Sports coverage, Pravda and the need for a view

From John Inverdale, Daily Telegraph
A lot of radio in this country has an anaesthetising effect, and sadly, so does a lot of sports television, reluctant to offer opinions that might challenge individuals, teams or governing bodies.

It’s the nature of our media to analyse, dissect and then pass judgement. The key element for you, the consumer, in how you respond, is whether you have faith in the individual who is writing it.

So what of sport? In the light of the Football Association’s supposed unhappiness at the way the BBC’s Match of the Day team covered England internationals and the role that played in the new contract passing to ITV and Setanta, are they now so insecure, and also getting ideas so far above their station, that they believe themselves exempt from the rules that apply to coverage of all other aspects of public life?

A regular occurrence throughout any football season is the announcement, usually by clubs in the lower leagues, that they have banned the local reporter from their ground because of the negative publicity they have been receiving. While newspapers, together with local radio stations, are the lifeblood of communication between team and fans, the surest sign that any football club have lost the plot, never mind a few games, is when they want Pravda-esque reporting of their exploits on and off the field.

Television is different. More aloof. The power of the medium ensures that it’s not subject to those same, sometimes petty, rules of obligation. Which is not to say that it can be reckless and irresponsible in the pursuit of ratings. It is, however, part of the entertainment industry, and the off-switch is a constant threat to the bland. On the other hand, being controversial for the sake of being controversial can be blander than bland. So it’s about getting the balance right, and it’s about the viewer having faith in the individuals who voice the opinions. That is not the same as agreeing with them – it’s about accepting their credibility and the motives behind them.

Do you want Jeremy Guscott to shy away from describing the England rugby performance against Wales as “inept and woeful?” Do you want the Sky cricket team to call the Ashes debacle “unfortunate” instead of “humiliating”? Members of the Radio 5 Live golf team regularly opine that the sport is still far too stuffy, especially in its approach to women and children.

In all these instances, do the Rugby Football Union, the England and Wales Cricket Board and the Royal and Ancient immediately lunge for the nearest phone and warn that the respective broadcast contracts are in the balance? Or do they have sufficient faith in their product and in those who are bringing it to the widest possible audience, to know they have to take the rough with the smooth?

Television personalities were once described as “the kind of people you invite regularly into your front room but would do anything never to meet in person”. You don’t have to like the array of pundits that are laid before you, but so long as they are honest to their sport and to the medium, they’re doing a good job.

So is this alleged FA approach a one-off, or are we witnessing the start of a trend? As sporting contracts become ever-more hotly contested, will it come down to a choice between embracing insightful and entertaining analysis, or demanding Soviet-bloc-style-TV-sport, where governing bodies threaten to take their bat, ball and wicket away if the messenger goes “off-message”. That not only demeans the sport, but the integrity of those who are presenting it.

John Inverdale is a member of the SJA and a regular compere of the SJA’s awards events. Read John Inverdale’s column in full by clicking here.