As political editor of the BBC I once had to appear on the Today programme just after the 7 a.m. news to discuss the passing of an MP who had tragically died experimenting with auto-eroticism. Two minutes before we went on air I was still engaged in a conference call with BBC executives anxious as to whether I would mention the women’s stockings he was wearing or the orange in his mouth. I never had such interference when I was reporting on political skulduggery: what concerns BBC managers is ‘image’ and whether the Corporation might finish up in the newspapers.
Similar thinking has had much to do with the BBC’s pathetic surrendering of its coverage of major horse races such as the Grand National and Royal Ascot. BBC Sport executives, who know nothing about horseracing and care less, have been whittling down the Beeb’s coverage of the sport, which has an audience second only to football. It had already been cut to a mere 13 days a year, next year it will fall to zero. Never mind that we racing lovers are like everyone else subject to the BBC ‘poll tax’ that the TV licence represents. Our sport is no longer to be carried on the national broadcasting system, largely so that those BBC panjandrums will be spared embarrassment if a horse ever happens to die in the course of its coverage. Never mind that in the likes of Clare Balding the BBC had top-rate racing presenters, the BBC’s negotiation for its remaining few fixtures lacked credibility, effort or any sense of realism. They simply weren’t trying.
It is not that Channel 4 is in any way lacking: the likes of Alastair Down, Alice Plunkett and John Francome communicate brilliantly their passion for the sport. It is just that there should be diversity in the coverage of racing and our national broadcaster should be part of it.