PtG Opinion 02.03.2020

Football Leaks raises many questions – also for the media

OPINION: At a preliminary hearing in Portugal in January 2020, the man behind Football Leaks, Rui Pinto, was characterised as a blackmailer rather than a whistleblower. If the charges lead to conviction, the media's role in publishing the documents should be scrutinised, writes Andreas Selliaas.

Opinions on reflect the views of the author(s).


The recent weeks have shown us the power of Football Leaks, or at least the possible power of Football Leaks. Due to the revelations based on documents in the Football Leaks, UEFA has decided to expel Manchester City from the Champions League for two years due to breach of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, and also given the Abu Dhabi owners a heavy fine.

If this verdict holds in CAS, it will be a major victory for the journalists breaking the story and possibly also bring about a change to how clubs and owners can manipulate their finances to win football games and do PR.

However, the sources and the methods used to unravel the misconduct of the owners of Manchester City should also be scrutinised.

The man behind the massive material known as Football Leaks, Rui Pinto, was extradited from Hungary to Portugal in 2019 where he allegedly conducted information extraction (or hacking and phishing, as the charges against him read) which he later shared with Der Spiegel, which then shared the information with others in the Football Leaks network (EIN network).

The charges against him as a blackmailer rather than a whistleblower contrasts sharply with the way the partners in the Football Leaks network has portrayed Rui Pinto for years – a way which also the lawyers of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden as well as Norwegian corruption chaser Eva Joly has supported.

Another speculation promoted by the EIN network in its early stages was that Rui Pinto most likely was part of a group of whistleblowers or that he is some kind of middleman.

This is not the case according to the Portuguese prosecution authorities. They believe that Pinto obtained the documents through hacking and used them to blackmail clubs and agents for money.

The police investigation claims to prove that Rui Pinto tried to blackmail the player agency Doyen. Pinto himself states that it was just a test to see how much the documents were worth.

The investigation also found notes showing that Pinto in the future wanted to control the publication of the documents that were shared among the members in the EIN network, that he wanted to have a say in which stories were published, that he wanted payment for the documents, that the network was to find a job for his girlfriend, and that he wanted to establish his own PR company where he could use the information that he obtained.

What was supposedly brought to light during the investigation after going through all Rui Pinto’s servers is that he allegedly hacked Portuguese state institutions, an evangelical church and all the major football clubs in Europe. To name a few.

If he is found guilty on all charges he could face more than 20 years in jail.

Six issues media should discuss after Football Leaks

If all or most of the charges are proved to be true, the media companies that have been part of the Football Leaks network should thoroughly evaluate what they have done and how they have presented Football Leaks to the world.

Football Leaks should trigger a few debates on journalistic ethics and moral.

One debate should be on the coverage of Rui Pinto as a whistleblower. Many whistleblowers who have put their lives on the line are not particularly keen on being lumped into the same category as a person who has hacked data for his own personal gain. Do we have to redefine whistleblowing after Football Leaks?

Another debate is the coverage of Pinto as a part of a major network. There is no information – at least not at this point – showing that such a network exists. Our only information comes from claims from journalists in the Football Leaks network that Rui Pinto COULD be part of such a network. Where do they get their information from? Is Rui Pinto their only source?

A third debate concerns the general coverage of the case of Rui Pinto and Football Leaks. The media that have had access to the documents, have been fairly biased in their coverage of the case and have given Rui Pinto’s defence lawyers plenty of column inches while hardly covering the developments in the case.

We have seen few journalistic investigations of who Rui Pinto is, few updates on arrests and court hearings, and what has been brought forward about the developments in the case has mainly come from news agency press releases. Why?

And why is the case of Rui Pinto not governed by the same journalistic rules as the coverage of any other person who is accused of criminal activity?

There is also something that is not quite right in the presentation of the timeline provided by the media companies in the Football Leaks network.

For a long time, Rui Pinto was portrayed as a mysterious person with a mysterious background. When the second round of Football Leaks started just before Christmas 2018, it was relatively simple to find out who the so-called whistleblower was. Still, most media chose to maintain the mystery surrounding Rui Pinto until he was arrested in March 2019.

In the first book about Football Leaks (which was published in 2018) it is discussed at length who he is, but at that time they should have known who they were dealing with. Why did the media keep up the subterfuge about Rui Pinto?

Lack of critical approach to sources

A fourth issue that should be brought up for debate concerns the re-publishing of stories written by Der Spiegel, which have been translated and published by many of the partners in the network. 

Several of these stories rely on sources whom it is difficult to see that the partners have checked up on themselves and made their own editorial assessments of.

Not long ago a journalist from Der Spiegel was exposed for writing false stories (the Relotius-case). Why do media partners in the network then choose to trust Der Spiegel in this case?

The fifth debate concerns the choosing of media companies involved in Football leaks and the strategy of sharing the enormous amount of documents. There is a large number of journalists who have worked on major investigations in football for many years in different media outlets, with great knowledge of the topic and the power play in international football, and they are almost completely absent in this work.

Even within Der Spiegel, the most hard-core investigative journalists seem left out – also some of those who exposed that Germany bought the hosting rights for the 2006 World Cup. Why?

How have the media checked up on Rui Pinto’s background?

Many of the stories that have been brought to light have been good and important, but several of the articles have also been out of context, with indiscriminate use of sources, and also old stories in new clothes.

At the Play the Game conference in Colorado Springs in October 2019, I chaired a session discussing the consequences of Football Leaks. In the panel were two solid journalists – one from the Danish newspaper Politiken and one from the New York Times.

Politiken has been a part of both rounds of Football Leaks while the New York Times has not been in the network.

One of the conclusions from this conference was that the first round of Football Leaks (in 2016) had more consequences than the last round (at least until now), and that Politiken made great work with these documents.

This shows the potential of the material.

However, the fact remains that the New York Times and other media have written about many of the same issues and made revelations without these documents.

Therefore, the question is how far you should go in order to get a story? What have the media that have had access to the Football Leaks documents done to check the background of the man providing the documents? How far can you go with hacked documents?

Lack of follow-up

Finally, we should discuss the absence of follow-ups from media outside the Football Leaks network. The absence concerns both particular cases and the methods used. 

Every journalist would love to get hold of documents like Football Leaks. Not as single journalist can say that they would pass on a chance to look at these documents. The question, however, is how you handle the person who brings you the documents and how you treat the material that you have gained access to.

Football Leaks is an exclusive cooperation and that alone can have turned some media away from helping competitors gain more clicks and readers.

But there may also be several journalists and media outlets who have deemed the source and the methods questionable. Then we end up in an ethical discussion on sources and source protection

So what’s left after Football Leaks? In my opinion, we are left with a number of half-finished stories and a question of how we relate to documents that might have been stolen.