New Documents reveal how David Beckham initially held back from funding his own Unicef project, despite calling the charity his "number one priority"
A feature published with the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) network, with research by The Sunday Times
Read more at our Football Leaks page
In the summer of 2015 a surprising email arrived in the brick-fronted offices of the children’s charity Unicef in Clerkenwell, London.
It was from a director of David Beckham’s company and it was billing the charity £6,685 for a business class flight.
The fact that the global icon with a £280 million fortune would charge the charity for his travel on Unicef business was not in itself unexpected, as that was written into his contract as a goodwill ambassador.
What shocked the charity was that Beckham was not even taking the flight. The trip was to Cambodia to highlight the work done by Unicef with child victims of abuse and the ex-footballer was mixing his charity role with business while out in the Far East.
It was Unicef’s understanding that, as a result, Beckham was being flown to Cambodia on a private plane which was supporting his Far Eastern tour.
“We are understand (sic) DB was on a private jet so the Fund wouldn’t need to pay for his travel,” Chloe Edwards, Unicef’s ambassador relations manager, wrote back.
But a second director from the Beckham’s company, DB Ventures Ltd, was unrelenting. “There is an allocation in the agreement for DB travel and that is 1 x business class return for any field trips,” the director wrote. “We will always do everything we can to allocate costs away from Unicef and minimise any expenditure but I need to be able to bill what’s agreed.”
These exchanges are contained in leaked documents seen by media from the network European Investigative Collaborations, which raise serious questions about how the charity was being used to maximise the profits of ‘Brand Beckham’, the highly successful business which made around £45m in 2015.
The leaks from 2015 show clearly that Beckham has a mixed attitude towards the charity. He was prepared to give up his time to be photographed with children in peril around the world - thereby raising his profile and awareness of the charity’s work. But at that time, it appears he was not willing to dip into his own personal fortune to give the charity any money.
However, his chief lieutenants reveal in the leaks how his charity role was vital to the Beckham brand because it creates a “halo effect of the positive PR coverage”. This, according to a second key member of his staff “will generate huge income in a business that already has an unbelievably amount of success and a enormous financial profit”.
The emails have emerged from the Football Leaks database containing 18.6 million documents, which was originally handed to the German magazine Der Spiegel. They passed it on media partners in the European Investigative Collaborations in what has been called the largest leaks in sports history.
‘Brand Beckham’ is a brilliant money-making creation. The leaked emails show how the brand is managed and maintained with great skill by two key people in Beckham’s life: Simon Oliveira and David Gardner.
Oliveira is the managing director of Doyen Global, a sports and entertainment agency, is a clever public relations executive who manages the star’s “communications, reputational and philanthropic strategy”.
David Gardner is a friend he has known since his days in the Manchester United youth team. Nicknamed Dava in the emails, he formerly ran a football agency with Sir Alex Ferguson’s son Jason and is married to Hollywood actress Liv Tyler.
The emails suggest that, at times, Beckham is a puppet for the sake of the brand although sometimes he battles to regain control. An example is an email conversation between Beckham and Oliveira in May last year on the seemingly mundane matter of his Instagram account. “I’d like to also be able to be in control of pics that go up and also the way some of its written … I’d like to be able to post,” Beckham wrote.
This prompted a tetchy aside from Oliveira to Gardner. “This is when things go to pot,” snapped Oliveira. “Celebs think they know best but because they don’t live in the real world like you and I make mistakes.”
It had followed a similar incident the day before when Beckham had been delighted to receive a new Mac lap-top in ostentatious gold. “First one in the world… Great present,” Beckham wrote to Oliveira enclosing a photo of himself with the computer. Oliveira was not impressed.
“Nice will keep that one of (sic) social media as then the idiots will they say we’re being showy like Lewis Hamilton private planes etc. You and vb [his wife Victoria] need to be careful about that one as you've always handled that well. You’re the man of the people,” he wrote.
'Man of the people' is one of the core features of the projected Beckham public persona which Oliveira manages so well. It is an image that has attracted countless millions of pounds in commercial sponsorship deals and given Beckham and his wife Victoria’s a personal fortune which almost matches the wealth of the queen, according to The Sunday Times Rich List.
He is the shy and self-effacing boy-next-door who loves his family and is still in touch with his working class roots - and happens to be the ex-England football captain who still looks hot in his underpants. His advisers have skilfully built on these attributes to turn the formerly floppy-haired footballer into one of the most recognisable people in the world.
Beckham earns more in retirement then he did as a player, but he needs continued exposure to keep the brand going. This is perhaps why his advisers saw his role as a Unicef goodwill ambassador as so important.
Gardner had introduced Beckham to Unicef in 2005 while he was still a player. He quit football in 2013 - and later in 2015 he declared that he was going to make a charity fund for UNICEF his “number one priority”
Beckham even stated that his role for charity was not to improve his image - in an interview for BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs, where celebrities choose the pieces of music that mean most to their lives.
“It’s not for vanity,” he said of his work for Unicef.
He recalled going to Thailand for the first time with Manchester United, being invited to a women’s centre and immediately wanting to learn more.
He remembered thinking: “I want to get involved, it’s important that I do this.”
However, the leaked emails show that Beckham did not act like a puppet for his advisers when it came to the charity work. He would often be stubborn about how much time he would devote to Unicef and was determined not to pay his own money to the charity.
In February 2014, he emailed his right-hand man Gardner to say he’d been contacted by one of his directors at DB Ventures who was unhappy that the company was contributing towards his Unicef trip the following week. Beckham was visiting the Philippines to meet children affected by Typhoon Haiyan.
Beckham wrote:“I totally agree to be honest there’s no way it should be costing me anything”.
Gardner agreed to let the charity know but he wasn’t entirely in line with his friend on the issue, which became clear in a highly revealing email two days later. Gardner was concerned that Beckham’s company had not appreciated the wider commercial value of the charity role to the brand.
“UNICEF is crucial to the brand and his life,” Gardner wrote to Oliveira. “All me and you have tried to do is … create things that he must do for charity so he looks good and people see the great work instead of people constantly reading how much money he makes or what the brand is worth.
He added: “The charity work is crucial and nobody seems to realise how important this is as a part of the DB Business.”
In 2015, Beckham made a big charity announcement to celebrate ten years as a goodwill ambassador to Unicef. He was creating the 7 Fund in a joint venture with Unicef to raise money in seven regions across the world to help children in danger from violence abuse or disease.
In a video produced for the Fund, Beckham talks movingly about his charity work. “We are helping millions of children around the world by stepping up to the plate and putting this fund together,” he said.
The implication was that Beckham was going to personally donate to his new fund, and certainly Unicef and Beckham’s own advisers thought so. Among the leak documents is a sheet of answers to possible questions which were prepared in advance for Beckham ahead of the press conference to launch the fund in February 2015. It specifically says he should answer “yes I am going to personally contribute to the fund” if asked whether he was going to donate.
This, however, was to become a running sore through most of 2015. Beckham may have been happy to take the advice of his advisers on most subjects, but during this time, when it came paying out his own money, he put his foot down.
In May 2015 Oliveira informed Beckham that Unicef were under the impression he would match the highest donation pledge at a Unicef charity event in New York in May 2015: “Great thing to do,” Oliveira wrote, “but as always I wanted to check.”
Beckham didn’t agree. He had already had a conversation about the subject with Chloe Edwards, the ambassador relations manager at Unicef. He wrote back: “Chloe asked me out right which I was pissed off about … I don’t want to do it and won’t do it with my own money.”
The issue was clearly worrying Unicef, and they sought reassurance. In June Edwards emailed Oliveira asking him to send an email by return to “allay fears” about when the money would arrive so the charity could “commit resource and commit funds to literally pack aid boxes”. She added “we have no extra funds to draw on if they are delayed and the countries are expecting the funds.”
Her suggested text for Oliveira started with “I understand there has been considerable anxiety about when David’s personal donations will arrive at Unicef UK”. Oliveira struck out “considerable” and replaced it with “some” then sent back the email copying in Unicef’s director of fundraising Catherine Cottrell.
The PR executive promised the money in the Autumn and wrote that this “should be close to $1.5m money he kindly wants to give the proceeds to the Fund.”
The Unicef director wrote back to ask for a firm date “as this work with children is so pressing”. She added: “We need to make sure they can plan accordingly and are ready to receive the funds they so desperately need. This also mitigates the risk of the DB7 Fund being perceived as not delivering the ambitious targets it set out at the launch.”
At the same time, another set of emails were being exchanged between team Beckham and Unicef. Beckham had agreed to visit Cambodia in mid June 2015 on behalf of the 7 Fund to meet children who had suffered physical and mental abuse. But there were problems.
He was combining the trip to the Far East with work for his sponsors, the Sands Hotel group (where he has been an ‘ambassador’) and the Diageo drinks company, and his private air travel had been provided for.
However, out of the blue, the charity received a message from Helen Wooldridge, a director at DB Ventures. It said: “I also understand that you guys pay for a business class fare for DB – as per the contract,” wrote Wooldridge, “The cost of this comes in at £6685.00 – how should we bill this back?”
A colleague at DB Ventures pushed further for the payment they were worried about the expenses of the footballer’s entourage for the trip to the Far East which was costing more than they thought, it appears.
The charity took the issue up with Oliveira: “We understood that DB is generously utilising the private jet that is supporting his Asian tour to drop him off and pick him up in Cambodia and that we wouldn’t be paying for flights,” wrote Edwards. “We are obliged to share the Fund’s income and costs and I was concerned that we were being asked to pay for the cost of his business class flight when he’s not taking one.”
The email chain peters out at that point and the matter was clearly discussed further over the phone.
Last week Unicef, in a written statetment, informed us that the 7 Fund has raised “millions of pounds and reached millions of people around the world with crucial messages about UNICEF’s work for very vulnerable children.”
It states that, as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, “David has also helped shine a light on urgent and often hidden issues affecting children including malnutrition, emergencies, violence against children and AIDS.”
But there were other issues with this trip. Unicef had booked Beckham into a five-star Sofitel Hotel in Cambodia, but the football icon wanted to stay in the even more luxurious Amansara resort. One of the directors of his company wrote to the charity asking whether it was okay to switch hotels.
But the multi-millionaire’s staff still wanted the charity to pay its portion of the bill. “Would UNICEF contribute the same amount that was being paid for the Sofitel and he’ll make up the difference in price for the place he wants to stay,” asked the director.
Beckham’s staff had also been worried that he would only want to stay one night. At the time this was an issue as Beckham was refusing to sign a new contract which would tie him down to a certain number of Unicef days a year.
The simmering tensions about Beckham’s commitment to his charity were beginning to boil over back in London. “He has just signed to arguably the most biggest charitable partnership any celebrity has ever done,” Oliveira wrote to a director of Beckham’s company. “He had visited none of his projects yet and we are not placing the most challenging demands on his schedule.
“We need to ensure he shows dedication and concern. If he's scooting off after one day in the field on his private jet to his six star hotel curtailing his time on the ground then it doesn't look great.”
But by August 2015 - six months after the launch of the 7 Fund - Beckham still had not paid any of his own money to the charity. Oliveira emailed Beckham to say: “As you know we are under enormous pressure to deliver income into your Fund. As is understandable you don’t want to put your own money but then it places a greater emphasis on delivering some money before the end of this year.”
Later that month he emailed again to suggest ways of raising the cash. He wrote: “As you know we need to address urgently the need to bring income into the 7 Fund … Many of the projects are desperate for the first round of money and to be honest UNICEF are being patient in not pushing too much.”
He urged Beckham to consider two fee-paying appearances to cover the shortfall. The first was a personal appearance at the African Games the following month, in which he would be paid one million dollars to open a stadium and attend a dinner. The second was an awards evening in Shanghai which was also offering a million for a few hours work. Beckham’s rejection of the two offers was brief. “Let’s think about this as neither sound great.”
Clearly frustrated, Oliveira pointed out that it was expected that ambassadors to Unicef “would put in a kick start amount of money from their own earnings”. He continued: “It just wouldn’t reflect well on you that you have kicked off this incredible fund that is unique and original and that nothing has come from you personally in the first year. We are your mates and will always be honest with you..”
But Beckham stood his ground. His argument was that his role was “about me using my power” to raise money. He added “This needs to be about … not me travelling and adding to my travel which I'm doing enough of already, it all has to fit into what we are already doing…”
The leaked email trail stops at the beginning of the year the latest records filed with the Charity Commission show that the 7 Fund has so far raised a total of two million pounds.
But there was one last long email in November 2015 which showed how Gardner - the man who had set up Beckham’s link to Unicef - saw the charity role. Beckham was central to a project which would be shown that Christmas in which he played seven football games in seven continents to raise money for his fund.
Gardner had been queried from the accountants over a dinner bill. He wrote: “It’s madness how we receive these mails when we are absolutely working ourselves for the benefit of the brand.
“This whole trip will not change my life or anyone else involved except the brands and DB which is a huge part of the business and will generate more and more commercial partners, income and commercial deals. It is crazy how we have these mails and it’s really upsetting when the only people who benefit are the brand and BVL.
“I really don't understand after flying to 6 countries in 5 days for a BBC documentary that will go on air on Boxing day at 8:30pm and will be seen by millions and millions of people which will benefit DB and the DVBL brand business which will generate huge income in a business that already has a unbelievably amount of success and a enormous financial profit.”
In reply to this information, lawyers have told us that Beckham has to date donated over one million pounds to Unicef, and paid all the costs incurred related to the flights and hotel accommodation mentioned.
The donations happened many months before the end of last year, 2016, and payments will happen in the future.
Meanwhile, Unicef issued a statement declaring: “As well as generously giving his time, energy and support to help raise awareness and funds for UNICEF’s work for children, David Beckham has and is continuing to give significant funds personally to 7 Fund. As with all our donors who give, these details are confidential.
“All our Ambassadors support UNICEF in a voluntary capacity, receiving no fee for their time and commitment, and contribute greatly to UNICEF’s work for children in danger around the world.”