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An unsporting election that’s full of own goals

After an election campaign full of sporting metaphors, NORMAN GILLER looks back on some broadcast bloomers, and offers his manifesto for sport

How many sports journos would give their right elbow to be a political scribe as the General Election gallops towards us? It’s like watching a fiercely fought football match, with over-the-top tackles, squabbles and scrambles and stupefying own goals.

Our beleagured/beloved (delete as applicable) Prime Minister Gordon Brown was first to start with the football metaphors, likening the economy to Wayne Rooney’s ankle injury.

I thought that was a case of him putting Rooney’s foot in his mouth, but then he surpassed himself with a real beauty of an own goal earlier this week when ” forgetting his microphone was still switched on ” he described widowed Rochdale grandmother Gillian Duffy as a bigot.

This was the political equivalent of Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear or Tiger Woods losing his balls. Self-destruction on a grand scale.

I was watching it “live” on Sky News and my natural news instincts were instantly on high alert. I could almost see the press and media pack doing handsprings as they followed the PM through the maze of his own making.

Their reporting of the election build-up has been hijacked by the presidential-style televised debates, and they were becoming puppets of the spin surgeons. But at last they had something to get their teeth into; the equivalent of football reporters catching a manager with his pants down (those were the days, eh, Paddy?).

Having worked for many years in the TV world, I know it’s commonplace for people forgetting they are still mic-ed up after the cameras stop rolling. Even the most experienced broadcasters can overlook it.

I once worked on a This Is Your Life show when Eamonn Andrews ” who spent a lifetime in the broadcasting business ” forgot his microphone was switched on, and said in what he thought was the privacy of his dressing-room: “He must have been the most boring and arrogant subject we’ve ever had on the show.”

This went out live to the studio floor, where the “boring, arrogant” subject was standing with friends and relatives, holding the Red Book that Eamonn had handed him five minutes earlier.

More recently, Ron Atkinson took a knife to his TV career when he said, thinking his mic was switched off, of Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly: “He’s what’s known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger.” Totally unacceptable, as well as entirely wrong. Atkinson was forced to quit the ITV commentary team and surrendered his job as a columnist with The Guardian. He has barely been seen in the media since.

Former Australian Test cricketer Dean Jones was also shown the door after saying in the television commentary box when he thought the microphone was off: “The terrorist has got another wicket.” This was a reference to Hashim Amla, the first player of Muslim descent to play Test cricket for South Africa.

But we can all be guilty of making the sort of broadcasting schoolboy error that Mr Broon committed this week. When I worked on This Is Your Life, it was the custom for the scriptwriter to sit in for the subject at the rehearsals. I wrote the script for Jimmy Hill’s red book tribute from Michael Aspel, and took his place in the chair for the dummy runs.

The show’s fairly new producer watched me as Jim being reunited with the Boys’ Brigade band that he had played with 50-plus years earlier. The producer sent down the message: “We will have those old gits sitting down at the top of the show, and just make brief reference to them.”

At the end of the rehearsal, I headed up in the lift with the researcher to the control room, telling her just what I thought of the Producer and his idea. “The whole point of the show is reunions,” I said, andI called him several names including the shortened version of Berkshire hunt.

I was wearing a lapel microphone the whole time and every word was heard in the control room by the producer. For some reason, he never booked me again.

IT WAS probably a good job that the SJA organised a special debate for the various parties’ sports spokesmen (without threat of injunctions from the Scots Nats), since sport has not been high on the agenda of any of the leaders. You don’t have to be Hermes – the Greek god of accountants ” to know sport can only suffer because of a national debt that is going to be as crippling as a Vinnie Jones kick in the crotch.

The first decade of the New Millennium brought something of a gold rush to the funding for British sport. More than £2 billion has poured into the pockets and purses of British Olympic hopefuls and to school and grassroots sports. The returns have been impressive (apart from in tennis), including 39 gold medals from the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Games.

But I’m afraid to have to announce that the party’s over. We will be going back to a cap in hand, begging-bowl approach to sport. You will not get any of the politicians to admit it, but sport is certain to be a victim of the coming cutbacks ” regardless of who gets the key to No10.

They all talk a good game: Brown can tell you the history of Raith Rovers, Cameron can jog most of us into the ground and Clegg likes to hike, but none of them love sport enough to put it in their top 20 list of priorities.

Could you put up an argument to persuade them that sport is as important as health, education, defence and the other areas where the axe could fall?

The next Government inherits the greatest sporting occasion we have ever put on in Britain ” the 2012 Olympics ” and England is still mounting in a splintered, spluttering way, a bid to host the 2018 World Cup finals. The politicians will offer half-hearted support but grab many of the best seats in the house for the top events.

The runners in the three-horse race have included lukewarm sporting pledges in their manifestos.

Labour boasts that it will create a “golden legacy for future generations” off the expected success of the Olympics. They want to encourage football fans to buy stakes in their clubs, and there is nothing even between the lines to suggest they will make savage cuts. But they will, you can bet on it.

The Conservatives are trumpeting a reform of the way the National Lottery works, reducing the number of funds it runs from five to four. They claim that will guarantee a 4 per cent increase in the money sport receives. I’ll believe it when I see it: what they do not mention are the inevitable cuts in direct funding sporting bodies receive from the Exchequer.

You need a magnifying glass to find any mention of sport in the Lib-Dem manifesto. They talk in a woolly way of lifting money lying in dormant betting accounts and handing it over to the sports bodies. That has given every bookmaker early warning not to have dormant accounts.

Here’s the Giller sporting manifesto (speaking from the experience of living through the terms of 12 Prime Ministers, one Coalition and one Lib-Lab Government, one King, one Queen): If I won your X Factor, I would buy all the grassland that schools have sold off and turn it back into sportsfields.

Then I would demand that every school curriculum included a minimum one hour a day of active sport for every pupil. That’s real time spent doing sport, and not changing or travel time. And if that means extending the length of the average school day by 30 minutes, then so be it. The long-term effect on the health of our youthful population would help take the strain off the hospitals, because there would be fewer problems with obesity and heart disease.

The chances of it happening? I would put it on a par with the Archbishop of Canterbury becoming the next Pope.

I don’t think I’d dare say that with my mic switched on.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.


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