Sport's own dirty digger

Greg Dyke is fronting up a sports investigation series. It's a bit like getting Rupert Murdoch to host a series on Aussie Rules, says James Rampton
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the opening titles for Fair Game feature a stack of used fivers nestling in a brown envelope. No, it's not a programme about organised crime, but a new six-part investigation into sport.

What with the recent stories about Eric Cantona, Bruce Grobbelaar, the English hoolies in Dublin, Dennis Wise, George Graham and the Rugby League Super League, sport is increasingly being transferred from the back page to the front.

The latest manifestation of this trend is Fair Game, which is moving television sport out of the Grandstand ghetto into a more "des res" current- affairs slot on Channel 4 at 8pm on a Thursday evening.

So just why is sport now being played out in the arena of hard news? Speaking down a crackly mobile line from Yorkshire, Greg Dyke launches into his reply with the same brio he brings to presenting Fair Game. "It's a time of enormous change in sport, largely fuelled by money from television. And news is about change,'' he crackles.

"But you do wonder whether the sports authorities are structured to deal with it,'' he continues. "The people who run sport as a pastime for you and me are the same people who are trying to run it as a very professional part of the entertainments industry. You going for a knock-up at your local tennis courts is not the same as Wimbledon. I remember Graham Taylor saying to me that when he was made England manager he thought he was going to be an important person at the FA, but he found out he was less important than the member for Norfolk.''

With the honourable exception of On the Line, television has in the past shown the fighting spirit of the England cricket team in tackling sports investigations. "It's about rights'', Dyke reckons. "If as a TV company you're trying to get the rights to the FA Cup and next week you turn the FA over, they're not going to like it. It's the same with the newspapers. I don't think sports journalists are really journalists at all. They lost the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction years ago.''

Dyke, formerly chief executive of LWT and currently head of Pearson's television operation (which owns Thames), is quite a catch for Fair Game, made by Yorkshire. It's a bit like getting Rupert Murdoch to host a series on Aussie Rules. Dyke, a bearded, bubbling blur of energy, accepted the offer from Fair Game before landing the job at Pearson. He felt honour- bound to fulfil his contract with Channel 4, and Pearson graciously allowed him six weeks off. Although "at that time,'' Dyke laughs, "they didn't think I was going to spend $270m on buying Grundy Worldwide [makers of, among other things, Neighbours].''

This Clark Kent-style double life had, Dyke admits, "touches of farce about it. One day I was standing in Wensleydale in thick snow waiting for a bent jockey to turn up - which he didn't, because bent jockeys never turn up. At the same time, I was waiting for a satellite link-up to my mobile to do the Grundy deal.''

Otherwise, Dyke generally enjoyed being back on the other side of the camera. "The last time I did any presenting was 12 years ago when I was on for 15 minutes and someone suggested I could sell advertising space on my bald patch. There are moments - like when the bent jockey doesn't turn up for the third time - when you wonder, is this a proper job?

"But it was wonderful to discover that soundmen still hate directors. It's also very good for television executives to spend a bit of time on the road, because as the accountants increasingly take over, you can forget that television is about programmes. The other thing you forget is that as a presenter you're a piece of meat being ordered around by the producer. I had lunch with Melvyn Bragg the other day, and I told him, `now I understand why many years ago you decided to be producer as well as presenter'.''

Apart from supporting Brentford, Dyke has all the right qualfications to host a sports programme. "We were a sports-mad family. My dad was always much more interested in our football results than our exam results. If Spurs lost on a Saturday, the house went into mourning.'' Oh yes, and Dyke was chairman of ITV Sport for five years.

But he doesn't put on airs and graces as a presenter. He comes across not so much an exec as a fan with a microphone. As Peter Gordon, series editor on Fair Game, puts it: "He has the approach of the man in the corner of the pub who says `I'll go and find out for you'. In the series, he spends time with movers and shakers, but he also spends time with loo- cleaners.''

Gordon says he'd do a second series, "if Greg were available. But he does have another job, as you may know.''

`Fair Game' starts on C4 next Thursday at 8pm