For starters, let me introduce myself. I am Erasmus Kwaw and currently an executive committee member of the Ghana Athletics Association (GAA).
I also host a couple of programs on GTV Sports + in Ghana. A former Project Officer of the Ghana Olympic Committee, I previously worked as a Media Communication Consultant with the British Council in 2014 and 2015.
Now, how will you feel if you learnt the organisation you work for was being investigated by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in relation to claims by a Youth Olympic Games gold medalist? I think naturally one would become concerned notwithstanding whether the claims were true or not. The BBC is a global powerhouse in news whose reputation and audience reach cannot be underestimated.
That was the situation I found myself in when I received a message via whatsapp on 7th October, 2019 from a lady who only introduced herself as “Juliet a journalist with the BBC and requesting an interview with the GAA.” She continued, “I am working on Martha Bissah and already have the account of the Athlete and some section of the media. I want to give the GAA the right of rely.”
Her motive for requesting this interview was vague. Who is Martha Bissah, What about Martha Bissah and Why Martha Bissah?
For those of you who may not know who Martha Bissah is, she is a celebrated Ghanaian middle distance runner who won a precious 800m gold medal for Ghana at the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympics. It is Ghana’s first gold medal at any level of the Olympics. That is whether Youth or Olympics.
Background to Bissah story
To highlight the irony of the story, Bissah became a national hit after much help from the GAA President Prof. Francis Dodoo upon whose recommendation she was selected for the African Youth Games in 2014. After participating in the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow 2014 and African Senior Championships respectively, Bissah stayed in Prof. Dodoo’s house and prepared for the Youth Olympics. A Presidential Staffer then in 2014, Prof. Dodoo led Bissah and co. to the Flagstaff House where the then President Mahama gave her a gift of 10,000 cedis. That is when all hell broke loose with stories running left, right about ridiculous claims that Prof. Dodoo had asked Bissah money for scholarship to the USA; another story said Prof. Dodoo had tried to steal the 10,000 cedis the President gave Bissah at the seat of government, almost everybody seems to have had their own version of the story. After speaking to some close actors, I realised there was some mischief being perpetuated by some people. Bissah’s then coach Isaac Lamptey told me that Prof. Dodoo had told them(including Bissah’s parents) to take good care of the money received from the Presidency as Bissah might need some of it when the GAA secures a scholarship for her in the future. I established that Bissah and her company left Accra with the gift from the President, her per diem allowance of $3,500 from Glasgow 2014 which she initially kept with Prof. Dodoo for safe keeping and her per diem from the Nanjing Youth Olympics. In essence, Prof. Dodoo did not attempt to take Bissah’s per diem allowance. One may ask so at what point did the GAA or its supposed official ask Bissah for money? Hmm. But the GAA finally took action against Bissah when she herself claimed the GAA had asked her for 7,000 cedis to help her secure an academic scholarship in a TV interview on Multi TV in 2016. She was invited to at least four different meetings with the GAA before she was eventually slapped with an indefinite suspension in 2016 for bringing the name of the association into disrepute. The GAA has asked Bissah to either substantiate her claims or apologise for the harm done to the GAA. In the years that have followed, the Bissah case was been weaponised by opponents of the GAA especially in the lead up to major competitions or GAA elections. Let me hasten to add that Prof. Dodoo has helped over 40 Ghanaian athletes to secure scholarships in the USA. I have been part of some of the fundraising efforts in this regard. Not a single athlete has ever told me Prof. Dodoo has asked them for money towards the scholarship. Indeed, he has rather in some cases paid air tickets and other expenses for the athletes. That I can attest to without any shread of a doubt.
I was then at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar, barely days to end the championships in October. At the time, I was contemplating whether to stay on after the event to cover the World Beach Sports Games which was due to be staged in Doha or return home to Accra. Well, I acknowledged Juliet’s message and asked her to state her full name as I was yet to meet her acquaintance.
She stated her full name, ‘Juliet Mafua” and added, “All efforts to reach the GAA president Francis Dodoo have failed. Would you be available to speak to me on this tomorrow?”
Wow! I shared my first impression about this BBC journalist with the GAA in an email: “She appears to be in a hurry and trying to set her own deadlines. That is not normal of the BBC”
I told her I was out of the country and was going to send her message to the GAA Executive and revert.
An Executive confirmed receiving a message from the same Juliet Mafua. In that message, Juliet said she wanted to talk to the GAA. There was no mention it was about Martha Bissah.
It seemed Juliet was trying to get the GAA on record and then surprise us with questions on Martha Bissah. That most certainly is not good journalism.
Having failed with that approach, Juliet had now contacted me with a different approach albeit not completely an open approach.
It is instructive to note that this conversation was done at about the same time the BBC’s Sex for Grades story came out.
Upon deliberations, we concluded that if Juliet was truly with the BBC, then she needed to give us some proof of her identity. We also needed to see a copy of the claims or charges against us.
Now, this is a good lesson for anybody who is approached by a journalist to do an interview. The aim and purpose of the interview has to be very clear other than that, you have a right to decline the interview.
I subsequently sent Juliet another message asking her to send her questions to the official GAA email and copy me.
She sent the email as requested through her official BBC email address.
After perusing Juliet’s questions, I had no doubt this was not an investigation or a journalistic work. It was a witch-hunt or at worse a hatchet job. She had already been swayed by the weight of “public opinion or perception” about the case after speaking to Bissah and the media as she claimed.
In one of the exchanges with me, she wrote, “In a situation like this, it is best a member of the GAA has an interview with me on the story. In all fairness, the public don’t see it from the angle of the GAA.”
You see, a good Professor friend who teaches research methodology once told me, careful research is not the sole preserve of “research methodologists,” because the best investigators-be they police, forensic, journalistic or legal-use the same careful, systematic approaches and are not quickly swayed by the weight of the public or those they speak to. A good researcher would further interrogate whether there is possibly someone who is inducing public influencers, like journalists, to propagate a position that then a large swathe of the population buys as gospel truth. Ultimately the truth comes out. Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free, as the bible teaches.
We were still not convinced Juliet was really working for the BBC so we asked her to send us her questions on an official BBC letterhead. This was on the 8th of October, 2019.
She initially resisted our request but I insisted we absolutely needed to confirm who she was. I found her specific request for a camera interview also interesting. She didn’t seem to know what she was getting herself into.
“This is a TV report and not a Web article. I am requesting an interview on camera. The questions are only a guide as to what I intend clarifying with the GAA,” she said.
Anyways, the Acting Sports Editor, BBC Sport Africa Piers Edwards, who I knew personally from my visit to the BBC in 2012, on 9th October, 2019 sent us an email stating Juliet Mafua was indeed a staff of the “BBC normally based in Nigeria for BBC Sport Africa but she is currently in Ghana to look at some of the country’s sports scene.”
But the second paragraph of his letter exposed the BBC’s lack of knowledge and context on the topic. He stated that one of the stories Juliet was “working on is the difference in opinion between the Ghana Athletics Association and Martha Bissah. That Bissah recently told the BBC that she was asked to pay the GAA 7,000 cedis to enable her scholarship to the USA.”
I think we all got angry at the suggestion that this was a “difference in opinion!” The girl in question was accusing the GAA of extortion and here was the BBC suggesting it was merely a difference in opinion!!!! This accusation was defamatory and I was surprised the BBC did not recognise it.
I got really pissed off! Difference in opinion my foot, I shouted in my hotel room in Doha. I couldn’t wait to point these things out.
Anyways, the GAA responded appropriately to the BBC’s Piers Edwards noting the BBC had failed to provide wording and context to the claims and allegations made against the GAA.
You know, it is good to have intelligent Professors to guide the discussion in a situation like this. Prof. Francis Dodoo and Prof. Andrew Owusu are some of the greatest communication strategists I have ever worked with and also the GAA’s CEO Bawah Fuseini. The GAA’s response was really long but it gave a historical, empirical analysis and contextual analysis of the issues. Truth be told, we were actually telling the truth about what had happened and how the Bissah case had been weaponised by some to destroy the image of the GAA.
Bottom line, the GAA agreed to the BBC interview and told the BBC I had just arrived in the country on the 9th of October from Doha and was available for the interview on the morning of the 10th of October, 2019.
On arriving in Accra, I spoke to Juliet who told me she was scheduled to leave later in the day for her base in Nigeria. She insisted on having the interview in the morning to enable her depart.
Fatigued due to the long travel, I woke up early enough and set off to the Accra Sports stadium. But I received a call from an unknown UK number beginning with the +44 digits.
When I picked the call, the BBC’s Piers Edwards politely introduced himself on the other side of it. He told me he had only just seen the GAA email in response to his email. He told me he was calling off the interview because of the fresh information the GAA had provided.
In his own words, he needed to digest the content of the email before reverting to us. He then went on to explain Juliet was in the country and saw an “opportunistic moment to get in touch with the GAA.” He added that Juliet was going to be in Ghana for a while to cover some other Paralympic stories. Remember, Juliet had said earlier she was due out of the country in the afternoon?
Curiously, Piers claimed the Bissah story was not a current priority for the BBC. It would interest you to know that Piers claims in a recent email exchange with the GAA and I that Juliet was in the country last year to investigate the Bissah case! Shocking!
I sought to find out from Piers if he knew me, to which he answered in the affirmative. Again, he repeated the reason why he had called off the interview and pledged to put it in writing and email it to the GAA.
However, the BBC never wrote the email to explain why it had cancelled the interview.
The BBC had beaten a tactical retreat, so it seemed for the time being. Interestingly, this was Piers’ call and not that of Juliet who was very oblivious to the landmine she was about stepping on given her lack of knowledge and context on the subject.
Investigative journalism is very costly and time consuming. You don’t need to rush the process otherwise you would beat a hasty retreat just as the BBC did.
I remember the words of former CNN Executive Producer Linda Roth who thought us investigative journalism (IJ) at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication during my studies there in 2018.
She said, Investigative journalism or reporting digs deeper, is of public interest, affects society, process not one off, original, multi sourced and is time consuming. Of course the Bissah story qualifies as a public interest story but the other elements of IJ equally apply.
Meanwhile, we picked up intelligence on 23rd October, 2019 that the BBC’s Juliet Mafua had contacted a Ghanaian athlete based in the USA to inquire about the Bissah case and a dismissed lawsuit against the GAA. According to the athlete in question, she informed the BBC she was not familiar with the Bissah issue.
The athlete then insisted she did not know how she was listed as co-plaintiff in the said lawsuit against the GAA and asked the BBC reporter to make sure to include her response in any published story. From my perspective, this seemed to be a damning allegation you expect the BBC to follow up on to establish the truth or otherwise. Don’t you agree?
At this point it became very clear to us who was behind the investigation and was feeding information to the BBC. It was the same person who had initiated the lawsuit against the GAA in the first place: a former Chairman of the GAA known as George Lutterodt.
Now, George Lutterodt was appointed GAA Chairman from 2001 to 2004 but was not re-appointed to the same position in 2005. He sought to place a court injunction on the GAA’s first democratic elections in 2010 but failed after a mix up by the court bailiff. He contested the 2014 GAA Elective Congress and lost to Prof. Dodoo.
In 2018, he instituted another lawsuit against the GAA’s upcoming elections which was subsequently dismissed by the court for lacking merit. A National Sports Authority probe into the matter also similarly dismissed the case for lacking merit.
We got a lot more information a bit later when a source told me Juliet Mafua was at a birthday party organised by George Lutterodt on or about 3rd October, 2019.
I realised Juliet begun looking for an opportunity to interview the GAA President after this meeting with Mr. Lutterodt.
But the BBC had never brought this fact up in our interactions. They had merely mentioned speaking to Bissah and the media.
Despite statements by Piers Edwards that the Bissah story was not a current priority, the evidence suggested otherwise.
With the passage of time, we continued to gather more information about the activities of Juliet Mafua. I remember one day a former GAA Treasurer called me minutes before his scheduled interview with Juliet Mafua on the same Bissah issue. He did not even seem to know anything about the issue. I wonder what he eventually told her in the end.
While I aknoledge the BBC has a right to do its work, I question the objectivity of BBC’s Piers Edwards and Juliet Mafua so far.
Per BBC’s own editorial guidelines, I think we have a right to expect that the processes they engage in in pursuit of a story will be ethical and impartial.
The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines states, ‘We are impartial, seeking to reflect the views and experiences of our audiences-so that our output as a whole includes a breadth and diversity of opinion and no significant strand of thought is under-represented or omitted…
Meanwhile, after disappearing for over a year after the last email exchange on 9th October 2019, the BBC wrote again to the GAA offering a right to reply to another series of questions on 1st December, 2020.
Details of those emails and the ensuing exchanges will be published in another story.
More to come…