5 Live’s cull of the cultured

There has been a revolution in the beeb’s sports coverage

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This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Peter Jones is probably not a name that means much to anybody under the age of 40. He died in 1990 after suffering a heart attack when covering the University Boat Race, and times have moved on, sweeping Jones and his old-fashioned brethren to the brink of obscurity. 

He wouldn’t fit easily into today’s diminished regimen. Sport on Two, his bailiwick, transferred to 5 Live in 1994, and the tone and vocabulary of broadcasting has altered almost beyond recognition. The sympathetic listener, who enjoys sport but who takes it with a dash of water, has been overlooked in favour of the club-shirted obsessive. Language has been flattened. Speaking poorly is thought to confer the badge of “authenticity”.

Cricket was important, but it was not the most important thing in the world

Before he became a sports reporter, Jones had taught at Bradfield College, which meant he was acquainted with a world beyond ball games. He wasn’t alone. In the golden days of Sport on Two a tour of football grounds each Saturday afternoon would acquaint listeners with comforting presences: Bill Bothwell in Liverpool, Stuart Hall in Manchester, George Bailey in the North East, Larry Canning in Birmingham, and Peter Lorenzo in London. Helping Jones with commentary duties at the main match would be Bryon Butler. These men — and it was almost exclusively a world of men — appeared to be rounded companions. Sport claimed only part of their lives.

Test Match Special, to offer the most obvious example, was guided by Brian Johnston, who had won the Military Cross, and John Arlott, a police constable in Southampton who began life at the BBC as a poetry producer. 

Cricket was important to them, but they did not pretend it was the most important thing in the world, and that knowledge enhanced their commentary. Listen to TMS these days, and you will find Isa “the giggler” Guha, trapped in the cell of assumed celebrity.

Three years ago, 5 Live waved a less than regretful farewell to its principal presenter, Mark Pougatch, and the superb racing correspondent, Cornelius Lysaght. Here were men in the prime of life, suddenly declared “surplus”, as minions clicked their heels and did what the gauleiters of diversity demanded. Pougatch had gone to Malvern, Lysaght to Eton, and that’s not what the Beeb’s merciless commissars want to hear in their brave new demotic world.

Listening to sport on 5 Live is now a chore beyond endurance. Clichés swim like salmon in Scottish streams, and Pougatch’s breezy successor, Mark “Chappers” Chapman, is not above calling guests “mate”. In Arlott’s day that would have been a sacking offence.

Pat Murphy, the Midlands all-rounder, preserves a link with the dim and distant, and two cheers for that. Otherwise, one yearns for the sonorous expertise of Ian Robertson on rugby union, Peter Bromley at the racecourse, and the measured judgment of Mike Ingham, a football man who felt no need to gild the lily.

When Jonathan Agnew, cricket correspondent for the past three decades, decides to leave the crease, bat held high, the cultural revolution will be almost complete. Maybe the larky Guhaha will be invited to strap on her pads and have a go. You don’t think it possible? Just you wait.

The summer game popped up in midwinter on Radio 4. Yorkshire’s Cricket Test, presented by Kamran Abbasi, took its cue from torrid events at Headingley, and allegations of racism by a former player, Azeem Rafiq, which have sundered the most celebrated club in English cricket. The county that gave us Wilfred Rhodes, Leonard Hutton, Fred Trueman, Geoffrey Boycott and Joe Root is mired in scandal.

It’s a complicated tale, and has not always been presented fairly by some journalists, who must know that the conventional “narrative” is not beyond scrutiny. Rafiq, who has turned on his former employer with unsettling savagery, does not make an ideal witness. His own history, which is emerging in dribs and drabs, offers a hostage to fortune he may eventually have to trade.

A better-run BBC sports unit would ensure these stories were told with such clarity

In the current climate, however, when racism is a charge that sticks irrespective of the actual events, writers who may never have set foot in Yorkshire have become experts on a subject that is more complicated than they imagine.

Abbasi made a reliable witness. A cricket-loving doctor born in Lahore, he saw prejudice at first hand when he grew up in Rotherham. Yorkshire cricket has traditionally viewed outsiders with a suspicion that has occasionally hardened into prejudice, and Abbasi did well to prosecute the case without lapsing into bitterness. He loves the game too much for petty score-settling, and was assisted ably by David Hopps, a fine writer on cricket, Yorkshire, and Yorkshire cricket.

We hear a lot about racism, often from folk who speak with forked tongue. Genuine prejudice, rooted in fear of the other, is a scourge, and in his fair-minded way, Abbasi performed a notable service.

A better-run BBC sports unit would ensure these stories were told with such clarity.

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