Ignorance is the BBC’s bliss

The new presenters of Front Row proudly parade their contempt for the arts they are covering

Nick Cohen

If broadcasters covered sport the way they cover the arts and politics, you would hear Test Match Special stop as Geoffrey Boycott explained that mid-off “is to the left of the bowler’s run-up, assuming the the batsman is right-handed”. Gary Lineker would tell Match of the Day viewers they could be forgiven for thinking sweepers swept the pitch to keep a level playing field, but as it happens . . .

If broadcasters covered sport the way they cover the arts and politics, Sky and the BBC would tire of explanations and decide that “elitist” language must go. For was it not exclusionary to expect ordinary hard-working people to learn the difference between square leg and third man, wing-back and wide midfield? Far more inclusive to use a clock face and say Root hit the ball to two o’clock or chipped it over the fielder at five o’clock. Martina Navratilova’s producers would instruct her to explain that 15-love meant Venus Williams was 1-0 up, 40-15 was 3-1, and deuce meant the game was tied.

If broadcasters treated sport the way they treat the arts and politics, Boycott, Lineker and Navratilova would be out of work. For their insistence that viewers grasp the basics of the sport before they watch is not just elitist and exclusionary but snobbish when you think about it. By what right do they assume everyone shares their privileged background? Would it not be better if Sky and the BBC hired presenters who knew little about sport and cared less? Then Match of the Day could reach out and cover subjects that would draw in new audiences: cookery, perhaps, or computer games; so much more exciting than sticking with the same old, same old.

If broadcasters have any sense — a debatable proposition, as we shall see — they will leave sports coverage as it is. Radio 4’s Today programme and Front Row on BBC2 have both tried to reach out and the result has been grindingly dull and morally objectionable journalism.

The presenters of Front Row, the only arts magazine programme on the whole of BBC television, began their new assignments by announcing they could not be bothered with theatre. Giles Coren, a restaurant critic, says he finds plays too stressful and the seats too uncomfortable and has barely been to the theatre in years. No matter, he still got the job. Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor, rather than, oh I don’t know, its arts editor, said he was too busy with his baby to go. Poor man. But if Boycott could not attend Test matches, he would be out. The only half-qualified presenter was Nikki Bedi, who at least presented an arts programme on the BBC World Service. Unfortunately, she has produced no criticism worth remembering, and declared that she had no time for “long shows without intervals”.

I don’t know if the BBC understands the dangers of its celebration of ignorance, so let me spell them out. Once you remove the necessity for expertise, meritocracy vanishes. As so often when broadcasters say they are speaking out against the elite, they reinforce it. Presenters are chosen because they are the friend of someone with commissioning power. Women journalists suffer the most. Without the demand that they have made art or studied politics, women are judged on their appearance. Anyone watching Front Row must have noticed that Nikki Bedi is very good-looking. Rajan and Coren aren’t, but such are the patriarchal double standards of the broadcasting business.

If Today and Front Row were producing raucous, iconoclastic journalism, I wouldn’t complain. But their apparent radicalism is bound to fail. The Today programme’s editor is trying to expand her programme’s range. As a blow for diversity, she devoted the best part of three hours to covering London Fashion Week. Nothing wrong with that in theory. She might have sent reporters to investigate the sweated labour in clothing factories or the promotion of ultra-thin models. If she did not wish to be provocative, she might have asked big questions about what this year’s fashion said about society, or look at the psychology of fashion and why tastes change. As it was, the BBC gave free advertising to designers and fashion houses.

And that was to be expected. The traditional complaint about culture industry fads is that editors lose their existing audience while failing to find a new one. It’s usually true but misses the profound conservatism of the programme-makers involved. Far from being edgy, Front Row makes The One Show seem like radical broadcasting. Artists were certainly unhappy when the presenters paraded their disdain for theatre. But I doubt its guests will be unhappy with the show itself. For once Front Row’s presenters have said theatre is boring, they have nothing left to add and have no choice but to fill the empty space with puffery. Amol Rajan interviewed Sir Ian McKellen and could not manage one hard question. This is the kind of advertising money can’t buy but ignorance can supply.

You need detailed knowledge if you want to deliver true criticism, including truly scorching, contemptuous criticism. If you don’t have it, you retreat like everyone else who is out of their depth into nodding along and accepting what you are given.

The better class of broadcasters look down their noses at sports journalists. They have no right to condescend. Unlike commissioning editors in the arts and at the Today programme, sports journalists do not patronise their viewers by treating them as fools. They assume that if you are new to a sport you can Google the rules, if you need to. They will not make their broadcasts march at the pace of the slowest viewer, by clogging them with clunking explanations that infuriate informed viewers. They do not provide advertising copy for theatre houses or fashion houses. If a team or player performs badly, they will say so, and more important, will be able to explain why they have performed badly. They can do this for the simple reason that they would never dream of appointing an ignorant commentator.

In consequence, and by every measure that matters, sport is the last redoubt of serious journalism in broadcasting.

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