Media: Des Lynam was just the start. To ITV's head of sport, the whole BBC is fair game

Not only did ITV sports supremo Brian Barwick defect from the BBC, he went on to poach Des Lynam. Now he is in on a mission to relieve his ex-team mates of another valuable asset - Match of the Day
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The Independent Culture
The first thing I wanted to ask ITV's head of sport Brian Barwick was not how he lured Des Lynam away from the BBC - though he did tell me. It was how ITV's sports presenter and former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson took the news.

"Yes, it was hard to break that to Bob Wilson," Barwick admits. "He is a human being. I did it face to face on the Monday morning we announced Des was coming. Bob was hurt, and I can fully understand that, but over a number of weeks he has bounced back. It was a difficult conversation to have, but I was determined to have it, as I care for the bloke."

Wilson is in fact now presenting a Champions League highlights programme while Lynam hosts the live games. But the way Barwick set up and handled the change-over gives a clue to the style of the man who is rapidly becoming the key player in television sport.

He revels in the cloak and dagger nature of arranging a top signing (journeys down to Lynam's seaside home and walks along the sand at Worthing, as he reminded him how little live soccer the BBC now had). A sense of drama and a love of news from his early newspaper training meant he enjoyed the secrecy of the operation and told no one, including Wilson, until minutes before the official announcement.

But he also "cares for the bloke." The ruddy faced, ginger moustached Barwick is a tremendously affable and straight-talking man, and part of his spectacular success at ITV - getting Des Lynam, the Rugby World Cup, the England v Argentina world cup game and of course the Champions League - lies in his friendships and contacts, most of which were made, it has to be said, in the 18 years that he worked for BBC sport, editing Match Of the Day and producing BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

"You've got to have tenacity," Barwick says. "There's a lot of networking done in this game."

That must rankle at the corporation. And it is about to rankle a lot more. For Barwick now wants to pinch his old programme Match of the Day. How could he do it, they must be thinking, a man who was BBC through and through. It was Barwick and Lynam who put their heads together and decided Nessun Dorma would be a good theme tune for Italia 90. No, they were told, Pavarotti would never agree. "It's not in keeping" said the man from Decca, who was later over-ruled, but whom Barwick still likens to the bloke who turned down The Beatles. Yes, Barwick was a BBC animal. He even did an impression of the late rugby commentator Eddie Waring at his job interview nearly 20 years ago.

This is the one subject that brings a blush to the bulky figure of Barwick. Not only did he do Eddie at his interview; he was in his younger days a member of the Eddie Waring Appreciation Society, a hero-worshipping group of fans featured on the now defunct BBC Nationwide programme. A tape still exists at Broadcasting House, much to Barwick's embarrasssment. "I told them I do the best Eddie Waring impression in Great Britain," he recalls. "I said, if you do give me a second interview I will do it all in Eddie Waring."

Barwick grew up, the son of a tailor, in Liverpool and remains a fanatical supporter of Liverpool FC. He gritted his teeth as he said that a turning point in ITV's sports coverage was the live league winning title game in 1989, when Arsenal beat Liverpool at Anfield. "At Anfield," he wails, shaking his head. He went to Quarry Bank school, as did John Lennon; though Barwick describes it as "a working class Eton" - a description Lennon may not have relished. Politicians Peter Shore, Bill Rogers and comedian Les Dennis also attended. He then went into newspapers, and he still reads them all before setting out for work - and spots the mistakes.

"Did you see Jim White in The Guardian said that Des has less time to speak on ITV? Totally wrong. He has more time. At the BBC football usually followed Eastenders, so there was very little time for preamble. At half time you'd show the goals from the premiership. And at the end you had to get off for the news. Des actually said to me after last week's Manchester United game: `That's the most time I've had in a football match.' But then Jim White works for the BBC, doesn't he?"

Barwick probably enjoys a good conspiracy theory, particularly if his old employers are involved. Certainly, he is loving the thought of plotting to relieve them of another incalculable sporting asset.

"I expect the BBC to fight tooth and nail to keep Match of the Day. It's part of their overall strategy, let alone sports strategy. But premier league rights will be coming up in the mix. We won't get every live game, but I do wonder whether there will be some live games available and whether we can move Match of the Day. We would show it earlier in the evening to get a bigger audience. We want a stakehold in the premier league."

Barwick can be scathing about how the BBC failed to hold on to great sporting events, and missed the boat in other ways. "It got into ice skating after Torvill and Dean and gymnastics after Korbutt." But then surely Barwick, who was there for 18 years until November 1997, must have seen what was going on and should have spoken out against it.

"I raised it again and again. But the moment things started getting wobbly a few people went missing in their support. I think it became a little embarrassing for them. People like to be associated with success." He didn't want to name names, but agreed the buck stops with the channel controllers and the director general.

When his own defection occurred two years ago, he was still very much a BBC man, but ITV director of programmes David Liddiment made him an offer he couldn't refuse. As well as being ITV controller of sport, he could start up and be director of programmes of ITV2, ITV's digital channel. It is an odd dual role, but starting a channel and being in charge of sport was not a combination he could dream of turning down.

ITV2 under Barwick is now nine months old and its main strength is what he calls "Catch-up television." Popular programmes from the main channel are shown at different times, or as Barwick puts it: "My wife can now watch Coronation Street at 10pm when the children have gone to bed." Sport is another big ingredient with 17 of the Rugby World Cup games on ITV2, almost as many as the 24 on ITV. Last weekend he also introduced live Italian soccer to ITV2. "You've got to be honest," says Barwick as few others in the digital programming world are, "it's modest at the moment, but the awareness is creeping up all the time." He chuckles to think of the 26m who watched Manchester United win the Champions League, contrasting it with viewing figures for some ITV 2 programmes. "I suppose I've been responsible for ITV's biggest audience in its history, and the smallest."

Which programme is he thinking of? "Take any programme on ITV2."

It doesn't really bother him. While he is relishing his responsibility for ITV2, it is his contact with sporting legends and signing some of them, that continues to gives him the most intense pleasure in his job. On the wall of his office is a framed signed Brazilian shirt from Pele.

"He's got one of mine on his wall," jokes Barwick, before musing, like the good Liverpudlian he is, with a linguistic flourish: "The most fun I've had is touching the ermine of the cloak of fame - and I've had a good laugh."