‘A giant of sports journalism’: A tribute to Sir Michael Parkinson, former SJA President

“A master of the media arts”, Sir Michael Parkinson led the Sports Journalists’ Association as President for over a decade; upon the sad news of his death at the age of 88, former SJA chair David Walker shares his personal memories of a broadcasting titan who “deeply loved” our industry…

By David Walker, former Chair of the SJA

Sir Michael Parkinson, speaking at the 2015 SJA British Sports Journalism Awards – his last as President

Sir Michael Parkinson, who has died at the age of 88, was President of the Sports Journalists’ Association from 2004 to 2015.

David Walker, chair of the SJA from 2013 to 2016, pays his personal tribute and offers condolences on behalf of the Association…

Michael Parkinson was rightly acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest television interviewers.

His insightful questioning, and willingness to prompt rather than hog the limelight, often bringing the most candid responses from the famous, and sometimes, infamous.

A Yorkshireman proud of his Barnsley roots, Parky was also passionate in his love of jazz and sport.

It was via the latter that our paths crossed and perhaps those too young to remember need to be aware that Michael was a brilliant sports writer and delivered some trenchant and thought-provoking columns for a number of titles including the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph.

Sir Michael meets the Princess Royal, alongside David Welch (c), at the SJA’s British Sports Awards in 2009

Before heading into television, Michael had launched his embryonic career covering low-key sporting events for the Barnsley Chronicle.

One of his most recent public appearances was with his lifelong friends Dickie Bird and Geoff Boycott back at Barnsley CC. The Telegraph set up the interview and Parky carried the three-man debate with his still sharp insight and often humorous recollections of their happy days together.

Michael may have become a TV superstar but his greatest boyhood ambition had been to play cricket for Yorkshire – and perhaps later England.

But life in the media proved Parkinson’s perfect calling – and when he turned to the written word, he was masterful. He had the precious gift of creating humorous prose through the recalled blood-curdling antics of his school hero from Barnsley FC, ‘Skinner’ Normanton.

He could also write with great passion about the state of sport when he feared cheats were beginning to prosper. He steadfastly refused to bend his knee if he felt the right way of winning was being abused.

He loved stylish, sporting cavaliers of real talent to emerge triumphant. On his list of true greats, he was an advocate of George Best and Shane Warne.

David Walker

Our paths crossed when I became chairman during Michael’s reign as president of the Sports Journalists’ Association.

He was a joy to work with. Michael didn’t want to micromanage but he did want to know what was going on in an industry he loved so deeply.

In the past, when the SJA had financial worries, a judicious word from Michael had helped raise much-needed sponsorship that ensured the potential crisis was passed and the association he loved to be part of sailed through the choppy waters into a brighter future.

With our SJA hats on, we would meet in one of Michael’s favourite London restaurants where he would arrange his diary to meet a series of television production people – and me.

You never wanted to be late for Michael and I remember on one occasion timing my arrival to the second to walk across to his usual table. But before I could get to him, a red-headed lady emerged from stage right and beat me to him.

She threw her arms around him and said: “Michael, it’s wonderful to see you. I know you’ve had a tough time with your health recently but it’s lovely to see you out and about. We must have lunch.”

Michael looked a tad bewildered and nodding at me, said: “I’m sorry to move on but I have an important meeting with David, who’s here.”

Our female friend was compliant. “No problems, totally understand, let’s have lunch.”

With that she exited, Michael turned to me and said: “Have you any idea who that is?”

Actually, I did and after a quick discussion about plastic surgery and changing faces, Michael thought I might be right. But to protect the TV personality’s dignity, we won’t go there.

Having Michael as our president undoubtedly boosted the standing of our association. He had a gravitas, not just through his fame but through his considered opinions.

His ill health saw him step down as President but the terrible consequences of the Covid lockdowns in 2020 saw me contact Michael, and his television producer son Mike, to ask a favour.

It was impossible for the SJA to stage their usual British Sports Awards event in the countdown to Christmas. So we decided to create a virtual awards show, including interviews with Michael, our esteemed programme host Jim Rosenthal, and new SJA president Patrick Collins.

The show was a resounding success, not least the section where Jim – while respecting the Covid guidelines – invited Michael into his home and they discussed the greatest sportsmen and women they had seen and met during the course of their lives.

The trio were brilliant. Great communicators, relaxed in each other’s company, happy to share their personal insights.

Yet again, Michael got the SJA out of a hole – and stylishly so.

The highest personal tribute the SJA can hand out is the Doug Gardner Award for “services to sports journalism and the SJA.”

Michael was the deserved recipient in 2015. A master of the media arts. A giant of sports journalism. He will be sadly missed by everyone in our industry.

The thoughts of the SJA are with his wife Mary, son Mike, and the Parkinson family at this time.

Watch the moment Sir Michael Parkinson accepted his SJA Doug Gardner Award in 2015