Brian Viner: Big Ron takes over from Alliss as the villain du jour

Those who make their livings by microphone can lose their livings by microphone
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First, a postscript. My words in support of Peter Alliss last week have yielded a heavy postbag, if that is what it can still be called in the age of the email. About 60 per cent of the letters agreed that Alliss, cock-ups notwithstanding, is an asset to the BBC; 40 per cent took vehement issue.

One correspondent agreed that golf is by no means the bastion of snobbery, racism and sexism it is often made out to be, but related a story about his local golf club in Essex, which I think might be a suburban myth but here it is anyway.

Apparently, some women members were sitting on the terrace adjacent to the 18th green when a member of a men's fourball, having missed an easy putt to tie the match, let loose a volley of profanities. The women were deeply offended and complained to the committee. The committee debated the matter and agreed that steps should be taken to make sure nothing of the sort happened again. So women members were banned from the terrace. Even if that's apocryphal, it is undoubtedly the sort of carry-on of which some golf clubs are capable. And in the view of another correspondent, Tim O'Sullivan, the embodiment of golf's reactionary tendencies is Alliss.

He wrote: "His adoring fans, you included, are like the fools who refused to notice that the emperor who dressed in invisible clothes had no clothes on at all".

If sayings and parables are to be bandied around, I prefer the one about one man's meat being another's poison. But Tim clearly feels no tolerance where Alliss is concerned, suggesting that the veteran commentator habitually makes racist remarks.

It is certainly true that when the camera falls on a Japanese or Taiwanese player in contemplative mood, Alliss is inclined to utter the word "inscrutable". He did it at the Masters in the case of KJ Choi. But does that make him racist? I would say not. I would contend, indeed, that it is dangerous to let fly accusations of racism on such paltry evidence, not least because it devalues the charge. Let those who are genuine racists be stigmatised as such, but do not give them an opportunity to laugh off their accusers as do-gooders, that oddly defamatory term, motivated by misguided political correctness.

All of which brings me, inevitably, to Ron Atkinson. If calling a man from the Far East "inscrutable" is not racist, calling a man from Africa "a fucking lazy thick nigger" undoubtedly is.

Last week, I talked to the Birmingham City manager, Steve Bruce, about his Liverpool counterpart Gérard Houllier. Bruce suggested that there is always one manager copping it for the rest. In other words, that when the media's knives are out, they usually only point at one guy at a time. Until last Tuesday it was Houllier; then, following his inept tactics in the Champions' League semi-final, it was Claudio Ranieri.

The commentary box is a great deal less pressurised than the dugout, but perhaps a similar phenomenon applies. Alliss is no longer the villain du jour; Atkinson is. And rightly so, though it saddens me to say so because I have been to his house and received a mug of coffee from his bejewelled hand, and roared at his anecdotes, and because I liked his commentary-box partnership with Clive Tyldesley.

Clearly, he should never work in television again. There was a time when Atkinson would have been given more stick for uttering the F-word over the airwaves than the N-word. But times have changed, and in that regard for the better. Besides, there seems no reason why the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign should be confined to supporters.

Much has been written these past few days about Big Ron's downfall and plenty of it has been uncomfortably sanctimonious. We all make mistakes. But it seems reasonable that those who make their livings by the microphone can also lose their livings by the microphone, whether or not you think the thing is switched on.

A couple of years ago John Motson said on the radio that it was sometimes hard for commentators to distinguish between black players. All hell broke loose, and there were demands for his head. Happily, common sense prevailed.

He was guilty of clumsiness, insensitivity even, but not racism. Motty was mortified by the fact that so much offence was taken, and, I happen to know, further mortified by the letters he received telling him that he was bang on, you can't tell 'em apart.

Atkinson, too, will by now have received many messages of support, some from friends and colleagues saying they know he's no racist, some from racists venturing that what he said was spot on. If he is sickened by the fact that this latter group are offering solidarity, then he is on the road to redemption. But it's early doors.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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