend to be a “racist” hooligan. The man seemed jaded and not at all surprised by what I told him; he also said he simply could not risk coming across as defending “racism.”
As time goes by, doubts about the program’s credibility fade. All anyone will remember is that the great Chris Rogers exposed horrible racists in Poland and Ukraine. You will have to dig pretty deep to get the real story. That is the power of the biggest name in news.
Mr. Krak does not expect to get any more work from the BBC.