Dear Barbara… Save us from the bland and weak

Commentary by Randall Northam

Open letter to Barbara Slater, new head of sport at the BBC

Dear Barbara,

Congratulations on becoming head of sport.

I don’t think we’ve met but I knew your Dad (Bill the ex-Wolves and England footballer) when he was at Birmingham University and I was on the Birmingham Post.

So I feel I know you and thus can appeal to you to correct all the horrible mistakes your predecessor Roger Mosey made during his years in charge.

I’m pleased they’ve chosen someone with a sporting background because it was clear that Mosey didn’t have one. Having competed in the 1976 Olympics – the same gymnastics competition as Nadia Comăneci – you know what it’s like to take part in sport at the highest level. The only sporting fact I could find linked to Mosey was that he was a Bradford City fan.

So Barbara, you might agree with me that the sight of an out of breath competitor reacting with banal answers to banal questions seconds after their event is not what we viewers want. Let the competitors warm down and gather their thoughts. I know TV is an instant medium but some pause for reflection would be a good idea.

Also, Roger Mosey appeared to be star struck. That’s the only explanation I can think of for the plethora of ex-sportsmen and women who dominate our screens. Broadcasting and journalistic talent doesn’t seem to matter, just how many medals they may have won.

One of my former colleagues, Martin Gillingham, who sometimes works for the BBC but does most of his commentary work for Eurosport, is probably the best TV commentator in athletics today. He, too, is a former elite athlete, having competed at the Olympics himself. But unlike the Edwardses and Jacksons, or the likes of Shearer or Guscott, Gillingham went out and did the hard yards, learning how to be a news-gathering journalist. I’d like to think I may have helped teach him a little. But they are skills he applies in every commentary he delivers. The same cannot be said for most of the BBC’s commentators, pundits or reporters.

In athletics, Jonathan Edwards comes across as hypocritical and quite unable to look at events from an unbiased perspective, surely the minimum you expect from a commentator or presenter. Then there’s Colin Jackson. Lovely man, hopeless on TV. He can’t finish a sentence and actually said at the indoor meeting last week, “he used the downhillness of the track…”

Perhaps you could loosen the strangehold Brendan Foster has over the BBC. I can’t understand half of what Foster mumbles – and I know I am not alone – although perhaps he realises that and that’s why he talks twice as much as he needs to.

The BBC’s swimming commentary pairing used to named Bland and Weekes. Bland and weak is a description that could be applied all too often to BBC Sport’s so-called “talent”. The infantalising of the BBC, using the likes of former Newsround presenters to front serious Olympic sport, merely patronisies and alienates the viewer.

Why not ask Richie Benaud to give a master-class to your commentators and summarisers? Now he’s retired he’s got time on his hands and he might teach them not to gabble so much. Also we don’t need to know if they are going out for a drink after the event, or hear the little in-jokes they think so funny.

Talking of Richie Benaud, please stop the new producer ruining radio’s Test Match Special. Some of the new commentators are hopeless. They are general 5Live reporters and should stay there. Stick to specialist cricket people, not necessarily ex-players, but people who know the game well.

Then there’s football. What is Alan Shearer for? He has never shown any insight when I’ve been watching. He keeps saying ”them players”. It’s “those players” and it ought to be part of a public service broadcaster’s remit to make sure that their commentators and summarisers can actually speak clearly and grammatically.

It’s one thing for someone like public school-educated Frank Lampard to say “them things” in an interview, another for someone paid for by public money.

But above all, please hire people who actually have something interesting to say. Michael Johnson on athletics is an all-too-occasional, rare pleasure. Trouble is, the ineffable Sue Barker often interrupts or giggles at just the wrong moment. And your pundits should always remember the words of Harry Evans, the former Sunday Times editor: “In journalism it is simpler to sound off than it is to find out”.

I could go on, but in the faint chance you’ve got time from sorting out the mess Roger Mosey left behind to read this, I’ll keep it brief.

Barbara, British sport needs a knowledgeable head of sport at the BBC more than ever before. I see Mosey is BBC’s director of London 2012, whatever that means. I hope it means he just decides where the cameras are going and he allows you yo choose proper commentators and summarisers.

SJA member Randall Northam is a former athletics correspondent for the Daily Express and editor and publisher of Athletics Today magazine who now runs his own sports publishing business, Sports Books. This article was first published on Northam’s own blog.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policy or position of the SJA.

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