Clare Balding, a three-day non-event and the perils of Twitter

By Steven Downes

It had all started so innocently on a slightly hung-over Sunday morning.

Balding: top broadcaster

The day before had been odd, virtually a sporting Gobi Desert of a Saturday afternoon, without any Test cricket, or Premiership or Championship football, or much else in terms of domestic live sport on terrestrial TV.

Having spotted the Tweets of Clare Balding, the BBC sports broadcaster, for the previous couple of days from Burghley, I’d expected that the spectacle of the cross-country element might be on the telly, just as it had been for decades past on Grandstand. But no…

In case you had not noticed, one of the things we’ve introduced with the recent upgrading of this website has been a dedicated Twitter feed, @SportSJA, principally to spread links to the site’s content. It seems to be working, with 200 “followers” already, including the aforementioned @clarebalding1.

But Twitter is different things to different people – as Kevin Pietersen, Darren Bent and several other sporting figures have discovered to their embarrassment in the past, and as we have reported on occasion. It can be redolent with misunderstandings and confusion.

So maybe I should have known better.

While doing a bit of online housekeeping around this and other websites on Sunday morning, and noticing that Balding was Tweeting live from the veterinary check ahead of today’s show jumping at Burghley, I opted to send a brief, innocent question:

@clarebalding1 Why no Burghley on the Beeb yesterday, Clare?

Good as gold, a response came back:

@SportSJA its on today. We stopped doing X country live because of the falls and hold ups. It’s too unpredictable time wise.

Now, in a number of respects, this seemed odd, as well as a bit of a shame.

But in the context of the past week’s front-page stories of sport, in general, being far too predictable, at least for those in the know, a quick response – a re-Tweet, or RT – went back, within Twitter’s 140-character constraint.

In attempting to convey the sense of Balding’s original comment and add a (very) brief comment of our own, this then went out:

RT @clarebalding1:We stopped doing X country live because of hold ups. It’s too unpredictable . << Sport unpredictable? That’s a novelty

At which point, all hell broke lose.

Now Balding, a former SJA member and even a committee member for a brief spell, has a bit of form in this respect.

Long before she wrote to the Press Complaints Commission about an AA Gill review of one of her latest TV ventures (and the response she got from the Sunday Times‘s editor, Jonathan Witherow), she had fired off a demand to the SJA chairman earlier this year insisting that we remove from this website a television review of the BBC’s Vancouver Winter Olympics coverage which was critical of their somewhat clumsy presentation of the death of the Georgian luger. Suffice to say, the review was not removed.

Today, according to Balding, we were misrepresenting her terribly because we had abbreviated her original Twitter comment.

@SportSJA and as journalists you should know not to half-quote. Unpredictable time wise. It’s rather an important qualification.

Well, actually, no it isn’t.

It does not take an Einstein-like brain to work out that most events happen in a “time wise” dimension. You might also think that by repeating the phrase “hold ups”, meaning delays, in our RT, it implies a sense that time might be involved.

And given that it is the nature of Twitter that a person’s Tweets are there for all to see (unless the Tweeter at some point goes back to massage their history by deleting their comments), Balding’s full previous Tweet was in any caseĀ  still there, on both her own and the @SportSJA feed.

So there was never any question of anyone distorting what Balding had said, since her full comments were already in the public domain, something those familiar with using Twitter understand and work with. Balding, it should be noted, only joined Twitter relatively recently, at the time of the AA Gill row.

But all this seemed to escape our Clare, for whom any comment about her appears to be a terrible sleight on her reputation. To her, this appeared to seem to be a matter of journalistic integrity, when it was nothing of the sort, except a brief online conversation.

I responded: @clarebalding1 In 140 characters Clare? Feel free to sub it down some other way… The links provide previous Tweets in full.

Her next comment was:

@SportSJA and I would suggest you immediately make that clarification. In the mean time, you are blocked.

Blocked? This all seemed a massive over-reaction by Balding (who had opted to follow @SportSJA in the first place, just as she had opted to join the SJA’s Facebook group).

But she ploughed on… After I had described her block as “pathetic”, she said:

@SportSJA more pathetic is the association of sports journalists deliberately misquoting for sensational effect. What are you up to?

@clarebalding1 That is just untrue. You do seem v touchy, and a little naive about how Twitter works. Selective quoting is not an issue…

The 140 characters thing is just too confining that this comment spilled over into another:

@clarebalding1 … since your quotes are there in full for all to see.

This was all happening at speed, and with several Balding fans piping in with their own version and interpretations of what had started out as a straightforward question and comment on the answer.

Balding, though, was warming to her theme – presumably while being paid for working at Burghley.

@SportSJA I apologise for being naive enough to think that association representing sports journalists should be accurate in its reporting.

The thing is, this never had anything to do with “reporting”. It was just an online conversation (well, until now, I suppose).

In an effort at conciliation:

@clarebalding1 Are we unblocked now? We – I – wasn’t reporting anything, but in open Twitter conversation. Sense of perspective required.

@clarebalding1 I apologise. No offence was intended. Was genuinely interested/disappointed at lack of live Burghley coverage.

Which is true.

@SportSJA fair enough. But the reason I was so ‘touchy’ was that you RT that to your journalists and I get reported wrongly and lose my job

(Just love the idea that the people who follow @SportSJA are “my” journalists).

So I have volunteered to speak on Clare’s behalf if she ever gets hauled before the Director General over this.

Of course, this may all get picked up by someone like Charlie Sale. If they do, they may note Balding’s apparent insecurity, which seems most odd given that she is widely rated as one of the BBC’s better presenters (she was voted by SJA members as the runner-up for the SJA Broadcaster of the Year in 2009).

In any case, when was the last time a leading BBC Sport presenter got canned for poor performance or an indiscretion about the Corporation’s broadcasting plans?

One thing that Balding did reveal was that, while Badminton – the springtime three-day event – does get broadcast live by the BBC, that is because it is put together by a different independent production company to the one that the BBC uses for Burghley.

It is surely a sad day that the BBC apparently shies away from broadcasting live anything as “unpredictable” as sport.

Steven Downes is the honorary secretary of the SJA. This is a personal commentary and in no way reflects the position or policy of the SJA