Circa 1955: A BBC television cameraman at work at the Oval cricket ground, London. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The BBC’s worst mistake

A separate channel dedicated to British sport could have saved the BBC

Five old men meet in a park during lockdown. Within a minute we are quoting the holy texts: “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey.” (Brian Johnston) “And for those of you watching in black and white the pink is next to the green.” (“Whispering” Ted Lowe) “Oh. I say – a peach of a shot!” (Dan Maskell) “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over … It is now!” (Kenneth Wolstenholme) “Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class.” (Often wrongly attributed to David Coleman, but actually Ron Pickering.)

We all know these lines; they are more familiar than those of the bible and they were spoken by BBC commentators as familiar to us as our relatives. We were and are sports fans and the wider world of sport was mediated to us through the BBC. It was all very professional, but also slightly amateurish as many of the greatest commentators were enthusiasts with no training who had stumbled into the job. Sport on the BBC as we grew up with it was rooted in the national character and formed in the era which I have characterised as the middle to late period of the dominance of the amateur-elite ethos. We were presented with sport as something morally serious but also pleasantly trivial. There was a strong element of gravitas: in cricket batsmen coming out to bat were introduced with quiet reverence. At the end of the day’s play E.W. (“Jim”) Swanton would deliver an essay summarising the significance of the day straight to camera.

Reith dictated that spectators must never be shown on screen because it would encourage showing off

Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, what Swanton named and detested as “whizz-kid marketing men” were taking over sport and selling it as something much raunchier and more vulgar. At the very beginning of televised sport, before the war, Lord Reith (then Sir John Reith) as Director-General of the BBC had issued a directive saying that on no account must spectators ever be shown on screen because that would encourage showing off. At different levels and in different ways Swanton and Reith exemplified a strain of social conservatism which determined the BBC’s approach to many things, including sport. Reith’s condemnation in the House of Lords of what he called “sponsored television” (we would call it commercial television) as the moral equivalent of “smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death” was entirely parallel to Swanton’s dismissal of those organising the playing of cricket in “pyjamas”.

I have some sympathy with the values and preferred styles of Reith and Swanton, though very little with Reith’s authoritarian instincts towards censorship. There’s something still lingers from that era: the school prize-giving feel of Sports Personality of the Year, the coverage of the Olympics and even Sue Barker’s pleasantly “Head Girl” presentations. But the more important truth is that the world has gone in an almost entirely different direction, that of the “whizz-kids” (sic) and the show-offs.

While Reithian constraints still held at the BBC, the three main American networks covering sport were treating the attractive women in the crowd as very much part of the entertainment and this practice spread across the globe. (See especially the work of almost any French or Italian cameraman.)

The BBC started its sports coverage at the height of what I have called the amateur-elite ethos and has lingered in its conservatism in respect of that ethos, and thus faced the problem that conservatives face with inexorable change. What do you do? Oppose? Absorb? Moderate?

The forces of change were only partially the victories of capitalism; the most important factor was the development of television. Every innovation, including colour, satellite, recording, multiple channels and split-screen, propelled us more rapidly into a world where “sport” meant a global elite of sportsmen and women being watched by a global audience. This had a colossal effect on the nature of a sporting career.

Sir Tom Finney (born 1922) played out his football career with one club on a wage of £20 that he augmented by working for the family plumbing firm. One of his successors (albeit briefly) on the wing for Preston North End was David Beckham (born 1975), who easily earned more in a week than Finney earned in a lifetime. I saw them both play and they were both very good, different but roughly of the same standard. My point is that it’s difficult to adapt to change on that scale.

Even so, I would have found it difficult to envisage the extent of the demise of BBC Sport in terms of how little live televised sport they now show. There was no cricket from 2005 to 2020. The live football concentrates on the FA Cup, sadly a diminished and declining stock. There is no F1 motor racing, no regular horse racing and no club rugby. Most of BBC Sport slipped away bit by bit and only during the Six Nations rugby and Wimbledon Fortnight does the corporation ever seem to be what it was, the broadcaster of the main event. Otherwise, it’s highlights and the Olympics every four years and a sort of claim to broadcasting hegemony expressed in SPOTY and A Question of Sport. But it’s a hegemony like that of the later years of the Holy Roman Empire: all history and symbolism and no substance.

Of course, as sport became the most advanced form of globalisation it was always going to be extremely difficult for any public broadcaster to compete. This became pretty obvious over forty years ago with the Packer Affair. After a brilliant Centenary Test Match in 1977 between Australia and England, the Australian media magnate Kerry Packer determined to secure the rights to televised cricket for his Nine Network, whereas the Australian Cricket Board wanted to have the game shown on the free-to-air channels of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Only when Packer had an offer turned down which was six times what the ABC were offering did he go down the more subversive route of offering individual players contracts and setting up his own “circus” of matches.

In general, a broadcaster reliant on public funding is going to be no match for one with advertising revenues and a public broadcaster hidebound by duties and procedures is going to be no match for a commercial organisation which is reasonably light on its feet.

A BBC sports channel could have succeeded given the pivotal position of British sport on the world stage

Nevertheless, I think a BBC sports channel could have succeeded given the pivotal position of British sport on the world stage and the reputation of the corporation as a model and exemplar in global television. The currently enormous commercial power of football’s Premiership could have been the BBC’s with huge benefits for both British sport and the corporation itself. Cricket could have remained as a central part of our national life rather than being marginalised as it is now. It would, of course, have required advertising. This was the unthinkable that should have been very seriously considered. It was, of course, considered by some; I have had enough contact with the BBC and its employees over a lifetime to know the matter was discussed in many a bar.

The original Reithian rejection of “sponsored” television was based on a fear of a massively extended political power of press barons – though, by his own argument, that fear is already reality once you have independent television. In any case the fear does not really apply to sports channels and having advertising on a sports channel can be easily ring-fenced; it does not mean you have to have it on all channels.

Much sport, given its natural breaks, is eminently suitable for broadcasting with advertising – though this is less true of the most popular sport, association football. There is also the question of sponsorship in our sense rather than Lord Reith’s: from the moment the BBC transmitted cricket matches in the Gillette Cup in 1963, it became increasingly difficult to show any sport without including a form of advertising.

Many public broadcasters throughout the world do carry advertising: France Télévisions does and has just scaled back attempts to restrict and regulate it further due to the financial problems arising from the pandemic. And it’s not as if the BBC does not have its own commercial activities.

The BBC should have had more emphasis on minority sport and grassroots sport

Once there were multiple television channels there was always something slightly barmy about continuing to show sport on mainstream channels. (Nice lady announcer: “For those of you looking forward to Gardeners’ World this week’s edition will be shown at a later date because of extended coverage of the cricket/tennis/golf/whatever.”) The question was raised by sceptics of how on earth you would fill the time on a sports channel in the supposedly vast gaps between sporting events. That hardly seems to be a problem for any of the multiple sports channels available on my television: old sport, repeated sport, foreign sport, minority sport, sports discussions and “magazine” programmes, sports documentaries – often more watched than political discussion programmes. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC should have had more emphasis on minority sport and grassroots sport, but also on documentaries arising out of the growing academic study of sport.

In 2012 the BBC coverage of the London Olympics was regarded as an enormous success, though the main factor in this was that British competitors were extremely successful. This revived talk of a BBC sports channel; though by then too late to challenge the global powers in the field. There is an interesting question of when the time might have been ripe for such a move? Not until at least the 1970s when the institutions of amateur-elite dominance were crumbling steadily, but it’s difficult to imagine the Labour Government of 1974-9 being sympathetic to the project. Perhaps the late Thatcher period – by which time it was clear how global sport was developing and what was needed to retain any sort of public control over it – would have been the easiest. Mrs. Thatcher’s hostility to the BBC could surely have been turned on its head and presented as the corporation being taught a commercial lesson?

I have presented this argument largely in terms of the benefits to British sport if television coverage had remained in the hands of a nationally based public broadcaster who could, at the same time, make huge sums of money on the global market. But there would also have been huge benefits to the BBC itself. I started with an account of how “Auntie” had endeared herself to my generation with sports coverage as an important part of that. It is hardly controversial to remark that I find younger people are anything but endeared: for many of them, the BBC offers little or nothing and the license fee is regarded as ridiculous. It all could have been very different.

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