An advert for a show on Channel 4 caught my attention last week. The show, entitled Tracing the Marathon’s Millions, would follow journalist Ben Laurence as he looked into the costs involved in staging the London Marathon and the amount of money the race organisers actually pay out to charity.
Skip forward to the morning prior to the programme and the London Marathon issue a statement saying:
The London Marathon Limited and the London Marathon Charitable Trust Limited totally deny any allegations of wrongdoing and are surprised and shocked at the lack of evidence presented by the programme’s so-called investigative team to support this desperate attempt to undermine one of the world’s finest sporting events.
Translation; take Friday’s show with a pinch of salt.
As a runner, who, after the 25th April, will have run the London Marathon twice (raising over £4100 for charity through the Golden Bond scheme), I immediately went on the defensive and watched the show begrudgingly on Friday night. I do work in the media and I don’t claim to have a specialist knowledge on the subject. But I do know when to take a news story seriously and when to recognise a quote or a half-truth taken completely out of context to give a story a more sensationalist spin.
But after watching the show on Friday, I didn’t find myself overly aggravated. The makers of Dispatches were taking a big risk in making this programme. Back in 1991 Channel 4 were made to pay out a vast sum of money after the show made unsubstantiated claims about the London Marathon founders. This, coupled with this year’s announcement that the London Marathon has helped raise over half a billion pounds for charity since its inception, makes you wonder why the Dispatches show would target such a popular entity.
At first the show didn’t tell us anything new. I’m sure most of us are aware at how competitive the race is to enter and how the Golden Bond system works. Charities pay around £300 for a place in the marathon, meaning that in order to secure a profit they are forced to set fundraising targets for their runners (normally around the £1500 mark). It is easy to forget that £300 of the money you raise for your charity is covering the cost of your place and going back to the London Marathon.
The marathon is, of course, a charity and 100% of the profits made (after the costs of staging the event and salaries etc.) go to the London Marathon charitable trust. But Dispatches claim that only a quarter of the £18m received last year actually went to the charity. The show also went on to question the costs of staging the event and showed the salary of one particular member at a remarkable £240,000. The Marathon’s chief executive Nick Bitel however, explained on the Third Sector website that this person was paid a one-off bonus as part of their salary for saving the marathon £3m in sponsorship agency fees.
The show also shone a light on the fact that the London Marathon holds a complete monopoly over charities. It’s obviously a very popular event, which provides great exposure and awareness to some very worthwhile causes. But the odds of a charity being able to obtain a Golden Bond place if they applied now were very slim indeed (one charity representative in the show was told that he could never expect to be granted a place). This did strike me as unfair, considering that some charities have hundreds of runners.
Make no mistake about it. The show has stirred up a lot of anger amongst a lot of people (including the man responsible for the resignations of some senior BBC officials, Alastair Campbell) and the London Marathon Limited has stated that it will be referring the production company, Blakeway (who make the Dispatches show), and Channel 4 to OFCOM. This does make me wonder how accurate the show was and question how much of it to take seriously. Dispatches allegedly repeatedly rejected to meet the London Marathon team and also denied them the opportunity to appear on the show to say what they wanted to say unedited.
Did you see the show on Friday night? Please let me know what your thoughts were by posting a comment below.
Tracing the Marathon’s Millions was aired on C4, 8pm 9th April 2010. You can watch it on 4OD for a limited time here.