Wireless: Curmudgeons of the World Unite

BBC Radio 5 Live's commentators aren't afraid to tell the truth about how tedious sport can be

Nick Cohen

On Good Friday 1930, the journalists on BBC radio news did not know what to put in the evening bulletin. The country was on holiday. The world economy appeared to be recovering after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Few guessed that the revival was a suckers’ rally that heralded a global depression. Europe was quiet — Adolf Hitler was still an obscure opposition politician — and although Britain ruled a great empire, nothing much seemed to be happening there either. Stumped by a slow news day, the BBC delivered the most honest broadcast in the history of journalism. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight,” proclaimed the announcer. “So here is some music.”

Deceit in the modern Radio 4 — and in the rest of the media — does not always lie in journalists’ biases. The pretence that there is always news worth reporting can be equally deceptive. Whatever has happened — or rather, whatever has not happened — the Today programme must always run for three hours, the news pages of the press must always be filled and, like Old Man River, the rolling news channels must keep on rolling along. The result is media without discrimination in which a parochial argument about the allocation of resources in the NHS on one day is put on a par with the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Haiti the next. 

Broadcasters deliver every lead story at the same tempo and pitch. However bold they are, you will never hear John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman admit, “We’re leading with this piece because we haven’t got anything better to air. On normal days, we would never have bothered you with such a trivial item. Even if the supposed scandal we are presenting to you were truly a scandal, and believe me it isn’t, nothing could be done about it because any conceivable cure would only make matters worse.”

The first rule of broadcasting is never to tell members of the public they are wasting their time listening to you. It applies everywhere except on the football commentaries of BBC Radio 5 Live, which you should listen to even if you hate football, because in 90-minute doses you can enjoy journalism in its purest and most suicidally candid form. If a game is boring, 5 Live’s presenters say so. If overpaid players fail, they denounce them. If everyone from the spectators who have paid inflated prices for tickets to the 5 Live audience is wasting their time, they will point that out repeatedly and at length.

Journalists who write about 5 Live always concentrate on the awesome misanthropy of its star commentator, Alan Green. He is indeed a titanic grump, a curmudgeon on a Himalayan scale. He must use “terrible”, “diabolical”, “abysmal” and “I can’t believe it” more often than any other speaker of the English language. “Oh, there’s someone yawning in the crowd,” Green declared during last year’s FA Cup semi-final. “What a surprise. How long have we got to go in this?” His condemnation would have been more understandable if the game was almost over. In fact, it had just started.

Green’s Ulster cussedness, his towering self-regard and his indifference to the opinions of the former players and managers with him in the commentary box, who are clearly unqualified to pass judgment because they have been involved in the game only at the highest level, make him an irresistible target for the affection of many, your correspondent included, and the enmity of others. But the attention Green receives hides the fact that in their quieter way, 5 Live’s other commentators are no different. Mike Ingham and John Murray will tell you if a game is awful, while Gabriele Marcotti is the finest sports analyst on radio because he never panders to his listeners but argues with them incessantly.

A neat explanation for 5 Live’s uniqueness is that loyalty to your team and its players is like loyalty to your family. You may curse them and denounce them, they may exasperate you beyond measure, but you will abandon them only in exceptional circumstances. 5 Live certainly feels like an old-fashioned family. Although fans phone in straight after matches in states of high excitement or furious disappointment, I have never once heard anyone swear. I am sure the BBC vets them before they come on air, but given the numbers who pile in with usually ferocious opinions, pre-broadcast censorship cannot be much of a protection. Rather, the fans protect the BBC by instinctively and touchingly upholding the traditional working-class rule that industrial language should not be used in mixed company.

Yet the special loyalties football generates are not a complete explanation. Sky Sports televises the same matches 5 Live puts on the radio but the commentaries could not be more different. Where 5 Live is critical, Sky is gushing because it has paid £1.3 billion for the rights to broadcast Premier League matches between 2010 and 2013, and thus has a strong financial incentive to pretend that every Sunday is “Super Sunday” and to seek spurious excitement in a 0-0 draw between Bolton Wanderers and Burnley on a wet February night. The BBC paid a mere £43 million for the radio rights to the same matches. It can relax and talk to its audience without resorting to hype or illusion. Or at least it used to be able to relax. The most depressing news from the latest round of bidding was that the BBC had lost the right to broadcast a third of its live Premier League radio commentaries — 64 games — to its commercial rivals TalkSport and Absolute Radio. Whenever I listen to TalkSport, and I try to avoid it, I get the impression from its phone-ins that it is the BNP’s favourite station — indeed one member of staff was fired after he was found on a BNP membership list. It broadcasts George Galloway, who saluted Saddam Hussein for his “courage, strength and indefatigability” after he had slaughtered the Kurds in the penultimate genocide of the 20th century. Its tone is consistently yobbish and mean.

If 5 Live ran a pub in your street, you would pop in for a drink and a chat, and have no worries about taking your family with you. If TalkSport took over the licence, you would move house to get away from it. 5 Live’s quixotic blend of bluntness and civility ought to be encouraged. Instead, it is being cut back and snuffed out.

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