From Fifa to firearms, stop accepting the unacceptable

At times like these, I remember the words of a friend and colleague from more than 20 years ago. He was covering the Bosnia war, risking his life to do so. Why was he doing it? "Because once the world knows, it will have to act. Once people know, they'll demand action."

That, though reporters say it aloud only rarely, is the unstated premise - and promise - of all journalism. It's the working assumption of our trade. And sometimes it works. Witness last week's detailed Guardian report of the bullying of a young Conservative activist who eventually took his own life. Within hours of that information becoming public, the party felt it had to act: former chairman Grant Shapps was out.

But too often, it doesn't work out that way. We learn of an outrageous situation, a scandal that should bring the sky down, and… nothing. There is no action. Just noise, earnest pledges of reform or the confident assertion that "the status quo is unsustainable" - only for the status quo to keep on sustaining.

Start with the example that is least serious. Thanks to a zealous Attorney-General in the United States, the governing body of world football, Fifa, was the target of dramatic dawn raids and arrests last Thursday, which took the number of Fifa officials indicted up to 27. Among them were two Fifa vice-presidents, suspected of accepting million of dollars in bribes, as well as the former head of Brazil's football federation who, the US Department of Justice says, was "involved in criminal schemes involving well over US$200 million (S$280 million) in bribes and kick-backs".

 Mrs Amanda Fischer hugging her daughter, Sally, during a memorial service for their friend, Mr Larry Daniel Kaufman, who was kill
Banknotes being hurled at graft-tainted Fifa boss Sepp Blatter at the Fifa headquarters in Zurich in July. PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In the words of the Attorney-General, Loretta Lynch , "the betrayal of trust set forth here is outrageous. The scale of corruption alleged here is  unconscionable".

Unconscionable should refer to something which the conscience cannot bear. Yet corruption in Fifa is clearly very conscionable indeed, because our collective conscience has borne it all too well. Last Thursday's swoop was, in fact, a rerun of an almost identical exercise in May, when federal agents picked up seven Fifa officials on similar charges of pocket-lining on an epic scale. They even staged their raid at the same five-star lakeside Zurich hotel.

True, as US and Swiss prosecutors inched closer towards Fifa president Sepp Blatter in June, he eventually announced that he would step down - but not, it turned out, till February. Mr Blatter is suspended now, but the Blatter regime is still in place, even if it is beginning to resemble a scene from a gangster movie, where the dons gather around their boardroom table in ever-depleting ranks, empty chairs marking those now in the hands of the law.

The election to replace the previously immovable Swiss is still set for February, but those on the ballot look a lot like Continuity Blatter. Among the front runners is a Bahraini sheikh forced to defend an awkward human rights record; the deputy to the also-suspended Uefa boss, Mr Michel Platini; and a man whose greatest credential is that he served as Mr Blatter's right-hand man. Come February, there may be a new name on the manhole cover, but it'll still be the same sewer.

 Mrs Amanda Fischer hugging her daughter, Sally, during a memorial service for their friend, Mr Larry Daniel Kaufman, who was kill
Mrs Amanda Fischer hugging her daughter, Sally, during a memorial service for their friend, Mr Larry Daniel Kaufman, who was killed in the San Bernardino shooting. PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

With neat timing, last Thursday was already in the Fifa calendar as the day for a relaunch, the day the organisation would seek to persuade the world that it was capable of reforming itself. There was even a PowerPoint presentation, including a slide that promised to "Restore Credibility, Recover and Consolidate ".

But who would believe a word of it? Those now promising to clean the stables served as grooms to those who fouled them in the first place. What's needed is the total dissolution of Fifa and a decision to start again.

It's not unimaginable. The long arm of US anti-corruption law, in combination with a Swiss state beginning to see Fifa as a reputation-tainting liability rather than an asset, might just choke the life out of it: Swiss law certainly grants it the power to liquidate an entity whose aims are deemed "unlawful or contrary to morals".

If the Swiss decide that Fifa is essentially a crime syndicate, dedicated to money laundering, tax evasion and racketeering, it could demand it be wound up. (I have a tentative suggestion for a new head of world football. Step forward, Mr Gordon Brown. Even his most vicious critics would concede that he is utterly incorruptible, and he knows how to handle a crisis.)

But the pragmatic bet would be on a comfortable home win for business as usual. Chances are, Fifa will do just enough house-cleaning to keep on doing what it's doing. It would have powerful backers: President Vladimir Putin and the Gulf states - to name but two of those with a strong interest in keeping World Cup plans for 2018 and 2022 exactly as they are.

The effect is to induce a terrible ennui, a defeatist sense that, no matter how much evidence there is that something is unacceptable, we accept it anyway.

And there are much more serious examples than Fifa. Look at the reaction to the latest mass shooting in the US, this time in San Bernardino, California. Even if it turns out to have been motivated by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it's clear the easy availability of lethal weapons is making Americans exceptionally vulnerable.

As President Barack Obama declared wearily after a massacre in Charleston this June: "This type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries."

Americans know that. There's no shortage of information. Journalists have done their work. And yet, as 14 lay dead in San Bernardino, the Republican party's four presidential hopefuls in the Senate voted to block even the mildest attempt at gun control.

They said no to basic background checks on anyone wanting to buy a firearm. They even said no to a move that would have corrected the bizarre anomaly that someone on a US terror watchlist - and barred from flying - can nevertheless walk into a store and buy a gun. That's right, Republicans voted to preserve the right of suspected terrorists to buy weapons.

This apparent inability to act, this paralysis in the face of the facts, gives democracy a bad name. What are people to think when a world sports body can be revealed as riddled with corruption, yet is allowed to keep plying its trade? Or when a system allows people to kill and kill and kill and no one will do anything to fix it? What are they to think, for that matter, when the banks have been exposed as wrecking the economy and are required to do no more than mouth a half-hearted apology in order to carry on as before?

It makes people lose faith in the power to make change. It makes people resigned to their fate. This is why Mr Obama should attempt a measure of gun control, even if it's not a battle he can currently win. And this is why the US and the Swiss should set about dismantling the rotten edifice of Fifa - if only to show that when something is truly unacceptable, we refuse to accept it.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'From Fifa to firearms, stop accepting the unacceptable'. Print Edition | Subscribe