It turns out that hoping works in the end.

29 01 2011

To lose one presenter may be unlucky but to lose two is downright careless.

In case you’ve been living under house arrest in North Korea you will know that Andy Gray and Richard Keys no longer work for Sky Sports. This is something I have been hoping to hear for about a decade. In  the end all it needed was a row about the use of certain words. Mind you it helped that Keys and Gray are a pair of cavemen with a long history of inappropriate comments.

The latest comments occurred when a referee’s assistant had the cheek to turn up it a football match as a female – “They don’t know offside do they!!!! GUFFAW!!! GUFFAW!!! THIGH SLAP!!”.  Have a look here for a more detailed version of the whole sorry tale.

There was a day of speculation just after their behaviour was uncovered. Then Gray was sacked. Then Keys tried to defend himself like Alan Partridge with a giant spade. Then he resigned. Part of Keys’ defence mentioned dark forces controlling the whole thing and there may be some truth in this. News International does like to get at people seeking justice out of them. For example, just how did “off-air” tapes manage to get into the public domain so quickly?

Please don’t treat this as a defence for those cunts.

To return to the main issue, I may be out of touch with common sense but I’ve never thought that being a woman was a barrier to understanding football. Some people don’t think like this, they are more likely to wonder why feminists haven’t got a sense of humour about the banter.

In my years of playing football, watching football and getting annoyed about football I have noticed that football  is an environment that the alpha male bestrides like a Tyrrannosaurus Rex. You’ve got to be a bloody bloke or you are a weirdo. You can’t look different, you can’t be different, you have to do as the big bloke does. When you think about the alpha male-ness of football it’s a bit strange. When you’re watching football you’re basically watching a group of men running about in shorts.

I’ve never been too comfortable with the alpha male side of football as I’ve always seen it as the domain of the loudmouth knobhead. It’s a world where there’s no room for thought but there’s plenty of room for  sexism and misogyny. Consequently you don’t need look too closely to find it; Last year I discovered that the word “Rape” is now used as an adjective  for beating an opponent.

We shouldn’t really be too hard  on Gray and Keys, they’re just products of their environment. Here’s a flavour of how sky does it (more about this at the end). 

“…….There has been a culture of bullying and sexism around Sky for a very long time, but recently Sky have been managing the bullying a lot better through changes in management. There were rumours of people being told off and that bullying behaviour was unacceptable.”

“During my time at Sky Sports News it wasn’t hidden that women were appointed to present on it primarily because of the way they looked. You can see how Andy and Richard are behaving like that because the people at the top have employed people without any experience……….”

“…….A Sky spokesman said last night: “There was evidence at the weekend and we took action. Today there has been new evidence and we have taken entirely appropriate action. If people are saying there is a culture of sexism here that shows we don’t tolerate it.”

It turns out that people don’t like Andy and Richard, despite what  their matey banter suggested;

“………I think deep down Richard and Andy are just bullies,” she said. “They bully new men in the game as well. It’s how they operate………

…….[Gray and Keys] are hated by the crews. It’s a climate of fear pervading. But as long as everyone is laughing and it’s a joke it’s all right isn’t it?..” (They’ll be more about this at the end as well)

I didn’t need the events of this week to despise this pair of pricks. I have despised everything they have represented for nearly 20 years. I secretly knew that each time I watched  a match on that television channel a little bit of my soul died. Richard sold us the idea Everton v Spurs is the pinnacle of world civilisation and Andy tried to convince us that players say “Thank you much” when they score a tap in. It was the kind of stuff that gets under your skin and straight to the nerves.

Whilst recovering from a lobotomy I read Andy’s utterly brilliant autobiography and he let us in on the way sky do things. Basically it’s Andy and Richard’s vocation to selling the glorious premier league and glorious sky, because without Sky British football would still be in the dark ages. They just can’t stop selling the premier league, they can’t stop their calling;

Yes Andy whatever you say. Blackburn are a more special team than Valencia. Yeah, you can’t move for connaisseurs of world  football  at Ewood Park. It turns out that Bullshitter Gray only really gives a shit about the elite.

My final straw with Gray were his appearances on Question of Sport. I used to like it but that was when the debonair David Coleman hosted.  This once proud part of British popular culture has now descended into excruciating banter and smugness. Gray fitted in perfectly; he shared in-jokes with Sue, Matt and “Tuffers” like an experienced wanker.

It seems that it’s not just the on-screen persona of Gray and Keys that we should detest we should also detest the power these twats  have, sorry, HAD in their little premier league realm;

So Andy Gray is toast. His job as a Sky Sports football pundit was already hanging by a thread after a recording emerged of him swapping off-colour remarks about a female linesman with colleague Richard Keys. Then came the 12-second YouTube video showing Gray waving his crotch towards his female co-presenter, Charlotte Jackson, and asking if she would tuck his mic in. “Charlotte, can you tuck this down here for me, love?” Sky announced his departure soon after.

Barely had Gray’s face returned to its normal colour after learning that he’d been sacked than an off-air video appeared showing Keys asking pundit Jamie Redknapp about a girlfriend. Keys refers to the woman as “it” and asks Redknapp if he’d “smashed it”. Enjoying the moment, he quips: “Mind you, that’s a stupid question. If you were anywhere near her, you definitely smashed it. You could have gone round there any night and found Redknapp hanging out the back of it.” Keys’s sacking, at the time of writing, seems likely.

The speed at which more and more revelations are stacking up is astonishing. Isn’t it odd that as soon as incontrovertible proof of Gray and Keys’s attitudes first emerged, the floodgates opened? Someone on the inside has a grudge to bear – and access to incriminating footage. (When I worked at Sky Sports and messed up, a producer would say “one for the Christmas video”.) But who? The list of suspects is long: in the past two decades, the pair have upset as many people as they’ve watched football games.

The sexism of Keys and Gray was clear back in 1998 when the pair sniggered like school boys as they introduced highlights of the Women’s FA Cup Final. Until now, though, it would have taken a brave person indeed to speak out. That’s because Sky Sports holds such a dominant position in the world of sports broadcasting.

Sky’s reach is not just domestic; its footage is viewed internationally. It has working relationships with ITV (Champions League), BBC (English Premier League) and the American network ESPN. If you fall out with Sky, you can fall out with everyone. Hence I am not putting my name to this article.

But how did the channel get into a state where its top presenters felt so comfortable expressing such crude opinions? The answer lies in its management structure, and how the football department is kept sacrosanct, separated from the rest of the output.

The football team is led by Andy Melvin – a brilliant producer/director who has virtually re-invented the way the game is covered on TV. He’s often compared by his staff to Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed yet gifted spin doctor in The Thick Of It. Melvin certainly doesn’t care what people think of him. As I once heard him say, “I’m not here to win a fucking popularity contest.”

In the days when ITV was hiring staff for the launch of its digital channel, Melvin was keen to retain the services of ex-Spurs forward Clive Allen as a pundit. The pair reached a compromise on a salary, but Allen made the mistake of going to his agent. The agent phoned Melvin to see whether the deal might be improved. Melvin was polite, and asked the agent to get Allen to phone him. When Allen did, most of the words flying out of Melvin’s mouth began with either “f” or “c”. Allen was out of favour from then on. Melvin’s vision of how football should be televised has been realised through Richard Keys, an experienced journalist who came to the channel from TV AM, and Andy Gray, who’d enjoyed a successful playing career. They were later joined by Geoff Shreeves, and the three have supported each other with ruthless efficiency. They in turn have been protected by Melvin. One Sky insider described the three as “bombproof” – at least before this week.

The practical effect of their dominance is that few Sky producers wanted to work on Super Sunday, despite it being the channel’s flagship football programme. That’s because what Keys, Gray and Shreeves decide goes. Not the producer. For example, while presenting a European Championship Qualifier between the Faroe Islands and Scotland in 1997, Keys was caught off-air talking to a producer who had asked him to do a few on-air promos – short advertising spots for future games. “Nay promos, can’t be arsed . . . that’s it. Daft little ground-silly game. Fuck off.” Sky later apologised, and explained that Keys was at the end of a six-hour shift. He didn’t apologise.

I’ve seen Keys berating production staff with a stream of invective down the years; I’ve seen one researcher pushed close to the edge. The man eventually left Sky Sports, confiding to me he couldn’t take its “bullying culture”.

It’s telling that when, in May 2009, Sky Sports’ managing director Vic Wakeling announced he was retiring after 15 years at the helm, Andy Melvin wasn’t chosen to replace him. Many had assumed he was a shoo-in, but his abrasive style was not universally popular, and instead Sky turned to the genial Barney Francis to replace Vic. In practice, Barney was in charge of everything but football and the Melvin/Keys/Gray/Shreeves team rode on.

Ultimately, to denounce Keys and Gray for their unpleasant comments is just dealing with the effects, rather than the cause of the problem. For a start, if Sky Sports is serious about eradicating sexist views, it needs to look carefully at its policy of hiring glamorous female presenters for spurious duties. It hardly encourages a culture of respect for women.

Many years ago I watched in horror as a female presenter struggled with a cricket story and froze when she came to the letters “LBW” on her auto-prompt. She said: “Smith was out lubuwu” and looked quizzically at the screen. Another female presenter once called Wolverhampton’s ground as “Moulinex”.

I’ve worked in sports broadcasting for many years, and Sky remains at the forefront of some of the best coverage that exists. I have also witnessed there one of the worst reactionary cultures and some of the basest conservative thinking ever. Let’s hope the former wins out. 

The author is a sports broadcaster who has worked for Sky Sports, among others.

Unfortunately only the facade of sky has taken a knock, the architecture of power is still firmly in place. Having said that there is something we can all take heart from; the players don’t like pundits anyway;

What if Sky Sports offered me Andy Gray’s job? Not a chance. Let me tell you something, football pundits are universally despised by players and not just because at some point in the past they would have been on the receiving end of criticism themselves.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the game, where you’ve played, what you might have won or how much money you earned – pundits are held in the same regard by players as female assistant referees once were at Sky.

And while on that subject, prepare to be disappointed. While I found the whole episode with Gray and Richard Keys at Molineux cringeworthy, inside the world of football nobody is particularly bothered. Don’t interpret that as evidence that players are condoning Gray and Keys for their behaviour. It’s more a case that most of my team-mates would have no interest in listening to anything pundits say in the first place.

 Gray and Keys should have been sacked for bullshitting years ago.

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