I first met Hugh Porter in Midlands press boxes in the early 1980s when he was covering football for BBC local radio. He was always agreeable company, ready to help anyone who needed it, courteous and self-effacing, writes Anton Rippon.
So when I read that the 73-year-old Porter had become the latest victim of what appears to be the BBC’s purge of old men (and women), my first thought was that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer man – and that is in the genuine sense of the remark with no sense of irony or sarcasm.
After 30 years as the BBC’s “voice of cycling”, Porter is to be replaced by Radio 5 Live’s Simon Brotherton, who, by coincidence, is 30 years the junior of the man he replaces. Brotherton – and it isn’t his fault – now finds his accession overshadowed by the public response to the Porter decision.
The problem, though, doesn’t seem to be simply that Porter will be genuinely missed – and, of course, he will – but the manner in which the Beeb tried to wriggle out of the charge that they had sacked him.
To announce that he had “retired” and “moved on to pastures new” was disingenuous to say the least.
Porter had been looking forward to working at last month’s track cycling world championships in Minsk, not to mention next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and, if his health held – and he has no reason to believe it wouldn’t – even the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Instead, he was sat down and told that it was time to make way for a younger man.
According to Jonathan Liew in the Daily Telegraph, one viewer who contacted the BBC complaints department to raise the matter was given the wholly misleading explanation that Porter had retired. The BBC had to apologise.
But what of Porter’s own reaction? “It did come as a shock,” he told his hometown newspaper, the Wolverhampton Express and Star.
The husband of long-time SJA member Anita Lonsbrough and a former world cycling champion himself – Porter and Lonsbrough met when both on the British Olympic team – and with a Wolverhampton street named after him, Porter told the paper: “I’m certainly not ready to give it up yet. I’m not naive, I know that things change, of course they do, but it would have been nice to have bowed out with the BBC on agreed terms.
“No-one can go on for ever, of course they can’t. But I still feel that I’ve got a lot to offer. This is my sport and no one is more passionate about it.”
Porter has been asked if he will be available for the BBC’s coverage of the speed skating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Of course, he will be. And we may well hear that unmistakable Black Country growl during ITV4’s coverage of the Tour of Britain this September.
But it appears that, on the BBC at least, we shan’t be treated to any more Porter gems like Sir Chris Hoy “igniting the burners” on the home straight.
This isn’t the first time that the BBC has found itself in a row over its coverage of cycling. Commentary of the men’s road race at the 2012 Olympics descended into a shambles when the team of Porter, Chris Boardman, Jill Douglas, Ed Leigh, and Jamie Staff repeatedly made mistakes as the Games communications system broke down, preventing any timing details getting back to the broadcasters.
On that occasion, Olympic officials said that spectators using Twitter – 1 million turned out to watch one of the few unticketed events in the Games – had jammed the network used to provide race timing and positional updates to broadcasters from the athletes’ bikes.
Now cycling fans are taking to Twitter to protest at the sacking of their favourite commentator.
Liew writes: “A part of cycling history has been wrenched away, and the very least the BBC owes is a justification.”
Don’t hold your breath.