The BBC: ‘It’s professional to cheat’

20 January 2013

In this morning’s Observer I write about the collapse of the old notions of honour and fair play in sport, banking, politics, journalism, the law and much else.

As I acknowledge right away, hard evidence is hard to find. Football’s rules change: what was a manly tackle in the 1960s is a foul today. Yesterday’s ‘Spanish practice’ in the workplace becomes today’s criminal offence. The danger of false nostalgia is great. But you should not let the difficulties of comparing the present with the past unnerve you, and I hope I provide evidence that backs up our gut belief that standards have fallen.

If anyone doubts my conclusion, listen to yesterday’s 606 from BBC Radio 5 Live. It wasn’t available when my piece went to press, but how I wish it had been.

Fans phone 606 to give their views on the games they have seen that day. Robbie Savage, a retired footballer, remembered mainly for his foul play, and Mark ‘Chappers’ Chapman, one of those cheery, chirpy 5 Live presenters who could turn a pacifist to mass murder, butt in.

‘Guy from Lingfield’ called (21 minutes in) to protest about Savage. A Nottingham Forest player had made a mistake, and allowed a Derby County striker through to create a goal. Savage had said earlier that the Forest player should have brought the County forward down to stop the goal and ‘make up for his mistake’.

Guy, who is clearly some kind of living fossil, said the Forest player should have tried to win back the ball back by fair means or trusted his teammates to defend the goal. Professional fouls weren’t acceptable.

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The ridicule poured on this naïve fool is a wonder to listen to.

Savage explained how a professional sportsman thinks. He would know that he was not going to get a red card because he wouldn’t be fouling the last man. So he should, ‘bring the guy down, commit a professional foul, take a yellow card for the team. If he does that, Derby don’t score and Nottingham Forest win the game. Simple as that.’

Guy from Lingfield made an even bigger fool of himself by refusing to agree with the professional. ‘No, no, I don’t think that’s a good attitude…’

‘I do,’ said Savage.

‘…in general for schoolchildren or other footballers, really, or for your own teammates.’

With a voice full of sneering incredulity, Savage said that his teammates would have applauded the foul (as I am sure they would). ‘It’s not cheating,’ he insisted.

‘Well it is cheating,’ said Guy.

‘It’s a yellow card, he takes a yellow card for the team…If you don’t like it, tough.’

The most fascinating part of the exchange is the reaction of ‘Chappers’. I am not one of these people who say the BBC must always uphold moral standards, although many BBC journalists do. I accept that broadcasters need to interview moral and immoral people alike to allow their audience to understand the world as it is. Savage is a fair representative of the cynical hack footballer, with more belligerence than talent, and provides an insight into how mediocre players think. Broadcast him, by all means.

But as a journalist, Chapman has a duty to ask hard questions without fear or favour. In this instance, he couldn’t think of a single hard question for Savage, because he couldn’t see anything wrong with what Savage had said.

‘Isn’t it all part and parcel of the game?’ he asked at one point. After Guy had hung up, he went on to describe his defence of fair play as ‘weird’.

This exchange is evidence. Fifty, even twenty years ago, sports journalists, in particular BBC journalists, would have condemned professional fouls, and given a hard time to players who condoned them. Now they let the players off the hook and devote their energies to damning referees.

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Show comments
  • BoredInOxford

    Even playing half-decent amateur football, that was the attitude we’d have. You wouldn’t be nasty, but if you were the last man and you couldn’t quite catch him before he reached the box, clip his heels and take the card. Happened with a very softly spoken right back who did it, started walking and apologized to their manager immediately.

    We all chipped in a couple of quid to pay his fine.

  • martin b

    This is a useful piece which SHOULD be the basis for a Radio4 programme or even series. Will Self would be excellent as animator. Open up the debate. That is how societies edge towards their moral compass.The sheer rotten coarsening and decline in the communal moral zeitgeist across our life is in lockstep with erosion of the polity. I am from the 60’s generation, and was in total rebellion even before the rebels, from childhood. I searched for beauty,truth,freedom,tolerance, and I was lucky to have come from a post war British society in which community, individualism, not egoism and narcissism,honor, values, were defining characteristics. I had no time for boring cricket. Today I love cricket, but with some regret. The values integral to cricket are eroding in favour of trick and win at any cost.My contact with cricket is through my radio. The cross ‘class’ commenting team reflects the honour present in the deep culture of Britain. It is not a class issue. Boycott comes from the same background as most of the footballers.Never mind the quality,just feel the width. Boycott should have his place on the future series. The lurch to decadence in our social values is wretched, but not irrecuperable. There is a deep state of character in Britain which is part of the culture, at present submerged. Here is the theme of a real series from Radio4. Please.Bravo Nick Cohen for opening what should be a major debate. This is the role of that national monument,icon and ‘5th Estate’ which is the BBC. I live in France and I have the benefit of being able to compare in context, two very different cultures. Britain has an inner scepticism, self-criticism and the BBC. The only tenuous link to democracy is the BBC.France has no such meduiator, no such anchor, and the result is a society sick to its empty soul. I would give my life to defend the BBC as a national institution. We all have to live with our faults.

  • Teddy Bear

    I lost interest in football many years ago. First due to the amount of energy devoted to it by a public that should have been more concerned about far more important issues, but it clearly helped dumb-down our society, even extending to women as well.

    Then because of the ‘professional foul’ that was deemed to be okay, and we see became ever more pervasive throughout the sporting world. I believe it’s no coincidence that ‘sport’ and ‘support’ are two closely linked words. In its true ethos, the correct approach to sport enriches and nurtures our society, adding many great values. The way it is conducted today, especially the ‘major sports’, perhaps with the exception of golf in terms of attitude, simply adds to its decline. All of them have far too much money involved.

  • Paul Owen

    Chapman isn’t a journalist. He started out as a continuity announcer, moved to Radio One as a sports newsreader where he acquired the Chappers nickname and then, largely because of this quasi celebrity status so fashionable at the Beeb and also because of the move to Salford, got gigs across 5 Live and BBC Sport. He is a decent presenter, but no more of a journalist than any of the pundits he works alongside. Oh and he’s a Man Utd supporter.

  • anncalba

    It’s sport, (or what passes for sport nowadays). The cliche “get a life” comes to mind. How truly sad that some people, mostly men, and even then a small percentage of the male population, have their lives ruled by the results of “their” team. The world goes on, and there are far more important things than the fortunes of some corrupt sport.

  • In2minds

    “I am not one of these people who say the BBC must always uphold moral
    standards, although many BBC journalists do. I accept that
    broadcasters need to interview moral and immoral people alike to
    allow their audience to understand the world as it is” –

    And I’m not one of those people who need the BBC to help me understand
    the world as it is. I can manage without this and I can manage
    without football too.

    • Ivan Pope

      Well, In2minds, that’s a very useful position. Seeing as the BBC exists and it interviews people and some of them are going to be immoral and some of them are going to be moral (and many inbetween), what advice would you give the BBC? 1. Don’t think about balancing the moral view with the immoral view 2. Only interview moral people 3. Only interview immoral people 4. Don’t interview anyone – I can manage without the BBC. Then think about how much value your position has in the world.

      • Dicky14

        Slightly disagree as Savage isn’t being interviewed but hes a highly paid pundit. I really don’t get my head round why Match of the Day has pundits at all but I guess that’s a different thing. Savage was known to be a proper dirty player and yet he’s given a gig – at least Linekar has a great record (especially with yellow cards) but the massive over promotion of Savage is upsetting. If Savage has that kind of attitude, no wonder he didn’t get more caps – he’s a bloody liability, ejeet and a useless player. Also, how come John Virgo still gets a snooker gig when he’s never won a damn thing? He’s so horrid about the players. Err…rant over….sorry.

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