Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

A Tribute to James Brokenshire with Tony Horne Part 2

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Tony Horne returns with further memories and reflections on his friend of more than 30 years, James Brokenshire MP.

Tony Horne
Tony Horne

James served as Northern Ireland Secretary during Theresa May’s years as Prime Minister, where he was widely respected by all sides.

But for Tony, James was a long-time personal friend, who gave him his first break on student radio in Exeter.

Tony also provides an interesting insight into what it is like to attend a funeral of a prominent public figure, where security is an issue.

James Brokenshire MP
James Brokenshire MP

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Spotify and the iTunes app.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 13, 2021 at 3:59 am

Sharon Harris Remembered

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Sharon Harris
Sharon Harris

I HAVE no hesitation at all in describing my late friend Sharon Harris as one of the best and most dedicated local newspaper journalists I have ever met. But far more importantly, the world has lost a thoroughly decent person, and I have lost a good friend.

Scrolling down my Facebook news feed late last Tuesday afternoon, I could not believe what I was reading as I saw a post by Sharon’s sister, Julie, informing us that Sharon had been found dead at home earlier that day. To say I was stunned by the news would be an understatement. Despite her serious health problems over many years, in recent months Sharon had appeared to me to be happy, healthy and enjoying life far more than she had done for some considerable time.

Sharon was an extraordinary person. She never sought the limelight as such, but she was a humble, yet determined lady who achieved a huge amount with her short life.

During her youth, Sharon held a number of different jobs, and some of her happiest times came when she volunteered at hospital station Radio Glamorgan, which she often talked about fondly. Further behind-the-scenes work at professional stations including BBC Radio Wales and Red Dragon FM would follow. At various times, she had dealings with all sorts of well-known broadcasters including Danny Baker, and her team once received a humorous hand-written note from Sir Alex Ferguson after they played a prank on him. Sharon was a bit of a radio anorak and owned a box of rare jingles and audio clips – I publicly call on her family to make sure they find a good home!

In her early 30s, Sharon formally trained as a journalist at Highbury College in Portsmouth, one of the best places in the country to undertake the NCTJ Fast-Track Pre-Entry course.

Sharon’s big passion outside work was travel, which she usually did alone, and on a budget. But nevertheless, she managed to see vast swathes of the world, and the sadness I feel at her death at a young age is tempered with the knowledge that she crammed more into her truncated life than a lot of people would manage by living for twice as long.

When Sharon started working for the Barry and District News and Penarth Times in 2007, it became as much a vocation as a job for her.

She was certainly a good enough journalist to make it in a bigger regional market, or even at the nationals, but Sharon quickly built up a thick contacts book and a reputation for integrity that made her widely-respected by the sort of people across the Vale of Glamorgan who are the lifeblood of stories for a local paper: local councillors, school governors, teachers, shop owners, market traders, Scout leaders and so on.

Why did this girl from Newport who had lived in Cardiff for a long time dedicate the final 14 years of her live to covering the Vale? It was partly her sense of commitment to her job and the fact she liked the people (she told me very early in our friendship never to underestimate the determination and spirit of ‘Barry people’ – and she was right!), but to get a fuller picture, it’s important to understand how her dedication to journalism was entwined with a long term health battle. The familiarity of her job contrasted sharply with the unpredictability and uncertainty her health problems brought.

Sharon was told at some point in her late 20s or early 30s that she was suffering from a brain tumour, and that she was not expected to see her 40th birthday (in reality, she was closer to 50 when she died). They managed to treat the initial tumour, but in all the years I knew her, a setback of one sort or another never seemed to be very far away.

I first met Sharon in the run-up to Christmas 2007. In the September of that year, I began working for my NCTJ Pre-Entry Certificate at Highbury College, where Sharon had studied around a year before me.

During the Christmas vacation, all students were expected to carry out ten days’ work experience at a local newspaper. The Barry and District News office in Holton Road agreed to take me on, and I spent the period working in a small, dungeon-like office with Sharon, along with the paper’s editor and a member of admin staff who insisted that Radio One be on in the background all day long, which felt like a form of torture to me.

Sharon and I immediately hit it off. I hadn’t passed my driving test at the time, and she didn’t have a car, either. During that period, we would chat a lot on buses, on trains, and while I was shadowing her as she covered council meetings.

I found Sharon to be very open when discussing her health problems. She would talk about it in a very matter-of-fact way. Any question I asked would be answered, but there was never a hint of bitterness or self-pity with her. She clearly felt both very unlucky and very lucky at the same time.

Her condition meant that she had to take great care of herself, with daily injections. She did not drink alcohol or smoke. In all the time I knew her, I never heard even a hint of a boyfriend or dating. Maybe she liked the freedom the single life gave her, or maybe she did not want to make any type of romantic commitment, knowing her time was probably limited.

We liked to talk about Highbury College – there were lots of familiar names among the teaching staff from her era who were still there in mine. Course leader Bernie Saunders had moved on, but not before interviewing me and offering me a place there. Sheila Mutch, the delightful shorthand teacher, was still present, as was journalist and author Steve Clark, who remains a friend to this day. Sharon also had plenty of hilarious tales to tell about legendary public affairs teacher David Kett, with whom I also built up a strong rapport during my time at Highbury.

Sharon’s approach to journalism fascinated me. When interviewing local councillors or anyone in authority, her manners were always impeccable, but she was no soft touch. She had always done her research and she wouldn’t tolerate being fobbed off with inadequate answers, nor could anyone easily pull the wool over her eyes.

Although Sharon was still relatively new to the job when she met, it soon became clear she’d been a fast learner. I recall one freezing cold morning, on my way to work, I was changing trains at Cardiff Central waiting for my connection to Barry. One train after another was cancelled, and I was surrounded by angry commuters who were being made very late for work.

I phoned the office and Sharon answered. I told her I was very sorry but I was going to be very late for work, though there wasn’t much I could do about it because one train after another was being cancelled.

Sharon told me in no uncertain terms that, actually, I was in work, and that this was my story. I could get some quotes from the angry commuters and write it up as a story when I eventually got to the office.

Talking to the commuters, it soon became clear that this was no one-off incident and the morning trains to Barry had been unreliable for quite a while. Some of them were skating on thin ice in terms of keeping their jobs, while others were forced to rely on the generosity of colleagues working earlier shifts who couldn’t leave until they had arrived. I turned it into a decent story and it generated a lot of reaction from readers.

That was a good lesson to me early in my career – there is no such thing as an off-duty journalist and there are, quite literally, stories everywhere.

Sharon was also a very generous person and in no way selfish. One afternoon, I was looking at the BBC Wales News website when I saw a story that the paper’s former editor, John O’Sullivan had just died. I immediately let Sharon know, but she was aware of it, and, unbeknown to me at the time, was already writing it up for the paper.

What Sharon didn’t know at that point is that I’d known John for years. He lived very close to me, and, while I certainly had my differences with him on times, we spoke regularly and attended the same church. Sharon had no hesitation in immediately handing the story over to me and let me get on with writing it.

That said a lot about Sharon –  in the short period we worked together, I had done enough to gain her trust  and she knew I was better equipped to write the story than her.

John was a highly-distinguished journalist, having spent several years at the Daily Mail, as well as a decade at BBC Wales. In retirement, he investigated more than 100 murders and worked as a tireless campaigner for better standards of hospital hygiene, having contracted the MRSA superbug himself. I interviewed John’s delightful brother over the phone, and John being a devout Roman Catholic, his parish priest also provided some useful quotes. I was grateful to Sharon for the opportunity.

Upon my return to Highbury College in early 2008, my teachers were delighted to hear I’d worked with Sharon and they enquired about her health. It soon became clear they knew Sharon was a very dedicated and able student who would make it in the industry.

My friendship with Sharon was to last for the rest of her life, even though from 2008 we only occasionally worked together as our careers went in different directions. Well, I say we only worked together occasionally, which is true, but we frequently ‘looked out’ for each other, in terms of providing one another with potential stories in our areas of interest or informing each other of new opportunities.

Sharon and I certainly didn’t always agree. My political instincts are euroscpetic to the core, combined with a belief in social conservatism, the traditional family and a limited role for the state. Sharon’s politics were harder to pin down, though I got the impression she had little time for Margaret Thatcher, though by the same token she wasn’t afraid to criticise Labour, particularly at local council level. But our differences certainly didn’t get in the way of our friendship.

One thing that’s undoubtedly true about Sharon is that she loved a gossip. She would frequently post little titbits on my Facebook wall, but the more juicy stuff would come via Messenger. At the time of her death, two weeks had passed since our last exchange on Messenger – that was a long time by our standards. She was great fun and a very useful source of information. My life will be a lot more boring without her.

More seriously, throughout the last 14 years, health problems linked to brain tumours had sadly never been too far away from Sharon. There had been many ups and downs and ‘lucky escapes’ along the way.

I can clearly remember one incident when a ‘second opinion’ at a Bristol hospital corrected a serious error made in Cardiff. On another occasion, Sharon blogged from her bed at the Heath Hospital, when she was told her condition was incurable and that she only had a short time to live.

Feeling devastated, I sent her a solemn private message on Messenger thanking her for her years of friendship and support, and told her she would remain in my prayers. She sent me a short reply telling me to look out for the new blog entry she was about to publish.

I didn’t have long to wait, and what she said next was absolutely astonishing. Another doctor had taken a look and told her the condition was very treatable and she would shortly be having the operation. It was highly unlikely she was dying after all! She had the operation, which was a success, and, aside from some short-term side effects which made bright lights an irritant, she was pretty much fine within a day or two. She made her own way home, on the bus, wearing a pair of what looked like skiing goggles for her eye condition, but was up and about and back in work in no time!

There were times when Sharon was a bit too dedicated to the job for her own good. Some years ago, she took a risk too far by getting pictures of a flooded subway for her paper, which landed her in hospital with pneumonia. I’m not sorry to say that I gave her a bit of a bollocking for that. I told her that with her weakened immune system, getting into sewage water was not a good idea, and that if her editor was forcing her to do it, she should’ve told her in no uncertain terms to get stuffed!

On numerous other occasions, she would message me to say she was working from her hospital bed, when I knew full well she should’ve been resting. She hated missing a deadline or slacking off from work, no matter how unwell she was.

I remember my reaction on Sharon’s 40th birthday. I wished her a ‘happy birthday’, but I also added a comment along the lines of, “I told you you’d make it!”, a reference to the fact that many years beforehand she’d been told she was unlikely to see 40.

Sharon could also handle my sense of humour when discussing her health problems. After one setback a few years ago, she said that doctors had told her she’d had a ‘saggy brain’. I replied that most women her age settled for saggy tits, but she had to go one better!

No offence was taken. Sharon didn’t ‘do’ self-pity. A touch of humour, even jokes as dubious as mine, were welcome. She knew me more than well enough to understand I was trying to keep her spirits up.

But it certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom with Sharon. Far from it, in fact. She was forever running marathons and half-marathons, and her next travel adventure was never more than a few months away.

Sharon took on stewarding work at the Principality Stadium, Sophia Gardens Cricket Ground and the Motorpoint Arena to make extra money for her travel adventures.

The stewarding work brought Sharon many new friendships, which she greatly valued, as well as plenty of gossip for me. Sharon didn’t especially share my love of snooker, but she enjoyed working at the Welsh Open, where she had a good rapport with Terry Griffiths, who would always make a point of chatting to her.

It takes a certain amount of bottle for a woman with significant health problems to travel vast distances alone, but Sharon never let it put her off. She would frequently message me from a Megabus or National Express coach as she headed to Heathrow or Gatwick Airport. There really was no stopping Sharon. The pandemic was a real nuisance for her, but as soon as things began to open up, she wasted little time in planning her next trip, the most recent of which was just a few weeks ago.

There was a slightly eccentric side to Sharon – she took great delight in collecting pennies found on pavements and would proudly announce on social media when she’d made enough for a cup of coffee from a café!

I found her loyalty and dedication to modern-day EastEnders downright baffling. Yes, it was good in the 1980s and early 90s when the soap’s writers included people like Fleet St legend Peter Batt, but I gave up on it many years ago.

In recent years, Newsquest, the American conglomerate who own the Barry and District News and Penarth Times, had made increasing levels of cutbacks that made it more and more difficult for Sharon to do her job in the way she would have liked.

The offices in Holton Road were long gone, and Sharon worked entirely from her home in Cardiff, or from cafes and public places in the Vale. They also stretched what they expected from her with overall staffing levels reduced.

When the pandemic struck in March last year, Sharon knew she’d really struggle to fill the papers in the weeks and months that followed. This resulted in the unlikely return of my byline in the Barry and District News more than 12 years after it last appeared. It was great to be working closely with Sharon again for a brief period. I didn’t want to make a habit of it because it was unpaid work for me – Sharon wasn’t in a position to pay me and Newsquest were too tight and too stupid to fund the papers properly, but I enjoyed my brief comeback and it was a reminder to me of just how good a journalist Sharon was.

Sharon suffered a significant setback in December last year when the latest round of cutbacks by Newsquest saw her made redundant. It was an absurd decision. Her knowledge, experience and contacts in the Vale of Glamorgan made her invaluable, and it would’ve been impossible to create papers of the same quality written and edited remotely from Newsquest offices in Newport.

Make no mistake – Sharon was very, very good at her job. She was underpaid and underappreciated by Newsquest. When news of her redundancy became public knowledge, local people began a ‘Save Our Shazza (SOS)’ campaign. Sharon found it amusing that certain people involved in public life who had previously been very rude and unpleasant about her on social media had joined in the campaign. Sharon didn’t always handle well the inevitable abuse all journalists get on social media nowadays. I frequently reminded her that if everyone loved her all the time, she wasn’t doing her job properly. Or to quote Sir Winston Churchill, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Sharon certainly stood up for a lot, namely truth and integrity, in every story she covered. That doesn’t always make you popular with everybody, but Sharon’s track record was one to be proud of.

Around the time Sharon was made redundant, I became concerned by the tone she took in an exchange we had on Messenger. Despite there being signs that she was being made redundant for months beforehand, she had taken it very much to heart and considered it a major setback in her life.

Sharon was great at her job, but I always got the impression that she enjoyed the familiarity of it. She could undoubtedly have made it at a much bigger level, but I think the routine and continuity of her job gave her a lot of comfort with so much uncertainty in other areas of her life, namely her health.

I asked her to give me a call when she had a moment, and on 08 December, she rang me and we spoke for more than 90 minutes. Little did I know this would be the last time I’d actually hear her voice, but the conversation we had was wonderful.

My first duty was to cheer her up and help her regain a sense of perspective. I reminded her that losing her job was only a minor setback compared to all the other stuff she’d been through. I then reminded her that Newsquest had been riding their luck with her for some time, and that local papers in their current form have no long-term future.

Sharon quickly agreed with me and cheered up considerably. I then helped her outline a plan of what to do next – the priority was to keep a roof above her head and to take on whatever work was available to pay her bills. It was also important to find out what state benefits she was entitled to at the earliest possible opportunity.

She undoubtedly felt hurt by the way Newsquest had treated her, and that certain individuals higher up the chain in Wales weren’t as nice as they made out, but she soon realised she had to look to the future. She gave some thought to starting a more regular travel blog, but knew that she needed a proper source of income, and that blogging wouldn’t provide it. In early 2021, she took on admin work connected to the Census.

The rest of our long chat consisted of much gossip, laughter and fun. We covered a lot of ground in terms of her travel adventures, the state of the media, how mutual friends were doing and lots more. Her mood soon lifted and I’m glad that our final conversation was a happy one.

That was to be the last time we spoke, though our exchanges on Messenger continued right up until two weeks before her death. We were rarely more than a few days away from a chat on there – whether it was about the decline of the Barry and District News and Penarth Times following her departure, her frustration and bewilderment about Covid testing rules when travelling, or her excitement at her latest expedition.

I was hoping Sharon would find a way back into journalism, but I knew options were limited. Sharon was still quite young, but her approach to local journalism was unashamedly old-school. The courts, the council meetings, the planning committees and chats to local contacts were the lifeblood of her stories. I couldn’t imagine her writing banal clickbait for Wales Online about Welsh ‘celebs’, the weather or those tedious ‘list’ articles.

In the middle of this year, Sharon had a wonderful piece of good fortune when entrepreneur Des Turner set up a new free newspaper, the Glamorgan Star, appointing Philip Irwin as editor and Sharon as senior reporter.

Sharon was back doing what she did best. At this point, I pretty much banned her from moaning to me about Newsquest and told her it was now her job to make sure her new paper was massively better than what they were producing! She agreed, and she did exactly that.

I am absolutely sincere when I say the Glamorgan Star has got off to a superb start in recent months, and while it’s a team effort and everybody involved deserves a share in the credit, its success is in no small part due to Sharon’s contacts, knowledge and experience of the Vale of Glamorgan.

Make no mistake – Sharon had been in her element in recent months. The tone of our exchanges on Messenger was happy. She seemed to be enjoying life a lot more than she had done for quite some time. She liked her new job, she liked her colleagues, and she loved telling me about her latest travel adventures and what she was planning to do next.

Sharon’s death has left a hole in my life. In recent days, I’ve had a number of occasional moments where I’ve heard a piece of gossip and thought ‘I must tell Sharon about that’, or ‘I haven’t heard from Sharon for a few weeks – I must send her a message’, and then remembered that she is no longer with us.

Sharon the journalist was a person of great skill and integrity. But Sharon the person, and Sharon the friend, is someone irreplaceable. She showed me great kindness and dealt with whatever life threw at her with stoicism and humour.

I, and many others who were lucky enough to know her, will never forget the impact she had on our lives.

Written by Marcus Stead

October 31, 2021 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Comment, Review

A Tribute to James Brokenshire with Tony Horne

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IF YOU live in the North East of England, my friend Tony Horne probably needs no introduction. He was the region’s best-known radio personality for many years, where he hosted the breakfast show on Metro Radio between 1994 and 2000, and again between 2005 and 2011.

For much of the interim period, he hosted breakfast on Century FM, which could be heard across the North West of England and along much of the North Wales coast. It was during this stint that I first heard Tony, and I got into the habit of listening to his show while I was a student at the University of Liverpool.

Today, Tony hosts the breakfast show on Real Life Radio, which you can listen to anywhere in the world here.

Tony Horne
Tony Horne, writer and broadcaster

But there’s much more to Tony than the radio personality. He has established himself as one of Britain’s leading ghostwriters, with subject matters ranging from the desperately sad story of PC David Rathband, who was shot and blinded by a gunman I don’t wish to name on here, and went on to commit suicide several years later, to, on a much lighter note, darts personality Shayne ‘Bulldog’ Burgess (which was my idea!).

Back in late 2017, I launched Talk Podcasts, a platform that provides original, innovative, speech-based podcasts on a wide-range of subjects. I’m happy with what’s been achieved so far, but it’s still very much a ‘work in progress’.

From the outset, Tony was keen to become involved, and one of his main ideas was what he called ‘The Dead Good Podcast’.

For the last four years, Tony has reflected on how tragic he finds the process when individuals pass away, from the speed with which their death is updated on Wikipedia to the paucity and inadequacy of the letters ‘RIP’ being used on social media.

Tony also felt that many people who paid tribute perhaps might actually be grieving if they were the right person to be paying tribute at all. Therefore, for some time it has been rumbling inside Tony’s head that there might be another way – a regular obituaries-based podcast has been on his mind.

Tony has lost many close friends in the last few years, from the aforementioned PC David Rathband, to Lisa Shaw, who was his co-presenter on Metro Radio’s breakfast show for a period.

At the back end of last week, former Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire MP passed away. Tony and James had been friends since the late 1980s.

James Brokenshire
James Brokenshire

This sad moment has finally spurred Tony into action. James the politician was a well-known public figure, but this podcast gives an insight into James as a friend, a family man and a fun personality.

This doesn’t feel like the right time to launch it as ‘The Dead Good Podcast’, perhaps because Tony is too personally involved, as he grieves the loss of his friend. But the title may well be used in future episodes.

It was James who first got Tony involved in radio at Exeter University at the end of the 1980s, which laid the foundations to his successful career.

If he’d wanted to, James could have gone on to become a major name in radio himself, but he chose a life of politics and public service.

Tony’s poignant words provide an insight into parts of James’s personality largely unknown to the wider public.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Spotify and the iTunes app.

Written by Marcus Stead

October 13, 2021 at 3:19 am

Posted in Review

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 61: Afghanistan – What’s It All About?

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AFTER nearly twenty years, British and American military involvement in Afghanistan is finally at an end. But why was our military ever sent there in the first place?

Military intervention began on the pretext that the Taliban government in Afghanistan harboured the terrorists responsible for the attacks of 11 September 2001, but the facts do not back this up. Of the attackers, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Lebanon and one was from Egypt.

The Taliban retake control of Afghanistan

Osama Bin Laden boasted of his involvement, but there is no solid evidence linking him to the attacks. We loathe and despise the Taliban with good reason, but evidence that they were in any way responsible for the 9/11 atrocities is flimsy.

Two decades on, and the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan, far more quickly than so-called ‘experts’ predicted as recently as a few weeks ago.

So what are we to make of it all? And on what terms should Britain, America and her allies engage with the Taliban in the future?

Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins try to make sense of a highly complex situation.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Spotify and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

September 3, 2021 at 3:14 am

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Politics

A spotlight on the relationship between Government lobbyists and those in charge of newspapers, TV and radio

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BETWEEN June 1970 and October 1971, there was an extraordinary turnaround in public opinion in favour of the United Kingdom entering what was then-known as the European Economic Community.

But how was this achieved, and why? The green light was given for negotiations for the UK to join the EEC was given in 1969, and formal talks began in 1970. On 18 June 1970, Edward Heath’s Conservatives unexpectedly won a majority at a general election.

Nearly 30 years later, on the evening of 03 February, 2000, BBC Radio Four broadcast an extraordinary documentary called Document: A Letter To The Times, which explained how Heath’s Conservative government, along with pro-EEC allies from beyond the party, went about a co-ordinated campaign to try to turn the tide of public opinion in favour of joining.

In brief, public opinion was massively against EEC membership at that time. To try and turn things around, regular breakfast lobbying meetings held at a luxurious London hotel between senior politicians, newspaper editors and editorial staff in radio and TV news.

It is important to understand the context of the world as it was then. There were just three TV channels – BBC One, BBC Two and ITV, and the BBC had a monopoly in legal radio broadcasts across the country. The internet as we know it today did not exist, and very few people indeed would have had the ability to record TV or radio programmes.

Newspapers, both national and local, were very powerful, and were the main means of obtaining news and information beyond set news programming on TV and radio.

The campaign began by ensuring that letters written to The Times newspaper, putting a positive spin on EEC membership, appeared on an almost daily basis.

But if it was to succeed, the campaign needed to be more intense than that. The Times was regarded as ‘the paper of record’ in those days, but its readership was overwhelmingly middle class and conservative in outlook.

To reach more people, senior BBC radio editors were leaned on at these breakfast meetings, with the Today programme, Woman’s Hour and The World at One specifically targeted. The anti-EEC Jack de Manio was mysteriously removed as presenter of Radio Four’s flagship Today programme in 1971.

In the 2000 broadcast of Document: A Letter To The Times, Labour peer Roy Hattersley recalls his personal disgust when he attended a breakfast meeting at which similar actions to those shown to de Manio were made against other anti-EEC broadcasters.

In those days, BBC TV’s news bulletins were far shorter than we’re used to nowadays, and the ‘gold standard’ in TV news was ITV’s News at Ten programme, made by ITN. At the breakfast meetings, arrangements were made with News at Ten’s bosses for a nightly five-minute segment explaining what the EEC was about (with a positive spin put on it) was arranged, in return for the government giving the programme exclusive stories.

Near the end of the programme, Hattersley was utterly scathing of the lobbying that went on at these breakfast meetings. It was his belief that the government (and indeed the opposition) of the day should have been far more honest with the British people about the substantial loss of sovereignty that EEC membership would bring about, and that the failure to do so had played into eurosceptic hands (with justification) in the subsequent three decades, along with a substantial number of the electorate feeling they had been cheated about the project’s true intentions.

The breakfast meetings achieved their aim, public opinion turned substantially in their favour, Parliament voted to join the EEC and the United Kingdom became a member on 01 January 1973.

It is extraordinary that the BBC ever broadcast the programme at all, but it was never repeated. For years, a transcript of the programme was available online if you were willing to pay for it. Then, on 05 May this year, it appeared, in full, on YouTube. At the time of writing, just 26 people have listened to it (and one of those is me). You can do so by clicking here:

Document: A Letter To The Times

Towards the end of the documentary, a participant confirms that while the breakfast meetings of the day were formally wound up, similar lobbying events still took place between government officials, newspaper editors/owners and senior figures in major broadcasting institutions. This naturally leads one to question what influence such meetings have on what we see, read and hear today on a whole range of issues, the most pressing of which is the propaganda-like tone much of the mainstream media (especially BBC News and Sky News) takes on the wobbly theory of man-made climate change.

The way in which Roger Harrabin is routinely allowed to make claims about ‘climate change’ that go unchallenged by colleagues is a matter of interest, as is the way in which prominent BBC presenters such as Robin Page, Julian Pettifer, Johnny Ball and the late David Bellamy had their careers at the corporation cut short for having ‘non-BBC’, anti-establishment views on environmental issues. Meanwhile, Sir David Attenborough, at the age of 95, continues to be given regular prime time programmes on BBC television while his doom-mongering about ‘climate change’ is treated with a god-like reverence by his BBC colleagues.

Former BBC newsreader and Question Time host Peter Sissons outlines the BBC’s institutional bias

Certainly, the pro-EEC lobbying did not end with the disbandment of the breakfast meetings in the autumn of 1971. On 08 January 1973, a week after the UK formally joined the EEC, ITV broadcast a special pro-European version of the popular talent show Opportunity Knocks, hosted by Hughie Green, who, ironically, would become a member of UKIP towards the end of his life.

In 2010, newly-discovered documents from the National Archives showed that Prime Minister Heath was so desperate to convince a sceptical public about the merits of EEC membership that he asked Green to put together the programme, which featured singer Petula Clark, while Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff appeared on the show to reassure viewers that football in this country would not be affected by joining what was then most often referred to as the Common Market.

Viewers watching at the time would have had no idea that the programme had been made at the behest of Ministers and officials at the Foreign Office.

Green was approached by Conservative peer Lord Mancroft, who, at Heath’s request, was organising a series of events to promote Britain’s entry into the EEC.

A Foreign Office memo dated 29 June 1972 states: “At Lord Mancroft’s suggestion, Mr Hughie Green has produced the enclosed scheme for an enlarged EEC version of his show Opportunity Knocks to be screened in January 1973. The Prime Minister is anxious that Britain’s projected entry into the EEC should be marked and publicised at all levels and we agree that this idea could make a useful contribution.”

The UK was represented by the Don Bosco Youth Orchestra from Liverpool, who played the Simon and Garfunkel hit Mrs Robinson.

Germany’s entry was a comedy juggler, Denmark opted for two members of the Royal Danish Ballet and France went for a 14-year-old singer. Each of the competitors was introduced by a sponsor who had links to the performer’s homeland, and acts were judged by the show’s famous ‘clapometer’.

Green asked each sponsor a question designed to elicit a positive response about the UK’s entry into the EEC. He told French sponsor Henri Pierre, a columnist with newspaper Le Monde, that ‘many of our viewers are not in favour of joining the European Community’. Pierre stated that no one living in an existing member state had suffered any loss of national identity, while the Belgium sponsor assured viewers that food prices would not increase (in reality, many years of inflation followed).

Aletta, a German singer, warned of the danger of the ‘propaganda and nationalism which stopped us all becoming one’ and was cheered by the audience when she insisted the British might benefit from contact with the German work ethic, while the Italian-born actress Katie Boyle, already well-known on British TV, said UK women would benefit from the fashion sense of their French and Italian counterparts.

But the propaganda certainly didn’t stop there. Labour’s Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974, with the promise of a referendum on EEC membership, which was duly held on 05 June 1975.

Again, the EEC and the Government ensured the odds of a Yes vote were stacked in their favour, despite public opinion being in favour of a No vote at the start of the campaign.

Every major national newspaper (with the exception of the far-left Morning Star) favoured a Yes vote. The Daily Express, which in those days sold more than two million copies per day, and was mainly read by working and lower middle class people, had been firmly opposed to the Common Market for many years beforehand but changed its mind in plenty of time for polling day.

Official pamphlets, distributed at taxpayers’ expense to all homes, were hugely biased. There was one for Yes, one for No, and then another one for Yes, on the grounds it was the opinion of the Government. In reality, collective Cabinet responsibility had been suspended and several members of the Cabinet had actively campaigned in favour of a No vote.

The Yes campaign had every major national newspaper, as well as big business and the leadership of both main parties on its side. The No campaign, while benefitting from the passionate oratory of Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and Peter Shore, as well as the campaigning skills of businessman John Mills, looked thin on resources and defensive from the start.

Spending figures (not taking into account huge inflation in the years since) for the Yes campaign were £1,850,000 and just £133,000 for the No campaign. Why was there no spending ceiling? (These figures were obtained from a superb book, ‘The Great Deception’ by the late Christopher Booker and Richard North, which gives the best account of the history of the EU and our relations with it).

Do breakfast meetings between senior politicians, lobbyists, newspaper editors/owners and senior figures in broadcasting still take place today? Maybe, or maybe not. Perhaps they take a different form nowadays.

It was certainly dubious that former EU Commissioner Lord Chris Patten was permitted to serve as Chairman of the BBC Trust between 2011 and 2014, when in receipt of an EU pension that could be removed if he didn’t respect his “duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance… of certain appointments or benefits.”

The BBC’s slavish reporting of ‘Project Fear’ in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum, without properly challenging the claims (no matter how ludicrous), was followed by several years of Question Time panels being dominated week after week by individuals demanding Brexit be stopped, reversed or watered down.

In recent months, little has been said on the BBC about the reality that being outside the EU’s Covid vaccine procurement programme has allowed the UK to roll out several vaccines with a speed and efficiency not seen in any other EU country, and that numerous lives have undoubtedly been saved in Britain as a result.

Other benefits of Brexit are beginning to filter through, though you’d never guess this by watching BBC News or Sky News.

It’s extraordinary that Document: A Letter To The Times was ever broadcast at all by the BBC, though it comes as no surprise that it was never repeated or made available on the BBC’s online catch-up services. Thankfully, it has now appeared on YouTube from what appears to be a private collection.

It gives an astonishing insight into the relationship between Government, lobbyists, and those who decide what we watch, hear and read. Nowadays, the breakfast meetings may or may not take place, but clandestine activities and pressures are undoubtedly applied as much now as they were 50 years ago.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 22, 2021 at 4:18 am

Posted in Politics, Review

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 60: Woke

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THE WORD ‘woke’ seems to be everywhere nowadays. How did we get from a situation where unpleasant racial slurs were rightly made socially unacceptable, to what we have today, where a small minority of the population is constantly on the lookout for new things to be offended by?

With every year that passes, the sphere of opinions it’s considered socially acceptable to hold becomes narrower and narrower, and ever-greater limits are placed on free speech and freedom of expression.

In so many spheres of work, certain opinions are now compulsory, while others are impossible to express, particularly if you want to hold on to your job or gain promotion. Why has so much ground been conceded to performance offence takers?

In this podcast, Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins try to make sense of how British, and indeed Western society got into this mess, and what can be done to get us out of it.

Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins
Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins

At the heart of it is a long-running far-left culturally Marxist agenda to destabilise and undermine the pillars of society such as the traditional family unit, the police, the civil service, the media and the education system.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Spotify and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 5, 2021 at 10:12 pm

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Politics

Do sports magazine programmes have a place in the modern era?

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THE ONGOING Olympics in Tokyo bring back memories for those of us over the age of about 25 of multisport magazine programmes that have almost completely fallen out of fashion since Grandstand was axed in 2007.

While the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics has received much criticism for the excessive amount of time given over to studio waffle and fluffy features, it is nevertheless exposing casual viewers to sporting events and disciplines they would not otherwise see. And this begs the question: Is there still a place for sports magazine programmes in the modern era?

Today’s children and young adults will not have any meaningful recollection of watching Grandstand and Sunday Grandstand, and nobody under about 45 will be able to remember World of Sport very well.

For those who need a educating on this, Grandstand was the BBC’s flagship Saturday afternoon sports programme, that ran from 1958 until 2007 on BBC One, starting at around midday and running until approximately 5pm. A Sunday equivalent launched in 1981 and aired during the summer months on BBC Two, becoming an all-year-round programme from 1998.

Until the late 1980s, the BBC held many of televised sport’s most prestigious contracts – England’s Test cricket, Wimbledon, the Five Nations rugby union, Challenge Cup rugby league, the Grand National and much more.

ITV launched a rival in 1965, under the direction of maverick boss John Bromley, who openly admitted years later that they were making it up as they went along. Most of the contracts for the most high-profile events were held by the BBC, a situation that was unlikely to change radically any time soon. The first edition of Wide World of Sport, on 2 January 1965, featured swimming from the lido in Porthcawl, wrestling from Leytonstone and snooker from the National Liberal Club in London, After six weeks, they hadn’t ventured much further afield, and the ‘Wide’ was dropped from the programme’s title.

The BBC’s Grandstand presenter of the day, David Coleman, predicted they’d have their new rival off the air within six weeks. In reality, it kept going until 1985.

World of Sport is often unfairly caricatured as being second-rate and lacking quality. But as Dickie Davies, the host from 1968 onwards points out, it usually beat Grandstand in the ratings, except when the very big events were taking place such as Wimbledon and the Grand National.

Dickie Davies World of Sport
Dickie Davies presenting an edition of World of Sport on ITV in the 1970s

It’s also untrue to say that World of Sport didn’t have access to high-profile events. It had access to the pick of the flat horse racing season, along with major equestrian events and recordings of world title fights from Las Vegas and New York.

But World of Sport was known for showcasing minority sports, and for televising whatever it could get its hands on from worldwide English language broadcasters, from NASCAR to water skiing. It also led the way in popularising British wrestling in its traditional 4pm slot, which made household names of the likes of Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Kendo Nagasaki.

Grandstand was the establishment’s programme, while World of Sport was unashamedly downmarket and the choice of working people. While Grandstand was showing England in the Five Nations, World of Sport may well have been showing stockcar racing from Ipswich. But it was the latter that was being talked about in the inner city pubs that night.

The contrast between the two programmes could perhaps best be explained by their approaches to covering the FA Cup final, where they went head-to-head every year. While Grandstand offered round by round analysis of the two teams’ journey to Wembley and earnest tactical analysis, World of Sport would typically have Jimmy Tarbuck and celebrity supporters of both clubs having a sing song around the piano, as well as games and competitions.

That’s not to say that World of Sport’s approach to covering the FA Cup final was unprofessional. Dickie Davies was not only the housewives’ choice as anchor, he was also highly professional, while match commentator Brian Moore was arguably the best commentator of his generation. The different approaches were more a case of middle class versus working class, or perhaps it is better described as establishment versus anti-establishment.

Horse racing was another area where the contrast between the two programmes could be seen. Grandstand’s coverage was anchored by Julian Wilson, a Harrow-educated, knowledgeable man with immaculate appearance and a patrician accent, though he tended to present from quieter areas of the course and he clearly considered racing a serious business.

Over on World of Sport, the horse racing coverage was, during its 1970s heyday, anchored by John Rickman, an avuncular, moustached, jolly figure who would doth his trilby hat at the start of each broadcast.

John Rickman horse racing
John Rickman, ITV’s avuncular horse racing presenter

With the exception of major meetings, Grandstand would generally show horse racing during the earlier part of the programme, from one course, with other sports filling the gaps between races. World of Sport took a different approach. Horse racing was usually shown in a 90-minute block from around 1:30pm, generally from two different courses from as many as seven races, and viewers would have the opportunity to place a bet on the ITV Seven competition, which was revived in 2017 when ITV resumed its coverage of horse racing.

The cultural differences between the two programmes could be seen with their differing approaches to horse racing. Neither was right or wrong, and both were professional in their own way. But they were different.

Long-time host Dickie Davies has gone on record saying he sensed World of Sport was coming to an end before the plug was pulled in September 1985. He didn’t specify why, but, looking back, it’s possible to piece it together.

ITV had scaled back its horse racing coverage in the early 1980s, particularly on midweek afternoons, when programming such as Australian soaps was deemed more appealing to the female demographic most likely to be at home at the time. There was at least one occasion when viewers in the Central region broadcast a film in place of the horse racing being shown on other ITV regions.

With this in mind, from 22 March 1984, ITV transferred all its midweek racing to Channel 4 (a channel with which it had a sort of half-sibling relationship prior to 1993, with cross-promotion and co-operation in many areas). Towards the end of its run, World of Sport would often only show racing from one meeting rather than two each Saturday.

It was also noticeable how, during its final years, there were fewer eccentric offerings on World of Sport. They didn’t disappear completely, but the programme had been taken noticeably upmarket.

There was also a sense that sports rights holders would take the broadcasters more seriously if they showed their sport (or perhaps more specifically, their product), as a stand-alone programme rather than as something slotted around other sports in a magazine format. This attitude was to have consequences for the BBC more than a decade later.

With this thought in mind, World of Sport came to a low-key end of 28 September 1985. In his closing remarks, presenter Dickie Davies made it clear that there would still be sport on ITV every Saturday afternoon. Horse racing was moving to Channel 4 (where midweek horse racing had been for nearly 18 months by this stage). The On the Ball football preview segment which was shown at the start of World of Sport each week during the football season would still be shown at roughly the same time, albeit rebranded Saint and Greavsie after the programme’s presenters, Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves.

The 4pm wrestling slot was moved to lunchtime as a stand-alone programme. This would typically be followed by an hour of non-sports programming, such as Knight Rider or Airwolf. Then, there would be around two hours of two hours of sporting action, often live, followed at 4:40pm by Results Service, which was previously the concluding part of World of Sport.

Nick Owen
Nick Owen presenting athletics on ITV in 1988

That mid-afternoon two-hour block on a Saturday afternoon typically featured athletics (ITV obtained the rights to British domestic athletics from 1985 and also had access to some major international events), gymnastics, figure skating, snooker and darts. The major loss at this stage was the minority interest sports that World of Sport would cover, along with the coverage of events it would buy in from the USA and Australia. It was to be several years, and the advent of satellite TV, before speedway was again shown to a UK-wide audience.  American motorsport and various other events from worldwide English language broadcasters were shown on overnight ITV when 24 hour broadcasting was rolled out, region by region, from the late 1980s onwards, but these events were lost from daytime TV.

At the time World of Sport was axed, society was changing. The old industrial working class was in decline, and a new service-based, consumer-led economy was emerging. ITV Sport was also changing. It was shaking off its image as the understudy to the BBC, and made a conscious decision to attract a more middle class demographic, as well as to put greater emphasis on live events. It capitalised in a major way on the growth in figure skating following Torvill and Dean’s triumph in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. The British athletics contract allowed them to cover athletics as a summer-long narrative each year at both domestic and international level.

They capitalised on the popularity of snooker, showing up to four events per season. In boxing, ITV’s already-established reputation for covering world title fights from the USA was enhanced with regular access to British boxing via a deal with then-rebel promoter Frank Warren, who broke up the monopoly the BBC then had to British boxing due to a cartel run by Micky Duff, Harry Levene, Jarvis Astaire, Mike Barrett and Terry Lawless.

By 1988, three years after the demise of World of Sport, ITV Sport was looking increasingly upmarket and credible. That year, ITV obtained exclusive rights to the Football League, at the cost of £11 million per season. The previous deal, which saw coverage shared between the BBC and ITV, was worth a total of around £3.1 million per season.

Greg Dyke and Trevor East were the masterminds behind the new ITV deal, which revolutionised football coverage at the time. ITV showed almost no highlights at network level, despite having the rights to them. Instead, almost all coverage was centred around the 21 live matches they could broadcast per season, usually on Sunday afternoons.  

When the deal was announced, Dyke made a brief reference to the need to save a bit of money, and that some darts and gymnastics events in ITV’s portfolio would no longer be covered. In reality, something far more radical happened. Dyke axed all ITV’s coverage of darts, bowls and gymnastics, which saved around £1.5 million per year. Most controversially of all, British wrestling was axed, and the money invested in boxing.

For the viewer, the new football contract meant that Saturday afternoon sport on ITV was no longer as frequent. Saint and Greavsie remained in their lunchtime slot and Results Service came on air at teatime, but the hours in between were often filled with American imports or films, except on Saturdays when an ITV snooker tournament or athletics event was taking place.

For fans of former World of Sport staples like speedway, with satellite TV still a year away, their only real hope was to be living in an area that could receive cable TV where they could watch such things on the semi-forgotten but underrated Screensport channel.

Over at the BBC, life pretty much carried on as before following the demise of World of Sport. Since the 1960s, Saturday afternoon Grandstand had been accompanied by a midweek mini-version called Sportsnight, which really peaked during the 1970s. A typical edition of Sportsnight would come on air at 9:30pm and would almost immediately cross over live to Wembley Arena or the Royal Albert Hall for a top-of-the-bill British, European or Commonwealth title fight, in the pre-Frank Warren era when the aforementioned cartel controlled British boxing and all had contracts with the BBC.

If the top-of-the-bill fight was over quickly, highlights of the undercard would follow. If there wasn’t time, it would be shown the following Saturday on Grandstand. Beyond that, a typical Sportsnight would include FA Cup and European football highlights, plus whatever else the BBC had the rights to, which included live late-night greyhound racing for many years.

1988 was also a year of change at BBC Sport. Certain sports were controlled by Jonathan Martin from his Manchester base, but the department was reorganised and all sports administration was to take place in London. As a result, there was a substantial reduction in the amount of darts, bowls and rugby league shown on the BBC. The late 1980s were not a good time to be a fan of working class sports on British TV.

Around the same time, the BBC’s interest in boxing began to dwindle. Earlier in the decade, ITV had created an equivalent programme to Sportsnight called Midweek Sport Special, which centred around football and boxing (though snooker, darts, athletics and ice skating also featured), which, due to their deal with Frank Warren, saw much of the best domestic boxing now appear on commercial television. The BBC persevered with the ‘old guard’ promoters for many years afterwards, but there was a gradual reduction in its frequency and prominence as the 1980s progressed. The BBC’s coverage of Frank Bruno v Mike Tyson in 1989 would be the last time they covered a world title fight live for many years afterwards, and boxing’s profile on Sportsnight and indeed Grandstand became less prominent.

I was born in 1983, and therefore the 1990s was the key decade in forming my interest in sport. The way sport was covered on TV changed radically during the decade, to both my delight and frustration.

In 1989, two rival satellite TV services launched, British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) and Sky Television. Sky, which relied more heavily on US imports and budget entertainment offerings from the UK, was a shareholder in the original incarnation of Eurosport, and so its sports programming was shown on there and on its entertainment channel, Sky One, from its launch in 1989. BSB, with its superior technology and greater emphasis on British programming, launched The Sports Channel as part of its package from March 1990. Sky pulled out of Eurosport in 1991, and following the merger of Sky and BSB, The Sports Channel was renamed Sky Sports in April 1991.

The impact of satellite TV sports channels was enormous. England’s winter cricket tours were covered live and in full for the first time. The US Open tennis, for which the BBC only showed the final live, received tournament-long blanket coverage on Sky. Coverage of other sports was revolutionised. Boss Vic Wakeling and his senior producers would see what they could learn from the way the American broadcasters covered the NFL, or how Channel 9 in Australia showcased cricket, and would replicate it with innovation and glamour.

Sky did this with every sport they covered. Prior to Sky’s arrival, the BBC was considered the ‘gold standard’ for snooker coverage (though ITV’s coverage was fairly close to it in terms of quality). But Sky took things onto a new level. The presentation booth was perched in the arena itself, overlooking the table, which, prior to play starting, had a silhouette spotlight with the Sky Sports logo on it. Players entered the arena to a smoke machine and music. They went into ad breaks with musical montages of the frame we’d just witnessed. A similar approach was taken with the launch of PDC darts (initially known as WDC) from the time of Sky’s coverage of the inaugural World Championship in 1994. When Sky obtained exclusive live rights for Premier League football from its inception in 1992/93, they brought us the ‘Sky Strikers’ cheerleaders, the ball was brought into the stadium via a parachute, and, in the early days of Monday Night Football, there were fireworks after every match. There were more cameras and slicker graphics than we’d seen before. The BBC’s coverage was made to look staid overnight.

Jeff Stelling snooker
Jeff Stelling presenting the Sky Sports coverage of the British Open snooker in 1996

The downside to Sky Sports was that they were, by definition, broadcasting to far smaller audiences than free-to-air channels, and we didn’t get Sky in our house until the early 2000s. However, the 1990s was still a great time to be a young sports fan. The advent of the Premier League meant the return of Saturday night highlights on Match of the Day every week for the first time since the mid-1980s. In athletics, we could follow a summer-long narrative during a fruitful time for British athletes with the biggest ‘Golden Four’ events from across Europe being shown live on Friday nights on ITV from 8pm, with coverage transferring to Channel 4 at 9pm. ITV also showed domestic athletics and major indoor events, while the BBC showed Grand Prix level events (generally shown live on BBC Two at midweek) plus the World and European Championships.

For boxing fans, Lennox Lewis’s fights promoted by Frank (now Kellie) Maloney were contracted to Sky, as were a lot of the British promotions once shown on the BBC (with a fair amount of domestic boxing also on the relaunched Eurosport). ITV was very much the home of Britain’s leading fighters for the first half of the decade, with Frank Warren and Barry Hearn promotions a regular feature of prime time Saturday nights for the first half of the decade, before both took their stables to Sky. The likes of Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed became household names because of the coverage they had during the first half of the 1990s on ITV’s The Big Fight Live. ITV also showed big fights from the USA promoted by Don King.

While Sky was revolutionising coverage of sport on British TV, and while ITV was making the most of its policy of showcasing big live events it had the rights to, the BBC’s Grandstand and Sportsnight were struggling to find their place in this rapidly-changing world. As a sports fan, I had a love-hate relationship with the BBC’s multisport programmes.

These programmes were a friend to the casual fan who likes to consume sport in bitesize segments. If you wanted to dip in to badminton, squash, or superbikes for half an hour here and there, Grandstand was ideal for you. However, if you like your fix of Six Nations rugby to be preceded with video montages and lengthy studio discussions with pundits, Grandstand in the 1990s could be a nuisance.

Steve Rider Grandstand
Steve Rider presenting Grandstand in 1993

Earlier this year, I wrote about the massive growth in popularity of the Six Nations over the last two-and-a-half decades, brought about in part because organisers preferred the tournament to be shown as stand-alone programmes, rather than as part of Grandstand.

It’s worth remembering now that for much of what was then the Five Nations in the 1990s, Grandstand would be hosted from the BBC studio in Shepherd’s Bush, with the host (usually Steve Rider) handing over to the commentators moments before kick-off, with other sports being shown until shortly beforehand. Not long after the final whistle, they’d return to the studio for the Final Score vidiprinter. If we were lucky, we’d get the conclusion of the ‘other’ Five Nations match taking place shown live if it kicked off slightly later, or brief highlights lasting a matter of minutes. Interviews with the players and coaches from both matches tended to be confined to a few moments after Final Score.

Similarly, coverage of snooker tournaments was sandwiched in between horse races, and significant chunks of cricket matches were missed to show other sports.

Something that is often forgotten nowadays is that the BBC actually lost the rights to show Sunday League cricket between 1990 and 1992. The context of this was that prior to 1981, Sunday League cricket was shown as a stand-alone programme on BBC Two, where they would cover a match in full.

From 1981 onwards, the Sunday League was shown as part of the newly-launched Sunday Grandstand, and coverage was slotted around whatever else they were showing. Formula One, motorcycle racing, athletics and golf all took up significant chunks of the programme during the summer months.

By the late 1980s, a typical Sunday Grandstand would see about 15 minutes of coverage from the Sunday League from around 2:45pm, and from approximately 5pm, they would show the concluding hour-and-a-bit of the match live, with commentary from Peter Walker (who previously presented the Sunday League stand-alone programme) and Ralph Dellor.

For avid cricket fans, this could be infuriating. So from 1990, the rights transferred initially to Sky One, and then Sky Sports, who would show the matches live and in full, with extra razzmatazz thrown in. From 1993, the BBC and Sky Sports shared the rights to the Sunday League, with Sky generally having the more glamorous matches. Live matches on the BBC were fewer in number and in the final few years seemed to always feature either Durham (then a new first class county) or Glamorgan. When the BBC regained access to the Sunday League, they showed more of the small number of matches they had access to on Sunday Grandstand than they had during the late 1980s, though large sections of matches were still missed as airtime was shared with other sports.

Charles Colvile cricket
Charles Colvile presenting Sunday League cricket on Sky Sports in 1995

While Grandstand could be an irritant if you wanted fuller coverage of the sports you enjoyed, or you wished it could be shown with the glitz, glamour and resources Sky Sports threw at all sports they covered at the time, it was nevertheless a friend to the casual fan, and on giving people a taster of sports they wouldn’t otherwise see.

Take the British Touring Car Championship as an example. Make no mistake, coverage of it has never been better or more comprehensive than the current level it receives on ITV4. But only the most discerning of fans will watch the seven hours of live coverage the channel dedicates to each and every round during the summer.

When it was shown as highlights as part of Grandstand or Sunday Grandstand, surrounded by other sports and therefore watched by far more casual fans, the likes of Will Hoy, Alain Menu and Jason Plato became household names. Can we really say that many beyond the discerning viewers of ITV4’s coverage would know the names of modern-day champions such as Colin Turkington and Ashley Sutton?

On a similar note, the British Superbike Championship, the World Superbike Championship and Moto GP all receive far better and more comprehensive coverage as stand-alone broadcasts on digital channels, but who except avid fans can name the sport’s current world champions? When these events were shown as part of Grandstand, they were far better known.

By the early 2000s, Grandstand was very clearly beginning to lose its way. The BBC scaled back its horse racing coverage voluntarily – it really didn’t have to. Then, Football Focus and Final Score were siphoned off into separate programmes in their own right. Grandstand itself began to suffer more and more with events it once had the rights to disappearing, mainly to Sky Sports. There was no cricket left at all after the 1999 World Cup. In rugby league, the advent of the Super League saw the Regal Trophy axed and the Challenge Cup unofficially downgraded in status. The rights to the FA Cup final were lost to ITV for several years.

In its final few years, Grandstand was rarely presented from the studio and instead was hosted at the venue of whatever the main sporting event it was showing. Around this time, and with Football Focus and Final Score no longer a part of the programme, the diminished Grandstand increasingly focussed on just one sport per edition.

The advantages of having sports shown as stand-alone programmes are clear – better branding, proper build-up, a greater sense of occasion. Yet something has been lost with the demise of the sports magazine programme – the public profile of squash, badminton, ice hockey and various categories of motorsport has diminished hugely beyond their most discerning fans. The opportunity to be a casual fan of any of these events who wants to dip into half an hour of highlights here and there has been lost.

These small chunks of exposure on magazine programmes undoubtedly helped keep minority sports in the public domain, as well as attracting new fans and giving future champions their gateway.

The ongoing Olympics demonstrate that there is still a place for sports magazine programmes. But the reality is that the Team GB medal winners will largely fade from the public consciousness within weeks of the games ending, and their sports will seldom be seen on free-to-air TV until the next Olympic or Commonwealth Games.

The power of coming across a new sport you like by accident because it’s slotted into a multi-event magazine programme should not be underestimated, and it’s something broadcasters and governing bodies ought to bear in mind.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 5, 2021 at 8:41 pm

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Review, Sport

Champ Wayne Warren Brands BDO Bosses ‘Pigs’

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THE WORLD of darts has already moved on from the collapse of dysfunctional governing body the British Darts Organisation (BDO), but its final world champion, Wayne Warren, made his views on chairman Des Jacklin very clear in a recent interview.

The Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), who broke away from the BDO in the mid-1990s, continues to go from strength to strength in managing the elite end of the sport, while on the non-PDC side, the global governing body, the World Darts Federation (WDF) and a new UK-based organisation, Modern Amateur Darts (MAD) provide cause for cautious optimism for the way in which they’ve picked up the pieces on the grass roots and developmental side of the game following the demise of the BDO.

Warren, winner of the last BDO World Championship in January 2020, is one of many people unlikely to receive money they’re owed following the collapse of the BDO’s commercial arm, BDO Enterprises Ltd.

Warren, a 59-year-old roofer from Tynewydd, received just £23,000 of the £100,000 first prize at the tournament, staged at the Indigo at the O2, London.

Warren said he would hold on to the winner’s trophy until he was paid what he was owed, but in January, South Wales police seized it from his home following an investigation, and on 19 February, BDO chairman Des Jacklin broke COVID travel rules to make a nine-hour round trip from his home in Gainsborough to Pontypridd Police Station, where he collected it.

Wayne Warren BDO world champion
Wayne Warren won the last BDO World Championship in Januray 2020

Jacklin then posted a picture of himself with the trophy in his home, and declared the BDO ‘very much alive’, despite a court order to wind up having been issued nine days earlier.

Warren maintained a dignified silence for several months, but on 23 July, after finishing runner-up at the MAD Global Title match in Manchester, he said, “When the police came in to my house, and I had my little [grandson] there, he was six. When he started crying, he was frightened, and ran up the stairs, that’s what hurt me. I’ll tell you this now, from this day on. Des Jacklin, and Paula Jacklin, are pigs. Simple as.”

“This police officer said they’ll keep in touch with me. They never did. The next time I’d seen it, was in his property, on Facebook. That’s what they’re like. Pigs.”

Written by Marcus Stead

August 4, 2021 at 5:56 pm

Posted in Business, Sport

GB News Farage-O!

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GB News needs all the friends it can get at the moment, and it appears to have one in the Guido Fawkes website, who triumphantly reported Nigel Farage’s new show as a ratings hit.

On July 26, Guido said of Farage’s debut week, “Farage has once again steered a political project back on course; to the annoyance of both his and GB News’ critics, Farage’s show was the most watched show on the channel this week, and beat Sky News Tonight with Dermot Murnaghan every single day it was on air.”

Nigel Farage on GB News
Nigel Farage on GB News

While this statement is correct, it doesn’t paint the full picture. Farage debuted on the Monday of that week with an average of 96,300 viewers. The following day it had dropped to 85,300, the day after that it was 71,700 and the final programme on Thursday saw a further fall to 67,100.

A more accurate description would be that Monday’s debut show had a ‘curiosity factor’ which prompted people to tune in to see how Farage performed, but the number of people tuning in fell each day and by the fourth and final show of the week, figures had dropped by 30%.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 4, 2021 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Humour, Politics

Cerys Hedges Her Bets!

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TRYING to be all things to all people rarely ends well, but former Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews hedged her bets and didn’t enter into the Olympic spirit on 25 July by tweeting, “Why does the term ‘Team GB’ make me itch so?”

Matthews, 52, grew up in South Wales but has lived in Ladbroke Grove, West London with her husband for many years, and is nowadays best known for her music shows on BBC Radio 2, 6 Music and the World Service.

Cerys Matthews Team GB tweet
Cerys Matthews’s tweet on 25 July

But with regular appearances on Welsh language outlets S4C and Radio Cymru supplementing her income, and with the Welsh establishment’s annual gathering at the National Eisteddfod only a week away, Matthews appeared keen to do her bit to stay on the right side of the nationalists who control much of the Welsh media.

Back in 1999, Catatonia’s third album, Equally Cursed and Blessed, included a passionate diatribe against the monarchy called Storm the Palace, which includes lyrics such as, ‘Turn it into a bar, let them work in Spar’, ‘Turn it into flats, make them all ex-pats’ and ‘You can stick your OBE, I’ll sort out your bad Feng Shui’.

But that didn’t stop Matthews from taking a trip there in November 2014 to be appointed a Member of the British Empire for services to music by the Prince of Wales.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 4, 2021 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Humour