A LICENCE TO CENSOR

rebecca_6aTHE CURRENT line-up of the top brass at the Welsh Rugby Union was decided seven years ago.

Former Welsh international David Pickering succeeded in winning a vote of no confidence in his chairmanship in 2006. He’s still chairman today.

But was his survival due to the censorship of a potentially damaging television programme?

A Rebecca investigation — much of it based on the personal experience of editor Paddy French — shows that censorship is alive and well in Welsh broadcasting.

DAVID PICKERING The former Welsh international survived as chairman of the WRU

DAVID PICKERING
Chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union. He took the chair in 2003 but by 2006 was facing a serious challenge from critics.  Photo: PA

IN APRIL 2006 ITV Wales’ chief news reporter Andy Collinson was tipped off that a senior figure in Welsh rugby was in trouble.

Collinson was told former international player and Welsh Rugby Union chairman David Pickering was in financial difficulty — judgments had been obtained against him for the recovery of debts.

It was a sensitive time for Pickering and the Union. The latest accounts painted a rosy picture of the Union’s finances but critics were claiming the books had been fixed.

A special general meeting of the Union had been scheduled.

Collinson went to see a colleague working for Wales This Week, the station’s current affairs programme. He asked producer Paddy French if there was a way to confirm that these judgments existed.

French — now Editor of Rebecca — told him that if the debts were personal, judgements would be kept by the Registry of County Court Judgments in London. For a small fee, it was possible to search for decisions against any person in England and Wales.

French also suggested that, while he was doing these searches, he should include the companies in which Pickering had an interest.

At the same time, Wales This Week would carry out a financial analysis of Pickering’s companies. Most of these were engineering companies involved in the Welsh steel industry.

By early May, the results of both searches were in.

Pickering had two judgments against him. At Northampton County Court he had been ordered to pay a debt of £1,992 in September 2004. In March 2006 Southampton County Court ordered him to repay credit card debts of £17,699 — to Lloyds Bank.

French’s analysis of the clutch of engineering businesses in which Pickering was involved found they were also in trouble.

In June 2004 two of these companies had gone bust to the tune of £3 million — with £1 million owed to the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise.

At the time Pickering told the Western Mail that the rest of his activities were sound: “I’m involved with eight or nine companies … there are no problems.”

Thirteen months later, in July 2005, another five companies went under with debts of nearly £5 million.

This time Pickering told the Western Mail that “the great majority of the money was owed to associated companies and not third parties.”

This was untrue. The five companies owed £2.8 million in unpaid tax and VAT.

Port Talbot haulier Ian Gorvett lost £50,000. He had also lost money in the crash the year before but had agreed to help the resurrected business.

Another major creditor was Barclays Bank which lost half a million pounds. Ironically, Barclays were the bankers to the WRU.

The 2005 crash left Pickering with stakes in six companies. But they were struggling — between them they had chalked up losses of £750,000.

Two of these firms had been warned by Companies House for failing to file accounts. Another two companies had been taken to court and ordered to pay debts of more than £15,000.

The position was that a group of companies in which the  chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union was involved, were teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Collinson and the Wales This Week team discussed how to handle what was fast becoming an explosive story.

The obvious “peg” for the coverage was the special general meeting of the WRU on May 14 to discuss its financial position and to vote on the motion of no-confidence in David Pickering.

It was agreed that the best plan of action was for Collinson to report on the general position on the Friday night before the meeting — with Wales This Week exploring Pickering’s finances in detail in its programme on Monday, May 16.

Bruce Kennedy, Head of Factual Programmes and in charge of Wales This Week, made it clear he would have to consult Director of Programmes Elis Owen.

ITV Wales held the exclusive contract to broadcast the forthcoming Rugby World Cup to be held in Cardiff and the planned coverage of Pickering’s business affairs would strain relations to the limit.

In the week before the special meeting of the WRU, Elis Owen called a meeting to discuss the issue.

Also present were John Williams, editor of the main evening news programme, and his chief reporter Andy Collinson. Wales This Week was represented by Bruce Kennedy and Paddy French.

ELIS OWEN  The Head of Programmes at ITV Wales refused to allow the damaging programme about David Pickering to proceed.

ELIS OWEN
The Director of Programmes at ITV Wales refused to allow the damaging programme about David Pickering to proceed. Photo: BBC Wales

French gave a brief outline of the research that had been done. He had also come up with a device to simplify the financial aspects of the story.

The Wales This Week programme would portray Pickering’s businesses as a team of fifteen players.

Some of these would be given red cards because they had gone bust. Those that were losing money would be shown as injured. Those that had been ordered to pay debts or had been warned by Companies House would be sin-binned.

At the end of the presentation, John Williams — who had not been sure there was a story up to that point — said he was convinced. He was shocked at the amount of money Pickering’s companies had lost and he was happy to run a news item on the Friday.

There was general agreement that the programme was editorially sound.

Even so, Elis Owen made it clear that if the investigation did not lead to the resignation of David Pickering, then ITV Wales’ relationship with the WRU would be severely strained.

ITV Wales, he added, needed the co-operation of the union to fully exploit the channel’s exclusive rights to the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

The Wales This Week team began preparing the programme with the editing process planned to take place over the weekend.

On Friday, 12 May Elis Owen called another meeting, this time with Bruce Kennedy, Andy Collinson and Paddy French.

He said he did not want the programme to go out as planned on May 15. Bruce Kennedy and Paddy French made it clear they did not agree. Owen would not be budged

John Williams also called off the planned item for that evening’s Wales Tonight news programme.

Bruce Kennedy said that he’d been called by ITV Wales’ managing director Roger Lewis to say that he had been contacted by David Pickering. Lewis made it clear to Kennedy that he was not interfering in how the story was to be handled.

On the Sunday David Pickering survived the vote of no confidence at the special general meeting.

Later, Bruce Kennedy tried to get the aborted Wales This Week programme back on the schedules.

On 1 June 2006 another discussion took place in Elis Owen’s office about the future of this programme. Owen said he still had editorial reservations about the story.

Bruce Kennedy pointed out that he had expressed no such reservations at the earlier meeting. Owen insisted that there were no ordinary victims of the collapse of Pickering’s companies.

Bruce Kennedy cited the example of Port Talbot haulier Ian Gorvett who had twice lost money in the collapse of companies owned by Pickering. He had already been interviewed by Wales This Week.

But Owen was adamant — there would be no programme. Paddy French was clear:

“What’s happening here is censorship.

French continued:

“I think this is noble cause corruption — you are doing the wrong thing for what you believe are the right reasons.”

Elis Owen was furious at this remark: “Are you calling me corrupt?”

French did not withdraw the remark.

The meeting ended — the Wales This Week programme was never broadcast.

On September 9 the WRU appointed a new group chief executive — Roger Lewis, the MD at ITV Wales.

The post had been vacant since the resignation of David Moffett the previous year. After Moffett’s departure, the WRU said the post was no longer needed.

ROGER LEWIS Was the Managing Director of ITV Wales when the Pickering programme was axed. There's no evidence he was involved in the decision. Photo: PA.

ROGER LEWIS
Managing Director of ITV Wales when the Pickering programme was axed. There’s no evidence he was involved in the decision. Photo: PA

The decision to appoint a new group executive had been taken just before the May 14 special general meeting.

Elis Owen stepped into Lewis’ shoes as managing director of ITV Wales.

On December 20, the WRU also appointed a new head of communications — John Williams, the former Head of News at ITV Wales.

In 2011 Roger Lewis’ remuneration package was worth £320,000 — David Pickering was paid £35,000.

Rebecca asked all the participants to comment on the allegations made in this article.

Elis Owen, who had left ITV Wales in 2009 and joined BBC Wales as Head of Commissioning, didn’t reply.

David Pickering, Roger Lewis and John Williams didn’t reply.

ITV Wales said:

“The story covers events a number of years ago and refers to individuals who no longer work for ITV. In the circumstances we don’t think it appropriate to comment.”

Bruce Kennedy was in no doubt that the programme should have gone ahead:

“Journalistically the story was sound. The WRU chairman is, at least in part, responsible for the proper running of a huge financial empire, the success of which is fundamental to Welsh life.”

“I felt therefore that an investigation into the commercial /  financial acumen of an individual who was endeavouring to hang on to that post was entirely justifiable; was a matter of considerable public interest and was absolutely in the tradition of the best of Wales This Week. It was also a highly topical programme.”

♦♦♦

THREE YEARS earlier, in 2003, another powerful programme failed to see the light of day.

It concerned Welsh Language Board chairman Rhodri Williams and the reason why he’d abruptly left the TV production company Agenda in 2001. He had been one of its founders back in 1980.

The full story of Williams’ career is told in the television programme Hidden Agenda and the article A Man of Conviction?

In September 2001 Williams was dismissed by Agenda. At the time Ron Jones, the accountant who had set up Agenda with Rhodri Williams, would not comment on the reasons for the departure.

But in May 2003 Williams went to work for the Avanti group owned by Emyr Afan and his wife Mair.

At the time Avanti was flying high. It made its money from programmes on the thriving Welsh music scene.

In September 2000 Tom Jones opened a new studio complex in an old lemonade factory at Porth in the Rhondda — called the Pop Factory. Instead of a fee, he took a one per cent stake in the business.

TOM JONES

TOM JONES
The star took a one per cent stake in Avanti when he agreed to open the group’s headquarters near Pontypridd. Photo: PA

Emyr and Mair Afan were also moving up in the world. In August 2001 they had sold their home in Cardiff’s Rhiwbina district for £215,000.

The same day they bought a new house in the Cyncoed area of the city for £550,000.

The following year Avanti was named Welsh Innovation and Entrepreneurial Company. Afan’s wife, Mair, had earlier been voted top woman in Welsh media.

All was not plain sailing, however. Avanti blamed a series of county court judgments between 1998 and 2002 on administrative problems.

But Avanti hit the headlines in 2003 over a highly controversial £4 million grant from the higher education quango ELWa.

The money was given to fund a novel training scheme called the Pop Café. Young unemployed people who would not consider further education would be enticed into media training via a specially-created café environment.

But the scheme broke rules and was criticised by the Wales Audit Office. Avanti eventually returned about half the money — but the Welsh Assembly Government got nothing for the £2 million that Avanti was allowed to keep.

A month after Williams’ decision to join Avanti, Ron Jones decided to speak out about the reasons he’d been sacked in 2001

The proposed programme was discussed at a Wales This Week editorial meeting in May 2003. Producer Paddy French declared an interest: he and Rhodri Williams had fallen out in the late 1980s.

(In 1988 a critical but inaccurate profile of French had appeared in the magazine Golwg. French believed the source of the information — and misinformation — was Rhodri Williams.

At the time French and Rhodri Williams’ wife Siân Helen worked for the co-operative Gwasg Rydd which produced the TV guide Sbec for S4C. There had been a disagreement over a redesign of the guide: French wanted an outside firm while Siân Helen thought she could do the work herself.

Williams denied he was involved in the article. “I did not write it and have no comment to make on it,” he said.

French was saddened by the Golwg piece: “I could not believe that someone I had taught could be party to a piece of work that went against everything I stood for. I felt that everything Rebecca stood for had been betrayed.”)

The proposed Wales This Week programme stayed on the schedules and in June 2003 French interviewed Ron Jones at Agenda’s headquarters in Llanelli. By that time the company had changed its name to Tinopolis.

During the interview Ron Jones, said of Rhodri  Williams and quangos: “I think we allow them into the hands of people whose honesty can be so easily questioned at our peril.”

French said: “Because of the history between Rhodri Williams and myself I did not feel I could morally press for the programme to be made.”

“I made the situation clear to the people in charge of the programme. I would not have objected if they had decided to give the project to another producer”.

“However, I was in no doubt that the programme was a strong one and was it was in the public interest that it should go ahead.”

“That did not happen. In fact, nothing happened at all. Week after week, month after month the interview with Ron Jones  stayed on the shelf. It never saw the light of day — until it appeared in the Hidden Agenda programme on the Rebecca website.

In December 2003 Rhodri Williams was appointed Wales Director of the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.

NOTES

1  This article was first published in April 2012 on the original Rebecca website.

♦♦♦ 

© Rebecca 2013

CORRECTIONS  Please let us know if there are any mistakes in this article — they’ll be corrected as soon as possible.

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11 Responses to A LICENCE TO CENSOR

  1. Bob says:

    Considering the claimed shenanigans with Pickering happened in 2006 why has it taken you seven years to publish these accusations and what is your reason for doing so now Mr French?

    • Thanks for the comment.
      Obviously, when I worked for ITV I didn’t feel able to raise the issue publicly.
      I fought as strongly as I could at the time — not many employees would accuse their boss, to his face, of engaging in “noble cause corruption”!
      I left ITV in December 2008.
      It took some time to get Rebecca Television up and running — it didn’t go “live” until the spring of 2010.
      And then there was a whole raft of other material to deal with.
      For most of 2010 and 2011 the emphasis was on getting the material on the child abuse scandal in North Wales out into the public domain.
      More important, even than rugby, I think.
      It wasn’t until last year that I found the time to get round to Mr Pickering & Co.
      As to motive, all I can say is that I believe in a transparent Wales where we can all interact on a level playing field.
      I hope that answers your questions.
      Paddy French
      Editor

      • Bob says:

        So you were so concerned about the ‘corruption’ at ITV Wales that you continued to take their coin.

        Hows about you do another series of investigative articles about the antics of the business men behind the Welsh club sides?

        You know, in the interests of balanced, transparent debate.

      • It wasn’t “corruption”, it was “censorship”.
        And, yes, I continued to take their coin: that’s a perfectly fair point.
        But I knew that Rebecca would return — and that the story would, eventually, come out.
        Better late, than never.
        As to more articles, well lets have the raw material and I’ll see what I can do!

      • Bob says:

        In your article you attribute a quote to yourself stating:

        “I think this is noble cause corruption — you are doing the wrong thing for what you believe are the right reasons.”

        Come on Paddy…

      • Bob says:

        If it wasn’t ‘corruption’ as you state in your article then you had better edit the word out sharpish.

      • Bob
        There’s a vast difference between “noble cause corruption” and “corruption”.
        The latter carries with it the inference of criminality.
        That means that, if a libel action takes place, then the person who uses the word has to prove it in a court of law.
        The burden of proof lies with the accuser — the accused doesn’t have to prove his innocence.
        This is a tall order even for the best investigative journalists.
        When RTV uses the word — as in the article The Case of the Corrupt Councillor — it does so because it believes it can stand up the allegation.
        So, to repeat — A Licence To Censor is not about criminal corruption.
        It’s about censorship, as the title makes clear.
        Yes, Elis Owen was accused of “noble cause corruption” but there was never any suspicion that he was doing it in the hope of financial reward.
        He thought he was looking after the interests of the company.
        He was wrong, that’s all.

    • Bob says:

      Semantics and you know it. The inference of your piece is there for all to see, all in all a rather epic bit of muck slinging at the top management of the WRU.

      I find it rather convenient how this piece happens to come out in the midst of a rather nasty civil war between the Union and it’s four clubs. Especially after the calls on various Welsh rugby internet forums over the past couple of months for fans of the clubs whom the Union has been playing hard ball with to dig up dirt on the WRU’s management. Suddenly up you pop with this piece that you happen to have sat on for the best part of a decade… Your timing is impeccable, your motives murky.

  2. Andy says:

    I applaud what you are doing by exposing these people, I only wish they were brought to justice. Go get em’ Paddy French.

  3. Barbara says:

    Have always wondered where Pickering got his money. He can afford to put four daughters through private school and spend out on at least two expensive foreign holidays a year yet the WRU only pay him £35000! Doesn’t add up! Go get ’em!!

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