Euro 2012 – the BBC scores an own goal

Euro 2012 – the BBC scores an own goal

Guest article by GREGORY SLYSZ

The Euro football championships held in Ukraine and Poland ended with a most fitting finale, as Spain, the existing champions, as well as world champions, successfully defended their title with a stylish 4-0 victory against Italy. An unprecedented international consensus adjudged the whole tournament to have been one of the most successful in living memory. With nearly 1.5 million fans watching the matches in the stadiums, it was easily the best attended Euro football championship in history. A further six million watched the games in fan zones.  The football that they saw was, by common consensus, of the highest quality while the organisation and the carnival atmosphere of the tournament attracted universal praise from the Presidents of UEFA and FIFA, Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter, the federations of the participant nations, the pundits and journalists covering the tournament and above all the fans themselves, a huge proportion of which declared that they would return to the host countries on holiday. In short, it was an unforgettable spectacle for all who experienced it, all preconceived notions and racial stereotypes shattered. In fact, rarely has a major sporting event elicited so little criticism. But it wouldn’t have been like this, if the BBC had had its way.

Hubris and boycotts

This turnaround in attitudes could not have been greater. Ever since the tournament was awarded to Poland and Ukraine, opinion among established football nations towards the decision had been overwhelmingly negative. Media attention focused on dilapidated stadiums and transport infrastructure, poor hotels, inadequate training facilities and hooliganism. Regular reports claimed that nothing would be ready in time, while established football powers regularly lobbied UEFA, in the light of these reports, for the tournament to be moved to their countries. Michel Platini’s plan to extend the pool of host nations to Eastern Europe appeared to be in tatters.

By far the most tendentious report was produced by the BBC. Emanating from the production team of Panorama, the programme, Stadiums of Hate, was broadcast ten days before the tournament was due to start. While much of the pre-tournament coverage had been governed by a haughty indignation among the established football powers at being overlooked by UEFA in favour of what they regarded to be underdeveloped upstarts, the BBC’s offering was altogether in a different league as far as prejudicial and partial reporting went. Recorded over a month long period, the programme showcased racist and anti-Semitic behaviour among Polish and Ukrainian football fans as well as opinions from selected figures that seemed to confirm the worst about both countries. Among its many claims was that of the black former captain of the England team, Sol Campbell, who warned England fans that to go to the tournament risked “returning in coffins”. He added with dismay that UEFA should not have awarded the tournament to Poland and Ukraine on account of what he claimed was their racism. His views seemed to echo the advice of the British Foreign Office to ethnic minorities to take extra care if travelling to the host countries.
Unsurprisingly, the programme caused a stir. Shocked by the BBC’s revelations, other media proceeded to denounce Poland and Ukraine as racist countries. Paul Hayward, for instance, writing in the Daily Telegraph, sensationally declared that “the creep of extremism reminiscent of the 1930s could be felt in the Panorama exposé”[1] Incendiary statements were endorsed, most shockingly from the highly temperamental England-based black footballer, Mario Balotelli, who vowed to kill anyone who racially abused him, while even politicians sought to out do one another as to who could condemn the two host countries in the harshest terms. All reason in the matter seemed to have been suspended.

The pre-tournament atmosphere had already been soured by a boycott of Ukraine by many EU leaders, in protest at the jailing by Ukrainian authorities of the former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. The boycott threatened to turn the championship into the most politicised sporting event since the Cold War boycotts of the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympic games during the 1980s. What was astonishing about the EU boycott was that it was determined by unsubstantiated claims by Timoshenko’s supporters that she had been subjected to a miscarriage of justice and mistreatment in prison. It all seemed too convenient for the EU, desperate to draw Ukraine from Russia’s orbit, to ignore widespread allegations of corruption against Tymoshenko herself.

Racial stereotypes displaced objectivity

The host nations, having spared no expense on preparations for the championships, reacted with consternation to the BBC’s claims. Repeated guarantees of fans’ safety were accompanied by angry rebuttals from officials. Oleh Voloshyn, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, scathing at the BBC’s exaggeration, accused the BBC of inventing myths. “You can criticise Ukrainian society for a lot of things,” he declared, “but as far as racism is concerned European Union member countries are a long way ahead of Ukraine.”[2] Markiyan Lubkivsky, the director of the championship added, “so much mud has been heaped on this championship. Ninety per cent is just not true.”[3] Poland’s Prime Minister, Donald Tusk expressed “disappointment” and “surprise” at the BBC’s allegations, especially as the programme specified Krakow as a “hot spot of Polish racism”. “Over 100,000 young English tourists come to Krakow every year,” he declared, who,” adding sarcastically, in reference to their well documented wanton behaviour, “enjoy themselves with extraordinary freedom. Never, I stress never, was there one report, one incident on racial grounds.”[4] Marcin Bosacki, a spokesman for the Polish Foreign Office demanded from Britain’s counterpart an explanation for its advice to England fans of ethnic background not to travel to Poland. He added that Poland “invites all British fans, ethnic minorities, Sol Campbell and all who wish to see for themselves, the real Poland, and not rely on stereotypes.”

Dariusz Rosiak, a journalist from the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, recalled frustratingly that the only issue in Polish football that his BBC colleagues were interested in was racism and anti-Semitism.[5] “I told my colleague,” he noted, “that racism is not a big problem in Polish football, certainly no bigger than, for instance, in Italy or Russia … I then offered him an opinion on real problems in Polish football, in the FA, among the grotesque chairman of football clubs, the incompetent referees and players… and so on. All for nothing,” he continued. “The BBC was only interested in racism. And especially anti-Semitism… (It) was adamant to show that Ukraine and Poland are ill from their hatred towards blacks, Asians and Jews…English journalists will not rest, until in the course of the tournament, they discover a good example of a Polish anti-Semite …The BBC film,” Rosiak concluded, “is a dramatic triumph for ignorance, stereotypical thinking and political correctness in the service of alleged truth” For a journalist who is otherwise known for promoting multiculturalism in Poland, his opinion is a damning reflection of the damage that the BBC’s reputation has suffered there.

In a bid to maintain the momentum generated by its programme, BBC interviews at the start of the tournament with players and officials were prefaced by questions about racism, only for the tactic to be quietly abandoned when there was little to focus on. A few unfortunate isolated racial incidents were recorded at the championships of the type familiar to grounds all over Europe. But none involved fans from either Poland or Ukraine. [6]

However, a couple of days before the start of the tournament there was an attempt to pin something on Polish fans. At a training session of the Dutch squad in the stadium of the local side Wisla Krakow, the captain, Mark van Bommel, claimed to have heard monkey chants from a section of the crowd directed at the team’s black players.[7] Dutch journalists and UEFA officials claimed they had heard nothing untoward. Videos of the training session offer scant evidence in support of the allegations as it is very difficult to make out anything amidst the din of applause from the 25,000 appreciative fans. No complaint was ever lodged by the Dutch FA (KNVB) to UEFA and no investigation followed. The incident appeared closed until extensive lobbying from FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) compelled UEFA to acknowledge that it has been made aware of isolated incidents of racial chanting. FARE’s chief executive, Piara Powar, subsequently added that “Van Bommel had no reason to invent such a claim. It’s quite clear it happened. And if there’s some confusion with the governing bodies, the KNVB of UEFA, then that’s regrettable. In our view, the incident took place.” Having already expressed his grave concerns about the championships like no other before because of what he called “well-documented problems with racism and anti-Semitism”, he went on to suggest that training sessions should in future be conducted behind closed doors. Alternative explanations for any chanting were rejected outright, one being that a handful of Wisla fans, well known for their passion in supporting their team, booed the Dutch squad in protest that their stadium had not been chosen as a venue for the championships.

The former Dutch Player, and current activist in race relations, Ruud Gullit,  immediately called a press conference to condemn what he believed to have been chanting and patronisingly lectured the two host countries that the championships offered “possibilities (for them) to put themselves on the map”[8]

However, several Dutch media outlets reported that the allegations of monkey chants were fabricated. According to the daily de Volkskrant, for instance, reported the leftist Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, the coach of the Dutch team had stated to the BBC that he had not heard the supposed chanting, nor did the rest of the team. De Volkskrant suggested that the entire debacle was stage-managed by a number of media outlets, including the BBC, which had generated pre-tournament race stories, in order to confirm their own propaganda regarding racism in Polish and Ukrainian football.[9]

The “well documented problems”, which Powar mentioned, was reference to a report conducted by FARE into racism in Polish and Ukrainian football in 2009-2010.[10] Over an 18 month period it charted 133 cases in Poland and 62 in Ukraine. Of these, the vast majority were what it categorised as, “displaying racist/fascist symbols” and only two incidents involved violence.  Even those who went along with the Panorama programme baulked at the claims of the report. These figures show, noted Andrew Gilligan, in an otherwise scathing article attacking Poland and Ukraine, that “the problem, though real, can be overstated.”[11]

An unfortunate clash between Polish and Russian fans did occur on 12 June, the day that Poland was due to play Russia in Warsaw.[12] Notwithstanding the pre-existing tension that a fixture between these two countries would generate, stoked up in large part by Polish and Russia media, the match coincided with National Russia Day which commemorates the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. To mark the occasion thousands of Russian fans were permitted to march through the streets of Warsaw, offering ample opportunity for violent clashes. Moreover, such a march, charged with historical connotations that evoked painful memories of the murderous presence of the Red Army in Warsaw in 1944, was bound to provoke Polish fans to react to any provocation from Russian radicals.  The unlikely set of coincidences even drew suspicions of a pre-planned conspiracy. “Somebody really wants to make Polish football fans attack the Russians,” noted Wojciech Wisniewski, a member of the Polish Union of Football Fans. [13]

As regrettable as this incident was, it was ironic that some of the worst violence associated with the tournament occurred in Bedford, England, when gangs of England fans attacked local Italian residents in the wake of Italy’s defeat of England in the quarter finals.[14]

Victims rebel against victimhood

Such is the level of exaggeration by Western media of racial intolerance in Poland and Ukraine, and Eastern Europe generally, that communities that have been labelled as victims of racism are increasingly voicing their opposition to such stereotyping. The BBC’s assertions have been particularly challenged by leaders of the Poland’s Jewish community. “People from Western Europe frequently express themselves with great ignorance,” notes Michael Szudrich, Poland’s chief Rabbi, “The BBC programme was untrue in its extreme. It’s in the West that the situation for Jews is the more difficult.” Though Szudrich admits that anti-Semitism continues to persist in Poland, he stresses that it is decreasing and is not in any way as extreme as in Western Europe, something that is confirmed by research conducted by the European Jewish Congress.  He adds that “he would definitely want to live in Poland, which is more tolerant than France and other countries, which have forgotten what the word means.” [15] The situation in France, in the light of rising anti-Semitic attacks, is particularly looked at with concern by Jewish leaders. “I have no doubt,” notes Serge Cwajgenbaum, the Secretary General of the European Jewish Congress, in reference to a recent hammer attack on three young Jews in Villeurbanne, near Lyon, by a Muslim gang,  “that such a brutal attack as happened in France, would never have happened in Poland. There, as well as in other Western countries,” he adds, “this is steadily becoming normal.”[16] Second to France, Britain is highlighted as a source of concern. “For Britain to accuse Poland of anti-Semitism,” notes Israeli professor Gerald Steinberg “is not only to lie but is to attempt to draw attention away from itself.” In his opinion, the rise of anti-Semitism in the West is not only due to the presence of large Muslim populations, but also to the mindset of the intellectual elites and various leftist organisations who promote an anti-Israeli policy. “In Poland,” Steinberg stresses, “such an outlook is absent. Poland is pursuing a pro-Israeli foreign policy and is our greatest friend in Europe.”[17] Marek Magierowski of Rzeczpospolita poses a couple of rhetorical questions, albeit with a touch of sarcasm, about the safety of Israeli fans at the next Euro championship, which is due to be held in France in 2016. “I would like to see whether Israeli fans parading on the streets of Marseilles, for instance, dressed in their national team shirts emblazoned with the star of David, will receive a warm welcome from the local populations. And I would like to view a report from the BBC, in which some Israeli footballer advises fans ‘not to travel top France because you could return in a coffin.’ [18]

Adding their voice to the criticism of the BBC were representatives of Poland’s small black community. John Godson, for instance, one of two black MPs, labelled the programme “bias, one sided and rather sensational”[19] while the former NBA basketball star and current resident of Warsaw, Michael Ansley, took particular offence in a strongly worded rebuttal against Sol Campbell and what he termed his “racist attitude towards this great and welcoming country”.[20]

Biased reporting?

The BBC is no stranger to accusations of bias. Whether on the EU, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, trade unions, immigration, gender issues, religion, it has been accused from various quarters of taking a position which in breach of its governing charter that stresses a duty of impartiality. Andrew Marr, one of its leading presenters, recently claimed that there prevails among its staff  not so much a political but a “cultural bias”, while others have accused the BBC of practicing a Left-liberal bias. [21] Whatever the case may be about the working culture of the BBC, the Panorama programme deviated sufficiently from reality to suggest that its production was governed by some kind of bias.

Writing in the Irish Independent, Louis Jacob likened the programme to “the type of thing Sasha Baron Cohen comes up with through characters like Ali G or Borat. [22] Not only, he notes, did none of the coverage feature footage from three of the four host cities – Gdansk, Poznan or Wroclaw – but “the only real ‘evidence’ they found of this supposed racism and hooliganism, was racist graffiti on walls in undisclosed areas” while the stadium footage “was of local club Legia Warsaw’s hardcore fans (known as ultras) burning a flag.” In short, Jacob notes, “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.” Echoing Rosiak’s aforementioned claim, Jacob stresses that once the BBC set of for Poland to make a documentary on football hooliganism, “they weren’t coming back empty-handed” and as such, he notes “The levels of dishonesty involved in this type of thing are extraordinarily high… 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.”

The producer of the programme, Leo Telling, emphatically rejected Jacob’s assertions that it was guilty of “narrow, agenda-driven sensationalism”, insisting in his “right of reply” that hooliganism and racism in Polish and Ukranian football are deep-rooted and expressing “astonishment” at Jacob’s likening of Poland to any other country in this respect. [23]He also downplayed the importance to the programme of Sol Campbell’s “personal views” and emphasised the dismay expressed by Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community centre in Krakow, at both the hooliganism at Polish football stadiums and the long-standing racist graffiti.

Though Telling’s defence of the programme was predictable, it differed considerably from statements made by participants in the programme that appeared to confirm high levels of manipulation. “The BBC twice bypassed the truth”, writes the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza. [24] In a letter to the Economist, Jonathan Ornstein expressed indignation at the BBC’s “unethical form of journalism …that exploited me as a source … to manipulate the serious subject of anti-semitism for its own sensationalist agenda” and in so doing it “has insulted all Polish people and done a disservice to the growing, thriving Jewish community of Poland.”[25] In this, he argues, “the BBC knowingly cheated its own audience by concocting a false horror story about Poland (which) spread fear, ignorance, prejudice and hatred.” In an astonishing revelation he noted that the “tendentious programme … completely disregarded anything positive I said” notably how “the Krakow Jewish community feels safe and well integrated into broader Polish society” and how “the small number of football fans in Poland engaging in anti-Semitic and racist behaviour do not represent Polish society as a whole… (It) aired only comments critical of Poland”.  More astoundingly, he claimed that the reporting team disregarded his suggestion to interview “the two Israeli footballers who played for Wisla Krakow this season … so that they could hear firsthand about their positive experiences” on the grounds that “this line of inquiry ‘didn’t fit their story’, a response that perplexed me at the time.”

Though the BBC in response denied both taking Mr Ornstein’s comments out of context and having any recollection of his suggesting interviews with Israeli players, [26]a witness to the Ornstein interview, Mateusz Zurawik from Gazeta Wyborcza, was adamant that the suggestion was made. “I was surprised,” noted Zurawik, “when I read the statement from the BBC (which) is absolutely not true. He is taken further aback by the BBC’s denial of knowing who Mr Zurawik was. “I am becoming more and more surprised with what the BBC says. So far it has denied two situations I witnessed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the BBC prepared a statement saying that the Panorama crew has never been to Poland.” [27]

It is clear that the programme’s production team engaged in journalism better suited to tabloids than a serious media organisation. To manipulate and exaggerate such an important issue not only undermines the BBC’s own credibility but also the seriousness of the cause. It turned isolated incidents involving small minorities into mainstream events and gave unwarranted credence to outrageous threats to foreign fans from alienated hooded youths. As such, questions need to be asked about the motives of the presenter of the programme, Chris Rogers, and its producer, Leo Telling. But the BBC was not the only culprit in this affair. Guilty also was so much more of Britain’s media, which enthusiastically went along with the programme’s hyperbole and deception. The British Foreign Office too needs to clarify the basis on which it felt the need to issue advice to England fans from ethnic minorities not to travel to Poland and Ukraine for the championship.

Above the din of the media frenzy, a few voices of reason were heard. Mark Perryman, for instance, an official spokesman for England supporters, made it clear that he rejected the BBC’s coverage as well as other negative reporting. He noted with disappointment that not “a single report I’ve read has mentioned that England played in Ukraine in October 2009 with no racist incidents”, and recollected how Asian fan Yassir Sidique had declared “what a great trip it has been.”  Nor, he adds, did any reports mention the incident-free trips made by several premiership sides to Ukraine in European competitions. Memorably, a group of England fans in Donetsk, among whom were several from ethnic minorities, protested against Sol Campbell’s “ludicrous remarks”, as Peter Harper, a black England fan from Sheffield, put it. [28] In an apology to the local community that had welcomed them so warmly, they paraded with a makeshift coffin carrying the words “You’re wrong Campbell”. One cannot help think, however, that Sol Campbell himself was manipulated by the programme’s producers, though his haste to condemn the two host nations on the basis of a few minutes of manipulated footage was unfortunate. And it was encouraging to see Mario Balotelli, the player who had threatened murder before the tournament, enjoying himself in Krakow’s nightclubs and medieval squares.

The ultimate testimony to the BBC’s error was the overwhelming success of the tournament and the glowing reviews that both Poland and Ukraine have received from around the world. “The overwhelming feeling I have today”, declared Michel Platini as the tournament closed, “is pride. Pride for Poland and Ukraine, so often decried but who proved they were up to the task by putting on such a great tournament. And pride for the people of Poland and Ukraine, who were such wonderful hosts. Good luck, France (hosts of the European Championship in 2016), because the bar has been set very high.”

Dr. GREGORY SLYSZ lectures on history and writes on history and current affairs

[1] Paul Hayward, “Euro 2012: Governments of Poland and Ukraine must act now on racism or their tournament will never recover”, Daily Telegraph, 30 May 2012

[2] “Ukraine says UK press racism allegations ‘invented’”, Kyiv Post, 29 May 2012 –

[3] Andrew Gilligan, “The Euro 2012 welcome that awaits in Ukraine”, Daily Telegraph, 3 June 2012

[4] “Polskie Stadiony – MSW che sprostowania of BBC”, Rzeczospolita, 29 May 2012

[5] Dariusz Rosiak, “Z Polski możecie wrocić w trumnie”, Rzeczpospolita, 29 May 2012

[6] Justin Palmer, “Spain and Russia face UEFA racism charges in Euro 2012”, Reuters, 26 June 2012

[7] “Euro 2012: Uefa acknowledges ‘isolated’ racist chants directed at black Holland players during training session”, Daily Telegraph, 8 June 2012

[8] Ruud Gullit, “There were monkey chants at Dutch Euro 2012 training”, Daily Telegraph, 8 June 2012

[9] “Holenderskie media: Opowieści o małpich odgłosach są wyssane z palca”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 14 June 2012

[10] “Hateful – monitoring racism, discrimination and hate crime in Polish and Ukrainian football 2009-11” –

[11] Gilligan, ibid.

[12] Luke Edwards, “Euro 2012: 183 arrested after Polish and Russian clash as march descends into violence on Russia Day” Daily Telegraph, 13 June 2012

[13] Edwards, ibid.

[14] Amy Oliver and Julian Gavaghan, “Four arrested after violence erupts in Britain’s most Italian town following England’s defeat to Italy in Euro 2012”, Daily Mail, 25 June 2012

[15] Piotr Zychowicz, “Polska przyjazna Żydom”, Rzeczpospolita 5 June 2012; Piotr Zychowicz, “Kto naprawdę bije Żydów”, Rzeczpospolita, 4 June 2012

[16] Piotr Zychowicz, “Kto naprawdę bije Żydów”, Rzeczpospolita, 4 June 2012

[17] Piotr Zychowicz, “Polska przyjazna Żydom”, Rzeczpospolita, 5 June 2012

[18] Marek Magierowski, “Francuski problem z antysemityzmem”, Rzeczpospolita,

4 June 2012

[19] “Stitch up unstitched”, Economist,, 13 June 2012.

[20] “Ansley odpowiada Solowi Campbellowi” (Michael Ansley answers Sol Campbell), You tube,

[21] Dennis Sewell, “How the BBC is dragging its feet on bias”, Daily Telegraph, 18 June 2012

[22] Louis Jacob, “Euro exposé earns Beeb a red card”, Irish Independent, 3 June 2012

[23] BBC objects to “dishonesty” claim – Leo Telling replies to Louis Jacob, Irish Independent , 10 June 2012

[24] Mateusz Żurawik, Stadiony nienawiści? Ujawniamy kulisy pracy reporterów BBC, Gazeta Wyborcza, 13 June 2012

[25] “Euro 2012 is overshadowed by accusations of racism and anti-Semitism, Economist, 6 June 2012

[26] “The BBC statement on its Panorama programme Euro 2012”, Economist, 7 June 2012

[27] “Mateusz Żurawik’s reply to the BBC”, Economist,, 13 June 2012

[28] “We do what we want, Sol! Campbell faces ‘coffin’ backlash from England fans in Donetsk”, Daily Mail, 19 June 2012



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2 Responses to Euro 2012 – the BBC scores an own goal

  1. louis says:

    I just came across this. Great piece of writing. Louis Jacob

  2. Pingback: Western own Goals, as Russia Scores Big League - The Quarterly ReviewThe Quarterly Review

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