Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Andy Gray broke the golden rule of live broadcasting - keep yer trap shut!

The last time I helped launch a TV programme, it was in a foreign language and about as politically sensitive as it gets. My advice to our presenters about off-air comments was simple: if you’re on the set, whether you’re live on air or rehearsing or doing a pilot, don’t say anything that could get you into trouble if it were to appear on YouTube. 

Now, that’s not an easy rule to follow: live TV, especially for presenters, is nerve-wracking. When you’re on air – especially if you’re involved in the sort of programme we were doing – you have to be keenly aware of the likely effect of every word you utter, while continually monitoring what guests are saying in case it requires a wrist-slap or an apology, while at the same time listening to your editor flinging instructions at you down your ear-piece. 

I certainly couldn’t do it – not many people can.

So when you’re off-air for a few minutes, or getting ready to go live, there’s a strong temptation to say things you can’t say when there’s an audience listening: that’s human nature. But you simply can’t – no TV performer can be absolutely sure someone in the gallery won’t press the wrong button or give the wrong command at the very moment you’re making an obscene gesture at one of the crew or shouting, “Well, that was a f*cking disaster!” (There are many warnings from history, all the way from Richard Dimbleby’s “Jesus Wept!” during the Queen’s 1965 state visit to West Berlin, to BBC weatherman Tomasz Schafernaker giving a newsreader the finger on News 24 last year.  

While launching my first online service for the BBC, I told the assembled geeks not under any circumstances to put any pages in the system that would embarrass us if they inadvertently appeared live on the site. (They all smirked, because they knew they were dealing with a technical illiterate.) On my second day off work in three months – December 26th 1997 – I logged in to discover that our homepage had turned into a sarcastic mock-warning that pressing a link might lead the user to a page containing advertising material: “Immediately unplug your computer and wait for a BBC employee to come round and destroy your PC in a controlled explosion”, or somesuch japery. Some poor geek (not the perpetrator) had to interrupt their Boxing Day revels and drive 100 miles to remove the offending page – (actually, he was a snotty bastard, so I didn’t mind inconveniencing him).

Luckily, no one at the Daily Mail spotted it, and I got to keep my job.

Nowadays, of course, thanks to digital technology and YouTube, no one gets away with anything (think how many millions of people who never listen to the Today Programme got to hear James Naughtie trip up over Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s name – I must have emailed the link to about 30 other people, having been sent it by somebody else).

So I was initially surprised to hear that Andy Gray and Richard Keys – who’ve both been in the business for years – had been stupid enough to break one of the three Golden Rules (the others are about not exposing yourself on-screen and never admitting you’re a Tory).

Did they forget what happened to Big Ron Atkinson when he made some overtly racist remarks about a black player in 2004? Career over. 

But then I realized what had happened: far more dangerous than being over-anxious about live broadcasting is becoming too relaxed. (I knew my time in live political programmes was drawing to a natural close when I realized I hadn’t listened to a word the guests on the programme I was editing had said for the last five minutes.) I presume Keys and Gray just got too damned cosy tripping across familiar terrain, only to discover it had turned into a minefield. 

It’s a pity Gray had to be fired (Keys is clinging on for now). I’m not that interested in football, but I find his analysis – especially when using Sky’s superb toolkit of visual gizmos – genuinely rivetting, and he’s one of those big, bullish, enthusiastic former sportsmen who actually have some personal charm (unlike say, Ian Botham, who really is a boor). But once you know something about a broadcaster you really wish you didn’t, it’s hard to get it out of your head whenever they’re performing: it makes it hard to concentrate on what they’re saying. Who could watch Frank Bough once we knew he regularly attended cocaine and S&M parties? How could we put up with Angus Deayton, knowing there was nothing he liked better in his spare time than to curl up with several lines of blow and a bevy of whores? (To this day, I can’t watch lovable Alan Davies on QI without remembering that he once assaulted a homeless man – although he seems to have got away with it.) 

No, once we knew too much about Andy Gray, he was sunk. Pity – but that’s live broadcasting for you. Shame the BBC weren’t as quick off the mark as Sky when it came to that repulsive blister, Jonathan Ross, whose transgression was far more heinous. 

Mind you, it’s odd to think that if Gray were still a footballer he could probably physically abuse any number of women and get away with it!


  1. I’ve always found Andy Gray’s charm somewhat elusive. As for his sexism, I’m sure we could both name a certain newsreader who found it difficult to look any female member of the team in the face when talking to her because his eyes were so firmly glued to their breasts. As for Botham, he’s both a boor and a bore. I tend to mute the sound when he’s commentating and a wicket falls so I won’t have to hear him say “…but he’s got to go”. What is the point of saying it? He’s got to go because those are the rules.

    From my admittedly slight acquaintance with the sports commentator breed, I doubt if any of them don’t vote either Tory, BNP or UKIP, and I bet they don’t trouble hide their views.
    Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 11:02 PM

  2. I am vaguely upset about various unpleasant remarks about Sir Ian Botham. This cricketer's achievements puts him beyond criticism.He cannot be judged by ordinary standards because of what he has achieved. Like the sublime Eric said in one of his recent screen appearances: " I am not a man. I am Cantona". Quite.
    The unfortunate Andy Gray. He has been caught making off-colour remarks about women and suffered the consequences while Geoffrey Boycott [who has been in court for beating up his girl-friend] and Phil Tufnell [who has beaten up his wife] and is currently cosying up to the unbearable saccharine Sue Barker with his professional cockney shtik continue successful media careers. All very mysterious. The trouble about these great outbreaks of moral fits is that they lack logic and consistency.
    Friday, January 28, 2011 - 03:02 PM

  3. Oh no, ex-BBC, please don't tell me that there are people in the media who vote Conservative. Whatever next?

    I always thought footballers too too delicious in their education-free natural insouciance. How could they betray their class with its rich and fulfilling whippet-trousered, pigeon loft, respect your betters, put the kettle on mother, I know my place heritage. It's a reet crime, that is. Still worse to fail to hide their views, unless of course they are to the left. In which case, you'll get a slot on the BBC.

    Do normal people still use phrases like "Sports Commentator breed"?
    Saturday, January 29, 2011 - 01:28 AM

  4. I think the assumption that most successful sportsmen are right-wing is probably correct – they tend to be rich, talented, and hard-working, all things equalitarian politicians disapprove of. But you can bet they’d do their best to hide their views, especially as a lot of fans (particularly in football) will be Labour voters (who else is going to provide the unemployed the means to attend football matches?).

    As for Geoffrey Boycott, Sportsfan, yes, he’s back commenting now, but at the time he was sacked by BBC Radio and BSkyB and his column for the Sun was cancelled, so he hardly got away with it. I don’t know much about Phil Tufnell – I do know I find all that matey, blokey, salt-of-the-erff, ‘ard-drinkg, ‘ard-smoking geezer crap incredibly tedious. His first wife accused him of many things during their divorce proceeding, but assault wasn’t one of them! You’re very harsh on Sue Barker, I must say. Watching out-takes of Question of Sport a few years back (I must simply not have had anything better to do), she came across as funny and feisty and she does a great job anchoring the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage.

    Back to Gray and Keys – when I arrived at BBC News, the lads’ culture was prevalent in the newsroom: the main topic of non-news conversation appeared to be rugby, and the attitude towards women was prehistoric. I’ve never flourished in that sort of super-macho environment (which, I imagine, was prevalent amongst Labour spin doctors, with soccer substituted for rugby), so it was a relief when all the current affairs girlie-boys invaded news and the knuckle-draggers started to fade away. I imagine that’s very much the sort of atmosphere created by the Sky Two – if so, I’m not surprised the team is celebrating their departure. And learning that Gray earned £1.7 million a year means that any scintilla of sympathy has evaporated. Sod ‘em!
    Saturday, January 29, 2011 - 02:33 PM