Not the headline one hopes for – Migrant workers, ‘trespassing’, and Qatar’s BBC own goal

A communicator’s job (or part of at the very least) is to generate headlines. Preferably favorable headlines. But even the best of intentions can often come undone.

It’s an understatement to say that Qatar has been under the microscope recently. The country, with a population of just over a million (both nationals and expats) and hundreds of billions of dollars of gas reserves, has often strived to make its mark on the global stage. One such project is the news station Al-Jazeera, which has revolutionized media in the Middle East and beyond.

Qatar’s World Cup bid and subsequent win hasn’t been the success the country may have hoped for however. Ever since Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup by FIFA, it has been subject to criticism by international NGOs about a host of issues ranging from the rights of homosexuals to labor rights.

The biggest concern has been the living conditions of low-income workers, specifically those people who are building the infrastructure for the World Cup.

To their credit (or maybe because there’s little other choice afforded to them), the Qatari government has tried to tackle allegations of poor treatment of migrant workers head on. They have announced new legislation to penalize companies who do not pay workers on time and an amendment to the national labor law to facilitate the payment of workers through direct bank deposits.

Qatar has also been keen to promote the new migrant labor villages that the government has built. As part of its media efforts, the country’s Labor Ministry invited global media last week to view this new accomodation and meet the country’s Labor Minister to talk about Qatar’s push to promote labor rights.

However, things didn’t go quite as expected. I’ll quote from the Guardian below.

A four-strong BBC crew had been invited by the prime minister’s office on an official tour designed to show off new accommodation for migrant labourers, but were arrested by the security services while trying to gather additional material. They were interrogated and jailed for two days, before being released without charge.

The visit was part of a public relations drive, partly overseen by London-based agency Portland, in the wake of an international outcry over the slave-like conditions for workers exposed by a Guardian investigation in September 2013.

Rather than the story being the improvements in living conditions for Qatar’s migrant workers, the headline on the BBC (which was carried across the globe) was BBC team arrested, and held for several days.

It went from bad to worse for Qatar when Qatar’s communications chief explained that the BBC team had been arrested for ‘trespassing’. Again, to quote from The Guardian.

The Qatari government’s head of communications, Saif al-Thani, said the BBC crew were arrested after departing from an official tour. He said: “We gave the reporters free rein to interview whomever they chose and to roam unaccompanied in the labour villages.

“Perhaps anticipating that the government would not provide this sort of access, the BBC crew decided to do their own site visits and interviews in the days leading up to the planned tour. In doing so, they trespassed on private property, which is against the law in Qatar just as it is in most countries. Security forces were called and the BBC crew was detained.”

The challenge organizations often face is how to ensure that the same message is conveyed across the entirety of the organization. It’s obvious that in Qatar there were differences of opinion which led to the BBC crew being tailed by the security forces once they’d entered the country and to their arrest while doing their job.

The question now for Qatar is how do they go on from here and get the message right, across all of the country’s government and leadership? The media scrutiny is only going to get even more intense, the closer we get to the 2022 World Cup. I’ll continue to watch this story and how it unfolds in the media.

4 thoughts on “Not the headline one hopes for – Migrant workers, ‘trespassing’, and Qatar’s BBC own goal

    • Thanks Mark for the comment. I alluded to their treatment. I didn’t want to dwell on that issue, as remarkable as it is, but rather how one part of the government is pushing out a message which has been taken apart by another part of the government – with disastrous results. The question for me is when will Qatar, to put it bluntly, get its act together in terms of how it communicates with the rest of the world on this issue?

      • Oh, it’s totally one part of the government doesn’t understand what the other part is doing.
        But I would suggest it’s not a question of ‘communication’ but rather one of ‘behaviour’. Like, it’s not OK to carry out surveillance of media, harass and arrest them. Or just stop treating workers so badly in the first place. Then you won’t have journalists, human rights associations etc etc from around the world carrying out all these pesky investigations!

  1. True Mark, but we have to remember that for the Gulf this has been the norm for years. To them, this is business as per usual. Qatar wouldn’t be in this situation without the World Cup and subsequent media scrutiny. Similarly, the concept of press freedoms is defined differently here. It’s all about perspective. And theirs is different to yours or mine.

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