Portland Comms Arranged Qatar Tour That Led to BBC Reporters’ Arrests

File this under MASSIVE ethics fail.

Yesterday, the BBC made international news as one of its reporters filed a story covering his own arrest in Qatar.

In the article, Mark Lobel writes that he and his colleagues were “never accused of anything directly” but spent several days in jail after being trailed by security forces. Of course, it’s hardly a giant leap to conclude that these journalists were detained for doing their jobs because they happened to be reporting on the conditions faced by workers constructing stadiums to prepare for the 2022 World Cup.

Here’s a chilling segment:

It was meant to be the first day of our PR tour but instead we were later handcuffed and taken to be questioned for a second time, at the department of public prosecutions.

Thirteen hours of waiting around and questioning later, one of the interrogators snapped. “This is not Disneyland,” he barked. “You can’t stick your camera anywhere.”

Lobel also names London-based Portland Communications as the party responsible for the entire undertaking–which was an effort on Qatar’s behalf to counter 2014 reports from The Guardian and others estimating that the construction efforts would leave as many as 4,000 migrant workers dead.

Again, from Lobel:

A highly respected London-based PR firm, Portland Communications, now courts international journalists. On the day we left prison, it showed us spacious and comfortable villas for construction workers, with swimming pools, gyms and welfare officers.

This was part of the showcase tour of workers’ accommodation, and it was organised by the prime minister’s office.

After the reporters were released, they simply continued the tour; no word on why Lobel chose to refer to Portland as “highly respected” or what the phrase might mean in this context.

This isn’t the first time the firm has received bad press regarding its biggest client. Barely a month after Qatar awarded Portland (run by former Tony Blair advisor Tim Allan) a “wide-ranging global brief” last year, the head of Europe’s top football/soccer organization attacked the firm for launching a blog criticizing the many, many sports journalists who think FIFA made a terrible mistake in awarding the World Cup to a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records.

He said:

“…ethically it’s serious, it’ll make no difference and they’re wasting their clients’ money.”

Portland claimed that it played no role in creating or maintaining the site, which led every journalist in Europe to collectively roll his/her eyes. (What an amazing coincidence that the blog ceased to exist soon afterward.) The firm cannot, however, claim that it played no role in a “PR tour” that led to the unlawful arrest and detainment of several professional journalists.

FIFA says that it will investigate the incident. ICYMI, here’s John Oliver’s recent report on just how trustworthy that organization and its president, Sepp Blatter, really are.