The Confederations Cup Junket

International Marketing Council of South Africa

The International Marketing Council of South Africa (IMC), custodian of the country’s national brand, has launched a major campaign to spark enthusiasm and unite the country and the continent behind the 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup and 2010 World Cup.

A lesson in media ethics, boys and girls: South Africa’s marketing council is offering expense-paid trips (“junkets”) worth thousands of dollars to U.S.-based bloggers/reporters to cover the Confederations Cup and, in effect, help promote tourism. The council’s purpose is to “create a positive and compelling brand image for South Africa.” At least two folks who contribute to ESPN’s online soccer coverage, as well as others, are considering accepting the offer. Nope, absolutely no conflicts of interest there.

This drew the ire of blogger Dan Loney on Big Soccer, who went off on Goff in the comments here (“Steven Goff? Catty? Pushing his own agenda? Leaning on his Washington Post position in order to promote himself at the expense of independents? Seriously? Steven Goff?”).

Junket

The marketing council behind the original post then responded with their own defense of the offer in Business Day. Confusingly, it seems Goff helped the council find bloggers to contact.

I told Goff of my plan to bring a group of US soccer bloggers to the Confederations Cup next month. Predictably, he regretted the Post would not allow him to come on such a trip, but he was also very helpful in recommending the names of other bloggers whom he thought I might approach with more success. He even gave me their e-mail addresses.

It was with a certain amazement, therefore, that I read what he had to say about our conversation in a blog item he uploaded to the Post website later that afternoon. He threatened to name and shame anyone who came on the proposed tour as ethically challenged. It had an effect. Several of his biggest competitors, who might otherwise have been covering USA versus Brazil and Italy as the International Marketing Council’s (IMC’s) guests, will now, with him, be staying home.

Bizarre.

One comment on Goff’s blog nailed the dilemna facing US soccer bloggers:

Mr. Goff:

Re: Trip to South Africa

This issue is a bit trickier than your snarky comment would suggest. Presumably, most U.S. newspapers will not be sending reporters to cover the Confed. Cup. As a result, U.S. based readers will necessarily rely on AP/Reuters reporting to cover the match. Because most bloggers cannot afford to cover this event in person, they face an apparent choice between the prospect of no coverage with the appearance of conflict loyalties.

Your comment assumes that the mentioned ESPN folks cannot cover the event in an even handed way if their trip is paid by South Africa. Given that this is socer (and not a global business summitt or some other matter of actual importance), I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in order to get coverage of this event. Traditional newspaper ethics might suggest otherwise, but I think the snark is misplaced here.

This boils down to the heart of the question facing the soccer media in the US today.  With a collapsing newspaper industry and only a nascent independent soccer online soccer media off of which no-one I’m aware is able to purely make a living from (the country’s most popular blogger, Ives Galarcep still freelances for ESPN and was probably one of the writers Goff was referring to), it would simply be impossible for any blogger or journalist to fund their own trip, and the Post and ESPN (the biggest media outlets covering soccer with any seriousness) obviously weren’t sending anyone.

At the same time, Goff’s obviously right that there is a conflict of interest. Could one go to South Africa, all-expenses-paid, and provide a fair look at the state of the country’s infrastructure without even feeling conflicted? Simon Barber of South Africa’s marketing council, in his defense of the offer to bloggers, says this is possible.

There is nothing to stop bloggers on an expenses-paid trip to SA saying what they wanted about the experience

BACK when I was a member of the Fourth Estate, I was always quite happy to bite any hand that fed me. If you offered me an expenses-paid trip, I would generally have no compunction about taking it, but you had better be prepared to count your fingers when I wrote it up.

It’s quite possible some would have the necessary integrity and balls to pull this off. Do I think I would have?  I hope so, but the more I think about it, the more it gnaws at me that maybe, just maybe I wouldn’t be quite as brutally homest as I would have been if I’d paid my own way somehow.

After all, I was one who criticised British journalists who accepted a junket from Uzbeki oligarch Alisher Usmanov a couple of years ago, as he looked to repair his tarnished reputation (sadly, he did manage to bamboozle some of them). Taking an offer from a known criminal is a different matter than from a South African government agency, but still, isn’t the principle the same?

Whilst Goff’s snarky tone is unwelcome and childish, he does have a point about the potential conflict of interest. Should we as bloggers be prepared to sacrifice traditions of journalistic ethics to be able to provide coverage that wouldn’t otherwise exist?  Is this a line any of us should be willing to try to tread?

I’m curious as to what you’d have done if you’d received the same email I did.  Would you have gone?

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