The corporation’s lack of sports coverage is a shocking omission that, in effect, is cheating those who pay the licence fee, writes Allan Massie
Few sports fans will have been shocked by Martin Dempster’s criticism of the BBC in our Sports pages yesterday, or surprised by his assertion that “the BBC only delivered six days of live coverage from a men’s golf tournament this year – all four rounds of the Open Championship ay Muirfield and the last two rounds from the Masters at Augusta”. We all know that the BBC has in effect given up on sport, and that there would be very little indeed on its channels, but for the parliamentary requirement that the so-called “crown jewels” must be shown on terrestrial television. But for this, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph would not have been watched by an estimated 17 million people, but by the much smaller number with access to Sky or some other subscription channel; and, if that had been the case, then he probably wouldn’t have been voted Sports Personality of the Year.
Martin Dempster was understandably indignant that Justin Rose collected only 10,000 votes in the SPOTY election, despite being the first Englishman to win the US Open Championship since Tony Jacklin in 1969. But the truth is, of course, that the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year programme has itself become a bad joke. Years ago, it could show lots of recorded action. Now, not all the razzmatazz can disguise the fact that it has very little to show – simply because sporting events are so rare in the corporation’s schedules.
Here in Scotland, rugby and a good deal of football are tucked away on BBC Alba – great if you want to improve your knowledge of Gaelic, not so good if you want to have an informed and authoritative commentary on the play. I would guess that most rugby and football fans who tune into the channel watch silent TV. Some will say this doesn’t matter; there is no shortage of sport on TV. You have a choice of lots of channels – if you are prepared to pay for them and are in a position to do so.
This, of course, is perfectly true. Nevertheless to have a television set, you are legally required, if you are under 75, to pay the licence fee, which finances the BBC. This certainly costs less than a subscription to a commercial broadcaster, but this is beside the point. There must be a great many sports fans who regard the licence fee as extortionate because the BBC no longer provides what they want; yet they must pay the licence fee in order then to be able to pay their subscription to the companies that have sports channels. One can’t help thinking that many get a very poor service from the BBC.
In its defence, the BBC will says that it simply can’t compete with the likes of Sky or the new BT Sports channel. This is probably true, as things stand, though it is difficult to believe that it is outbid by Eurosport, a minor player, which nevertheless manages to show a lot of live sport. Nor does it satisfactorily account for the BBC’s surrender of all rights to coverage of horse-racing to Channel 4.
It’s hard to avoid the thought that there are those at the top of the BBC who are quite happy to let all but the protected “crown jewel” events go; that they have no real interest in offering anything much else except the occasional football match, and are content to fill their schedules with ageing soaps, lifestyle programmes, cookery programmes and the like. It would seem to be a matter of indifference that they are, in effect, cheating a fair number of those who pay the licence fee by failing to provide them with what they would like to watch, and, in effect saying, “if that’s what you want, go and pay your money to Rupert Murdoch etc– and if, for some reason, you have a principled objection to doing that, tough; we don’t care”.
This is doubtless a misinterpretation of BBC attitudes. But it’s one that a good many people must share, and one that the BBC does nothing to disabuse them of. What makes it more irritating still to many is that on the rare occasions when the BBC does put its mind to the business of covering sport, it still does it very well. Last year’s coverage of the Olympics – reserved of course to terrestrial TV as a “crown jewel” – was excellent. It made use of the numerous channels available to it to enable fans of even small-minority sports to watch all the action. Subsequently, of course, these minority sports have been all but ignored again.
A couple of weekends ago, we carried a two-page interview with one of our Scottish gold medallists, Scott Brash from Peebles, who has recently achieved the ranking of the No1 show-jumper in the world. He expressed his regret that his sport is so rarely featured on terrestrial TV. Fair enough. Thirty or 40 years ago, show-jumpers no more talented – some of them less talented – than Brash were popular national figures, thanks to the BBC. Brash wasn’t even included in the shortlist of ten for the 2013 SPOTY – despite being number one in the world. And, if he had been, he would probably have got even fewer votes than Justin Rose, because most BBC viewers would hardly ever have seen him in action.
The more you think about it, the more scandalous the BBC’s indifference to sport seems to be. It is not as if the corporation is skint. It has paid ridiculously high salaries to its top managers and even more ridiculous pay-offs to many. It offers internet pages in competition with newspapers – though I would add that its sports website is of lamentably low quality.
No doubt it would often be outbid by subscription sports channels in an auction of broadcasting rights, but years ago it could have launched a specialist sports channel, which could have provided viewers with some at least of what they don’t now get from the BBC in return for their licence fee.
Its chiefs might at least have sought a revision of their charter to enable them to accept limited advertising on such a channel. It hasn’t done this, but has appeared to acquiesce in being priced out of the sports broadcasting market; and in its indifference to sport it has failed the public, or a large section of. It has also failed sport, especially the minority sports, which would benefit most from terrestrial TV coverage. If the likes of Rose and Brash are not national figures, blame the BBC.