If you want a copper-bottomed example of how Freedom of Information can benefit us all, you might do worse than to watch How the Hammers Struck Gold (broadcast last week, and available via iPlayer until Friday).
This BBC programme examines, in the space of half an hour, the fine detail of the rental agreement which grants West Ham United the use of the Olympic Stadium.
The stadium’s owners, the London Legacy Development Corporation, are a public authority, so they are bound by the Freedom of Information Act. That means that anyone has the right to ask them for information, and if they hold it, they must release it.
WhatDoTheyKnow user Richard Hunt requested the terms of the rental agreement, and—well, you can see the rest for yourself. It’s a must-watch for anyone interested in football, but there’s plenty for the rest of us too.
The investigation speaks more widely of transparency around the use of tax-payers’ money, as well as the multiple revenue streams—some only loosely related to the actual game—which are up for grabs when a team reaches the Premier League.
If you happen to see this post after the programme has been removed from iPlayer, you can also find a good written summary of the findings on the BBC website.
The entire programme was politically motivated. The only thing it brought to light was that the stadium operator will pay for match day running costs. It totally glossed over the fact that the taxpayer will benefit from catering and stadium sponsorship of the venue, part of the redacted contract which was nevertheless pointed out by LLDC Chair Denis Hone to John Biggs of the GLA in 2013:
“LLDC are aiming to secure naming and other sponsorship rights over the next year through a competitive process. We will be doing this in collaboration with WHU (who retain shirt sponsorship) to ensure that the full value for shirt and stadium naming rights are maximised. The concession agreement sets a base value below which West Ham will not share. In terms of food, beverage and hospitality for WHU matches, again, LLDC have agreed a baseline below which WHU does not share, and above revenue is shared but significant in the Grantor’s favour. For non WHU events the Grantor retains all food, beverage and hospitality rights. Due to confidentiality agreements in place we are unable to disclose full details but again the deal provides significant potential upside to the Grantor while ensuring that WHU are able to deliver a viable business plan which will allow the club to thrive in the stadium”
Still, why let the facts get in the way if you have a massive agenda?
I appeared in the film representing Charlton Supporters Trust but I am also an FOI activist, having set up WDTK in the Czech Republic.
The issue for us is that an already rich football club are getting far more of a leg-up from the taxpayer than is necessary. That is a politically agnostic position. Football supporters trusts represent people whose politics cover the entire spectrum. If you wish to suggest the programme makers were politically motivated, I can only point out that both Labour and Conservative GLA members were represented in the film. We expect to address and get support from Conservative politicians in the coming weeks too. I’d like you to understand that we have no objection to West Ham occupying that stadium. They are welcome to it, and it was probably always the least worst option (but was not properly planned for, a matter for which Lord Coe remains partly accountable.) Our case is that the balance between what the taxpayer pays, and what West Ham pays is skewed to an absurd degree, and must be rebalanced.
On this website the key discussion point should be the FOI-related matters. The failure to provide the unredacted contract is becoming a scandal. The remaining excuse is “commercial confidentiality”. This excuse is being used more and more widely, and threatens to inhibit the use of FOI by citizens to scrutinise public-private partnership agreements.The Information Commissioner has invited us to submit a paper challenging that excuse in this case. We believe we have made a strong one, dare I say it even an exemplary one, and we will be pleased if mySociety can make it available for everyone to study.
I would like to make two further points. The real money-spinner in this deal for West Ham is the corporate hospitality. The club keeps 100% of the revenue from that. That is an outrageous gift, and I hope it arises only from incompetence on behalf of the LLDC’s negotiators. This information does not come from our FOI request but from the LLDC response to our complaint to the European Commission about unfair State Aid in this case.
Finally a point directly related to the value of WhatDoTheyKnow. The BBC contacted me in respect of a complaint letter from LLDC about the programme. It appeared they gave the BBC reason to doubt that I had told them about all the FOI requests I had made on the subject. That made me a potentially unreliable witness for the BBC.
Unfortunately the LLDC completely forgot that we made our request via WDTK,
(https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/west_ham_united_olympic_stadium_2#comment-62069) which means it was visible to the world. I could show the BBC exactly what I asked for and that I helped the LLDC to understand what we did NOT need. I invite you to read the entire thread and consider whether the speed and clarity of the response is adequate. Personally I consider it to be inadequate to the point of contempt for the law, and part of a deliberate tactic to delay public scrutiny of the contract until the club are already in the stadium. We have no intention of accepting these tactics. Thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow and now to this programme, we have taken significant steps towards greater transparency in the matter. I would have thought that whatever your politics, you would agree that this can only be a good thing.
Gavin above castigates the BBC for bias because they did not report some elements of the contract which had been redacted but talked about in a different context.
I have two thoughts on this.
1) Why redact something if you’re communicating the information via other means? Surely if it’s been talked about, it either was never commercially sensitive, or talking about it means that it isn’t any more and thus the commercial sensitivity exemption was incorrectly applied.
2) It isn’t the BBC’s fault that this was redacted from the contract. If it was in there, I’m sure it would have been reported. They also invited all the key people in the situation to be interviewed but most declined. Castigating the BBC for failing to give the other side’s argument because it was redacted by the other side is specious, in my opinion.
If the documentary was biased and did fail to state the other side’s argument, it is the club and authority’s fault for redacting too much information then refusing to be interviewed. It’s not fair to blame the BBC.
Comments made in a personal capacity.