McIlvanney provides a degree of advice

SJA member Hugh McIlvanney, one of Britain’s greatest sports journalists, is to receive an honorary degree from Leicester’s De Montfort University next week.

The award on November 5 will be a first for McIlvanney. The Kilmarnock-born writer, who has received Britain’s two main sports writer of the year awards a total of 12 times and is the only sports writer to have been named Britain’s Journalist of the Year, never went to university and has never received a degree of any sort.

“Obviously I’m delighted to receive such an honour and I know that Thursday in November is going to be a day I’ll remember with pride and affection,” McIlvanney said. “For those of us who work in what a friend of mine calls ‘the toy department’ of newspapers, it’s satisfying to find the university casting such a kindly eye on our endeavours.”

McIlvanney, who writes the Voice of Sport column for the Sunday Times, has been working in newspapers for more than 50 years, covering the most famous, and infamous, sporting occasions of the 20th century.

One of his most rewarding experiences was covering Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman 35 years ago, when he and his friend and colleague, Ken Jones, managed to spend more than two hours in private conversation with Ali at his villa by the Zaire River only a few hours after the historic fight had finished.

McIlvanney filed news reports to tell the world about the earth-shattering events in Munich’s Olympic village in 1972 when Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian group Black September, a terrorist atrocity that ended in multiple fatalities.

He also covered numerous World Cups and became a respected acquaintance of George Best and managers Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein.

He was also the ghost writer for Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography Managing My Life and has produced collections of his own writings on football, boxing and horse racing.

In the United States, McIlvanney was the first non-American to be honoured by the Boxing Writers Association of America for excellence in boxing journalism and, this year, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York.

The honorary degree from De Montfort University is being bestowed on him by the university’s International Centre for Sport History and Culture.

Centre director Dick Holt said: “The reason we are honouring Hugh is because he has been responsible for bringing new standards of great writing on to the sports pages and has sustained that for 50 years.

“He developed a muscular, literary style of writing and produced a level of prose that was appreciated not only in Britain but in the US as well. He moved away from the quick match report and produced great, beautifully crafted sports writing, encouraging an approach that has become very much the norm for newspapers now.”

McIlvanney believes much of the difference in the way sports writers have to work is traceable to the growing problem of the lack of meaningful access to their subjects. “It is one of the changes most apparent in print journalism, and especially in relation to sport. For example, with Muhammad Ali – who, in my view, is the greatest single figure in the history of sport – I was able to get very close on an individual basis,” he explains.

“As a Sunday paper writer (The Observer in those days), I could afford the time to hang around and eavesdrop on his life and stalk him to some extent, then get in for some marvellous one-to-one sessions. He loved to talk and recognised this.

“He would say, ‘You can’t get to so and so in the itsy bitsy baseball league but you can speak to me — the greatest of all time.’

“In football, people like Ken Jones (then of the Sunday Mirror) and myself would go to the Dutch camp at the World Cup finals and find we could just walk in and get total access to them. The same was true of the England team and the German team. The Brazilian camp was more of a fortress but I had friends who got me in there, too.

“When people say nice things about the stuff I produced at World Cup finals, I own up that I couldn’t do it now because of the drastic reduction in access.

“Today, a couple of people are shoved in front of you to supply you with a few sound bites. You just don’t have genuine communication or access any more, certainly not as a standard aid to doing the job. In that respect, I have sympathy for those who do sports reporting now. The job has become more difficult.

“Because of these changes there is a tendency to have consensus sports reporting. You will find the same limited material echoing through almost all the national newspaper reports, because you have the same people put forward to speak to everyone. It seriously cuts down the scope for original interpretation and original writing.”

McIlvanney believes his background in news reporting — he started off as a cub reporter at his local paper, the Kilmarnock Standard, before going on to the Daily Express, The Scotsman, Observer and Sunday Times – stood him in good stead.

He said: “I am not saying people cannot be successful in sports journalism without reporting news first, but I am very glad to have done my training in general news, starting on my local paper. When you are accustomed to dealing with news you are liable to have a better perspective on the world beyond the sporting arena.

“When the stadium disasters at Hillsborough or Ibrox happened, I found a background in news reporting was invaluable because I knew how to go about handling that kind of massive news story, what the essential elements of information were and how to secure them.

“In Munich in 1972 the central problem was that most of the horror occurred in the Olympic Village and the papers could not get their correspondents who would normally have covered such assignments on to the scene. It was left mainly to sports writers. Naturally, many lifelong sports writers weren’t comfortable with that. Everyone found it a struggle but if you know how to operate as a news reporter, it makes a hell of a difference to how you cope.”

So what advice would McIlvanney give to anyone starting out in the newspaper business now?

“The first thing I would say is that nobody should commit to a life in newspapers without thinking long and hard about it. I am sure a lot of people will will be inclined to go into radio and television rather than newspapers.

“It would be foolish not to be alarmed and even pessimistic about the omens in newspapers at the moment. To those who do choose to go into print journalism I would say they should recognise the need to serve an apprenticeship.

“I am not talking about anything formal but of the basic process of learning on the job. I am sure schools of journalism provide an excellent grounding but there’s no substitute for work experience and I find it hard to believe the best place to gather the most beneficial form of that experience isn’t still on local and regional papers.

“The aspiring journalist should identify people who are good at the trade and learn from them. And always, always do a lot of reading.

“In sports journalism specifically, I think it’s imperative to be very conscious of the need to keep in touch with the wider concerns of the world, with real life, if you like. Do not fall for the insularity that sometimes afflicts sports journalism.”

McIlvanney is a long-standing member of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year judging panel and chairman of the selection panel for the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.

He was made OBE in 1996 in recognition of his services to sports journalism. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society in 2004 and in 2005 he was among the first 40 journalists to be inducted into the British Newspaper Hall of Fame.

He has also recently been honoured by the Variety Club of Great Britain and the London Press Club, who presented him with the Edgar Wallace Award for Fine Writing in 2007.

Hugh McIlvanney will be made an Honorary Doctor of Arts during the degree ceremony, starting at 2.30pm on Thursday 5 November, at De Montfort Hall in Leicester.

Read originial McIlvanney here:
When Johnny Owen’s courage let him down

The Best years of our lives

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