I'll tell you what, Gary, this is a sad day for the BBC. But, hey, it's only a game

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SO, WHERE were you when you heard the news? Because for some of us, Desmond Lynam's big-money transfer to ITV is news of where-were-you- when-you-heard? status. And mark my words, it won't be long before the conspiracy theories start. "Where were you, and what were you doing, when you heard that JFK had been assassinated?" social historians like to ask. To which they can now add, "And what about when Des left the BBC, where were you then?"

For the record, I was in my kitchen listening to the lunchtime news on Radio 4. And I have to hang my head and admit that the lead item, about 200 people dying in a train crash in northern India, elicited barely a tut whereas the second item caused me to exclaim loudly enough to make my 11-month-old son cry. Pathetic, I know. But what do you expect? Des, like the BBC itself, is part of the fabric of our lives.

To the credit of the BBC's media correspondent Torin Douglas, Lynam's departure was reported calmly, honestly and dispassionately as a serious blow for the Corporation. But then the BBC is getting used to chronicling its own disasters. Who knows, perhaps the news and current affairs department was prepared. After all, it has for years been rehearsing its response to the death of the Queen Mum.

Although Des nobly denies it, saying only that he is motivated by a new challenge, there is no doubt that he is leaving a sinking ship, a ship which he has at times heavily criticised for steering the wrong course. The BBC has lost Test cricket (and with it Richie Benaud), Formula One (and with it Murray Walker), so it is perhaps not so surprising that its pre- eminent football presenter is to follow live football out of the door of Television Centre. He was scathing when the Beeb lost the rights to show the FA Cup Final. And if anything makes him lose his famous cool, it is when the schedulers muck about with Match of the Day. Incidentally, one of the reasons why another BBC icon, Barry Norman, left for Sky, is that he loathed the Film programme being hoicked around the schedules. And never mind egos of the presenters. It is damned annoying for viewers too.

The irony, though, is that Des's departure more or less coincides with the arrival of a new director-general, Greg Dyke, who adores football and has undertaken to do his utmost to get it back. On the other hand, Dyke is a Manchester United fan. And it was United who unceremoniously squashed Lynam's beloved Brighton and Hove Albion in the 1983 FA Cup Final replay. I told you it wouldn't be long before the conspiracy theories started.

The point of conspiracy theories is that they help to make sense of startling events. And make no mistake, this is startling. Des Lynam on ITV? It's like David Ginola playing for Arsenal. Tony Benn voting Tory. George Clooney coming out. Des has always revelled in the effortless superiority of the BBC in head-to-head matches against ITV. The director-general Sir John Birt confided to Lynam that before the 1998 World Cup he thought ITV had stronger pundits. But with Des orchestrating, the BBC won the battle of the pundits with embarrassing ease. And now he is crossing the Rubicon. It is indeed a challenge.

There are other implications too. Wimbledon, which the BBC has just secured at vast expense, will not be the same without Des. And who will front Match of the Day? Gary Lineker has been groomed for it, has sometimes stood in for the great man, but there's no point pretending that he has the same sangfroid, the same bon mots, the same savoir faire, or even that he can speak French at all. As Des might say, it's a sad day. But as he would add, it's only television. Nobody died.

They also switched

JIMMY HILL: The BBC's long-standing controversialist who is much hated by Scottish football fans. He left to join Sky Sports' football punditry team ostensibly because there wasn't enough live football on the BBC to merit him staying. In fact there wasn't enough live football to go around and Hill was losing out to younger presenters and pundits like Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker.

RICHIE BENAUD: The laconic former Australian cricket captain may well have thought his commentary days were over when Channel 4 took the Test match rights from the BBC and declared that it would be doing things differently: "Without three old farts in the commentary box". When Channel 4 rang to offer him a commentary job he reminded them of their remarks before accepting and wondering sarcastically in the press who they could have meant.

MURRAY WALKER: Formula One motor racing is even more closely linked with Walker's hysterical commentary than it is with tobacco companies. When ITV scooped the Grand Prix contract in 1997 Walker expressed his sadness to be leaving the Beeb, but had little choice. ITV was glad to have him on board to maintain continuity at a time when viewers were having to get used to adverts.