I turned off Motty, too

Well, nearly. Even the BBC's head of sport uses the red button - but only for an ITV game - to switch to a radio commentary. Roger Mosey says all sports journalism should aspire to Five Live's standards
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The Independent Online

The appointment of Roger Mosey as head of BBC Sport last August did not go down well with the strapping, front-row types in the Sports division. They wondered how a man nicknamed "Mr Blobby", an obviously cerebral former head of BBC Television News known for his fascination with politics, could blend into the macho world of sports journalism. It didn't help that Mosey seemed to want to shake up BBC sports coverage.

"At its bluntest," he said, "broadcast sports journalism lacks the range and ambition that we see elsewhere, and we have to put that right."

So how is it going so far? "I'm absolutely loving the World Cup," he says, "but the pressure is relentless. It is the closest thing to running a general election campaign I have experienced since leaving news. There is more involvement from audiences through blogs and message boards than ever before, and you are constantly negotiating with the host broadcasters and Fifa."

Like elections, the World Cup also involves lively controversy about the deployment of personnel. Last week Mosey discovered that some licence-payers lack his faith in the BBC's veteran commentator, John Motson. Nearly four million digital viewers used the interactive red button on their Sky Digital and Freeview remote controls, many selecting commentary from other sources, including Radio Five Live.

During England's tense victory over Trinidad and Tobago, which was not shown live by the BBC, Mosey did the same thing: "I was in the BBC Sport office with a dozen people from around the department and a few beers, watching ITV and listening to Five Live."

But Mosey remains a big "Motty" fan. "I've only been doing this job for 10 months and the first big brouhaha about commentators arose when Alan Green was in the firing line. The Daily Telegraph was full of letters saying, 'Why isn't there an alternative to Alan Green?' In the wonderful way the cycle rolls about, it's now: 'Isn't Alan Green a wonderful alternative to John Motson?'

"Let's get the numbers in perspective. The red button does not just give you choice of audio. It gives highlights, text and other information as well. So actually estimating how many people switched away from the television commentary is hard. It is not massive numbers. We do research on commentators across sport, and in that research John Motson comes out so clearly and so far ahead of any other commentator that it would be nuts to think about the arrangements we have made in Germany."

But he does regard Five Live, the radio news and sport station of which he was appointed controller in 1997, as a standard-setter in sports journalism. "Five Live has proved that you really can do live-event coverage and very good sports journalism too. Some of the attitude of Five Live in its journalism is what I want to see go across television and online journalism as well."

In fact, that will be crucial if BBC Sport is to survive Sky's dominance of live coverage and the growth of new rivals such as Irish satellite broadcaster Setanta.

Key to realising this ambition is the recruitment of a sports editor. The new post, which Mosey calls "a Nick Robinson [the BBC political editor] or Evan Davies [economics editor] equivalent for sport", was advertised earlier this month. It will not go to a former sportsman. Mosey dislikes the "fans with typewriters" attitude he detects in some famous names who have moved behind the microphone.

He refuses to confirm that the widely admired Today programme sports presenter, Gary Richardson, is a candidate, but admits: "Gary has a fantastic contacts book and he is not afraid to ask questions." The sports editor, who will work jointly for news and sport, will be required to provide hard news stories to flagship programmes such as the Ten O'Clock News and Today.

Equally important is the commitment to launch a weekly sports journalism programme on BBC 1. "We lack investigative depth in sports journalism. Newspapers do that better than broadcasters. At the moment we either do two and a half minutes within a news bulletin or a pure sports story. The ability to spend 10 minutes on a film or an interview is going to be crucial. The new programme is at a very early stage but we will begin piloting this autumn. There will be a sports journalism programme on BBC television. It will launch in 2007."

Both editor and programme are intended to raise standards. "I would have hoped our sports editor would have been more across England's search for a manager. Maybe the new programme would have got access to film the story of how it really happened."

Mosey recalls receiving an email from a viewer asking "How do you know?" after a sports bulletin reported that Alan Curbishley and Luiz Felipe Scolari were names in the frame for the manager's job. "I had the uncomfortable feeling that we probably did not and that it was one of those 'facts' in sports journalism that's good enough to be a talking point but not something you'd stake your house on."

This month Mosey staked more than the value of a house on securing the future of Gary Lineker's Match of the Day until the end of the decade. In a straight bidding war with Channel 5, he agreed to pay £171.6m for the rights to screen Premier League highlights for three seasons from 2007-08 - an increase of £66m on the existing deal. Few analysts expected the price to be so high, and rivals have condemned the windfall given to Premier League chairmen, players and agents.

Mosey is unapologetic. "Match of the Day underpins a huge amount of BBC output at the weekend. It's not just Match of the Day on Saturday night. It's MOTD2 on Sunday evening, the re-run of MOTD on Sunday morning, Score and Final Score on Saturday afternoon, and Football Focus as well."

Mosey's own interest in sport began with watching the defunct Bradford Park Avenue, and later Bradford City. "I was also brought up on rugby league," he says. "Bradford Northern was the main place we went to. My dad and uncle were the sort of casual fans brought in by success. So, we did sneak off to Leeds United a bit in the late 1960s. I have A-level knowledge of Leeds teams of the late Sixties/early Seventies. These days my godson and some friends are Arsenal fans. I wouldn't call myself one, but I do tend to see Arsenal more than anyone else."

The whole story is that the BBC's willingness to spend so lavishly on football images is part of a broader strategy - the charter renewal commitment to promote digital switchover and other new technology. "For this World Cup we have been pushing very hard into high definition. We have broadband coverage of games for the first time. Sport drives digital take-up. The single strongest driver into high definition television will be major sports events."

If that suits the Government's ambitions for the television market, it suits the BBC too. With so much live sport lost to Sky and Setanta, coverage of events such as the World Cup, Wimbledon and the Olympic Games do more than anything else to promote licence-payer approval.

Colleagues believe this is why one of the corporation's most accomplished executives, young enough still to be spoken of as a future director-general, has been charged with reforming BBC Sport. Without it the corporation's claim to serve all its viewers and listeners would become very hard to sustain.

BIOGRAPHY

BORN Bradford, 1958

EDUCATION Bradford Grammar School; Wadham College, Oxford

CAREER

* His first job was as a community affairs producer at Pennine Radio, Bradford.

* Joined the BBC in 1980 as a reporter with Radio Lincolnshire.

* Moved to produce Radio 4's The Week in Westminster, followed by the Today programme. Appointed editor of PM in 1987 and editor of Today in 1993.

* Appointed controller, Five Live, in 1997, and later head of BBC Television News. Became director of sport in August 2005.

INTERESTS

Football, film; reads thrillers and political biographies.

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