Nice games, shame about the faces

The football at Euro 2012 has been a treat, but can we please send Britain’s mediocre TV pundits packing?

David Bowden

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That time of year thou mayst in me behold when sport officially takes over the television. With Euro 2012 hurtling through at breakneck pace, Wimbledon organisers looking nervously up at the looming clouds of British summer, and some other big sporting extravaganza taking place in London, there’s plenty of sport on the box this summer. If it hadn’t been for Sky winning the test match cricket rights back in 2005, terrestrial TV would have been filled with every sport under the sun.

The only people in TV land who should be taking it easier during the summer sport-out are those who write the listings; they can just write ‘OLYMPICS’ in big letters in a nice big box and disappear off down the pub. For broadcasters, however, there are considerable challenges in hosting such huge quantities of international sporting extravaganza. There are numerous nationalities coming together, both competing and watching, who have needs to be attended to and universal sporting clichés to be interpreted. There’s the difficulty of managing the exciting unpredictability of sport, where events that have been years in the planning can be scuppered by the vagaries of the weather, pitch invaders and sometimes, as with the epic 11-hour Isner-Mahut tennis match at Wimbledon in 2010, the bloody-minded intensity of the sport itself.

Moreover, with a global audience drawn in by the excitement of the event rather than love of the sport itself, there is the need for insightful presenters and commentators to engage and cohere the often complex events taking place. Former professionals who understand the mental and physical challenges of those who are competing, skilled journalists who can thoroughly understand the more arcane aspects of the sports being watched and can be prepared for a reputation to be made or lost in the blink of an eye, and presenters who can slickly manage and adapt to changing circumstances. Good punditry is part of the lifeblood of sport.

As Channel 4 discovered last year, when hapless Ortis Deley became something as a laughing stock as he stumbled through presenting the World Athletics Championship before being subbed off, this is by no means an easy task. There is a lot of sitting around in elite sport, and for those tasked with filling hours of airtime, covering it in the national media can separate the wheat from the chaff, the great from the good, the cannily experienced from the callow greenhorn.

With that in mind, the celebration of mediocrity and banality at the pinnacle of football coverage is both depressing and more serious than it seems. Watching the European Championships has thus far been a harrowing experience. And given that on a sporting level, it has been one of the most compelling tournaments for many years that is quite an achievement.

ITV, with its coverage broken up by adverts and the need to keep viewers tuned in to watch them, has never been well-loved by football fans, as indicated by the notorious failure of its Premiership coverage between 2001 and 2004. That it contrived to miss a thrilling last-minute goal by Everton in an FA Cup match a couple of years ago because it accidentally ran its adverts early has not been forgotten. The toadying insistence from its main commentator, Clive Tyldesley, that every Champions League match featuring an English team is an important national experience has long been recognised as irritating, and became almost insulting as most of the nation cheered on the German team against much-loathed Chelsea in this year’s final.

The common narrative is that the BBC can do football: away from the vulgar commercialism of ITV and Sky, it presents a dash of class and sheer love of the game. Before its 1990s renaissance, when football was considered a game for thugs and the uncultured, the BBC’s commentary roster featured the lovably nerdy John Motson, big-chinned football insider Jimmy Hill and fruity-voiced eccentric Stuart Hall alongside the more urbane Barry Davies and Des Lynam, who could also be trusted with nice people’s sports like tennis and equestrianism. As football became increasingly respectable, the Beeb mirrored the changes: soundtracking its 1998 World Cup coverage with Pavane’s Faure while giving a platform to intelligent and thoughtful pundits; meanwhile, ITV went for big names who offered little knowledge or insight into the sport (including Kevin Keegan).

Fast forward to 2012, however, and the BBC is lagging way behind. There’s a thick stench of smug complacency about the likes of Gary Lineker, Mark Lawrenson and even the once outspoken Alan Hansen. Former England captain Alan Shearer – a man whose absence of personality and insight was a national joke even during his pomp as a player – is estimated to earn £2,000 a week despite often seeming like he doesn’t even watch the matches he is assessing, let alone do any background research.

It sounds a petty complaint, but the banality of the main broadcasters’ football coverage is telling. Anyone who remembers Channel 4’s coverage of the cricket knows the value of good analysis, of having well-informed and articulate former players and journalists keen to explain the subtleties and intricacies of their sport. There is plenty of intelligent and thrilling writing about professional football in the media, even from those – such as Matthew Syed – who have no background in the sport itself.

Yet watching the likes of the BBC padding out its coverage of a much loved and discussed sport with journeymen presenters and mundane personalities is as revealing of its decline as is its slashing of the arts budget. This careless acceptance of mediocrity, along with its shockingly inaccurate Panorama exposé of Ukrainian racism, offers a stern reminder: for all of that blather about football as a new religion, a shared national experience and the rest, the people’s sport is still not of much interest to Britain’s political and media elites. Football is fine as a vehicle of social cohesion and an opportunity to grandstand moralistically on issues such as human rights and racism, but no one actually cares about this stuff, do they? For those not sensible enough to go down the pub and watch the matches with the sound off, it’s enough to leave you sick as a parrot.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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